Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.
Our video team shot this documentary short about the Whitney Plantation, a museum in Louisiana entirely focused on the institution of slavery:
In Country Roads Magazine, Chris Turner-Neal describes his experience at the Whitney Plantation and its “visceral power”:
Statues of children, made of dark clay—like terracotta, but darker to reflect the skin color of those depicted—dot the grounds and line the tour route. The work of a sculptor named Woodrow Nash, each of these statues represents an actual child who lived and worked on the plantation. They are a raw and unrepentant appeal to emotion: to protect children is among the few noble human instincts, and the slavemasters were as truly exploiters of children as the people we now call “predators.”
The owner of the Whitney Plantation, John J. Cummings, III, wrote an op-ed in The Washington Post last year:
The United States is home to more than 35,000 museums that memorialize our nation’s culture and history. Revitalized plantations that commemorate the old South are popular among them, celebrated as “bastions of genteel culture,” in the words of an official New Orleans Web site, and monuments to the rural beauty of a bygone era. Many have been romanticized as tourist attractions and wedding venues. But none were dedicated to telling the story of the people who sustained them — slaves.
In fact, the United States did not have a single museum devoted entirely to slavery until last December, when I opened the very first one.
But several Atlantic readers questioned whether the museum is truly the first of its kind. (For the record, the Whitney Plantation’s website offers a narrower description, billing itself as “the only plantation museum in Louisiana with a focus on slavery.”) One reader mentions the Lest We Forget Black Holocaust Museum of Slavery in Philadelphia. Over in Cincinnati, there’s the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center. The following reader points to the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History—which isn’t entirely devoted to slavery but is notable nonetheless:
The Charles H. Wright Museum has a comprehensive, interactive, walk-through exhibit on slavery, which ends in a replica slave ship. It is one of the most powerful and insightful museums I’ve ever been to. Anyone who would say that the Charles H. Wright museum isn't “dedicated” to slavery history, or that it's a side-note, clearly has never been there.
And looking ahead, a New York Times piece highlights plans for a slavery museum in Rhode Island “focused on the trans-Atlantic slave trade, slavery and the North’s complicity.” It’s scheduