“Wow,” I said, staring out the car window. “It sounds like Miss Evangeline is quite the entrepreneur.”
We had started in New Orleans, and were now driving through the bayous of Louisiana, where Jacques grew up. He and I live together in San Francisco and have been in a relationship for the past two years, but this was my first time visiting his home state, and he had jam-packed our five day trip with a wide array of various Louisianan activities: swamp tours, cemetery tours, crawfish boils, live jazz concerts, museums, fancy dinners, etc., etc..
Jacques and I have very different opinions about how a vacation should be. He believes everything must be carefully planned out as far in advance as possible and neatly organized in an extensive, multi-page spreadsheet which he keeps on both his computer and his phone. Meanwhile, I prefer a more relaxed, “go with the flow” approach. But since this was his territory, I let him do the planning.
Each day was meticulously scheduled beginning at 8AM and ending around midnight, with a new activity every two to four hours. To call it regimented would be an understatement. By day three of our five day trip, I needed a vacation from my vacation.
On this particular morning we were driving out to Vacherie, Louisiana, for a guided tour of Oak Alley Plantation. Being a total history buff, I was looking forward to seeing the property and learning more about the people who were enslaved there, as well as hearing about the Civil War and the impact it had on the local culture and economy.
The drive out was interesting to say the least. In addition to Miss Evangeline’s Daycare, Hair Salon, and Fireworks, we also passed by a place advertising bail bonds with a sign in the front window that said: “If I’m not here call me at my house.” No number was included, implying that anyone needing to get ahold of this guy already had his home telephone number.
Then, of course, there was the billboard that read: “End illiteracy in Louisiana. Learn to read.”
“Who do you suppose that sign is for?” I asked.
Jacques didn’t respond. He was too stressed out because it was 11:30 and we were due at the plantation at noon, but we were still at least 40 minutes away. Our entire schedule for the day was at risk of being thwarted.
Thankfully, we managed to make it in time for the tour.
As far as plantations go, Oak Alley is pretty much everything one might expect from a historic antebellum mansion. A double row of 300 year old live oak trees tower over a quarter-mile long front walkway that leads up to a magnificent, three-story house complete with tall Doric columns and wrap-around veranda. It’s definitely a sight to be seen. Also a sight to be seen were some of the other characters on the tour with us.
While Jacques and I were waiting on the front veranda for the tour to begin, I happened to turn around and notice the couple standing in line behind us. They were probably in their late 40’s or early 50’s. She had platinum blond hair that she kept in a high pony tail on the top of her head, and was dressed in a red sequined tube top, her gut spilling over the top of her ill-fitting khaki cut-offs. And he was wearing an American flag button-down shirt with orange hunting shorts, and a trucker’s hat that said “God, Guns, and Country.”
Oh my, I thought. I sure hope they don’t catch on that I’m gay.
At the other end of the veranda was a beverage stand where an African American man dressed in a black and white suit was serving mint juleps. I couldn’t help but notice he was the only African American there.
I nudged Jacques, then whispered: “Is it just me, or is that kind of weird?”
“Is what kind of weird?” he replied.
“The black guy serving mint juleps,” I said.
Jacques turned to look. “It’s kind of weird,” he agreed.
Just then our tour guide stepped out onto the veranda to welcome us into the house. She was dressed in an authentic 1850′s period costume, complete with petticoat, bodice, and long evening gloves. Or rather, an evening glove. She only needed one because she was missing her left arm. In it’s place was a round stub.
Now, I don’t mean to poke fun at amputees, but I’d lying if I said it wasn’t mildly alarming at first. After all, it’s not everyday a one-armed Scarlett O’Hara steps out in front of you and says: “Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen. And welcome to Oak Alley Plantation. Are you ready to step back in time?”
She spoke with a dainty southern drawl.
“My name is Ida Belle,” she continued, “and I will be your tour guide today. Please, come inside.”
I tried not to stare at Ida Belle’s stub as she led us into the parlor, where she proceeded to talk about the history of the Romans, the family who originally had lived there, as well as point out certain features of the room: the 18-foot ceilings, the carefully positioned windows and doors that promoted cross breezes throughout the house, the oak mantle above fireplace painted to look like marble.
The house was built, Ida Belle told us, “by skilled carpenters and craftsmen.” I took this as her polite way of saying “slaves.”
Just then a woman raised her hand and asked: “Are there any photographs of the Roman family?”
“The only pictures we have are the portraits over yonder,” Ida Belle replied, using her stub to direct everyone’s attention towards the two oil paintings hanging on the adjacent wall. “At the time the Romans lived here, photography had barely yet been invented.”
“Now,” she continued, “let’s move across the hall and into the formal dining room, where the Romans hosted many elegant dinner parties.”
We all followed her across the foyer and into the next room, where she pointed out the doorknobs, the impressive 16-foot dining table, and the ornate silverware.
“Back in the days of old, silverware was a way of showing off one’s wealth,” Ida Belle explained. “The larger the silverware, the more money a family had. As you can see, the Romans were very well off.”
Then she used her stub to point to the shoo-fly fan hanging over the center of the table. The wide, harp-shaped fan was hooked up to a pulley-system, and operated, Ida Belle said, “by a very little person” who stood quietly in the corner of the room during the course of the meal, which could last anywhere from two to six hours.
By “very little person” I assume she meant “child slave,” probably no more than five or six years old.
“Are there any questions before we go upstairs?” Ida Belle said.
“When was the central air system installed?” a man asked.
“That’s a great question,” Ida Belle replied. “And I’m not entirely sure. Though I’m fairly certain it’s not original to the house.”
After showing us the formal dining room, Ida Belle led us upstairs to the bedrooms, where she explained a “night nanny” stayed up all night, from dusk until dawn, keeping an eye on and fanning the sleeping children. (By “night nanny” I’m pretty sure Ida Belle meant slave.)
It was becoming abundantly clear that any mention of slaves or slavery was not considered polite conversation here.
“Back in the nineteenth century,” Ida Belle told us, “children didn’t always survive to adulthood. Sadly, three of the Roman’s six children did not make it past the age of 18.”
Now, I’m not one to wish death upon anyone’s children, but I found it difficult to feel sorry for a couple who had built their family fortune on the backs of slaves. Their kids died. That’s terrible. But what about the dozens of human beings they bought and sold on the auction block?
At the end of the tour, after stepping out onto the upstairs veranda, which offers breathtaking views of the entire 25-acre estate, everyone got out their cameras and began snapping pictures. Then Ida Belle asked if there were any last questions.
I found it troubling that, nearly 45 minutes into the tour, the topic of slavery had yet to be addressed. I had come to Oak Alley Plantation to enhance my understanding of one of the darkest chapters in American history, and was instead led through a series of musty, old rooms by a woman with one arm who seemed to know more about the custom-made silk drapes then she did about the people who were forced into involuntary servitude there.
So I raised my hand and asked:
“I’m curious. Has Oak Alley Plantation done anything to compensate the descendants of the people who were enslaved here?”
Everyone turned to look at me.
Ida Belle stared back with a blank expression on her face. “I’m not sure I understand the question,” she chirped.
“I mean, do you give any of the money you make from charging people $20 for admission, or t-shirts, or mint juleps back to the families of the people who were slaves here?” I asked. “Or do you just continue profiting off their suffering?”
One of the women on the tour turned towards her husband and whispered something, presumably calling me a yankee. He nodded in response.
Ida Belle thought for a moment. I could see her racking her brain for what the training manual had instructed she say in this sort of situation.
Finally, she replied, “Couldn’t tell ya,” before promptly thanking everyone for coming and directing us downstairs towards the exit.
The original slave quarters consisted of 20 white-washed cabins, but were torn down around the year 1900. The museum recently reconstructed some of them for people interested in “learning more about this time in Oak Alley’s history.” A small information placard stated that research teams were currently working to learn more about the people enslaved at the plantation, and hopefully find answers to questions like “How did they live?” or “What did they think of their status as property?” as if such questions even need to be asked.
As we crossed the parking lot toward our rental car, the woman in the red sequined tube top and the man in the “God, Guns, and Country” hat came up behind us. They were heading towards their car, too. I overheard them talking to one another:
“That was really interesting,” the woman said.
“Yes,” the man agreed.
“That chandelier was just marvelous,” the woman said.
“Yes,” the man agreed.
“And how about the fireplace in the dining room?” the woman said.
“Yes,” the man agreed.
“So,” the woman said, “where should we go for lunch?”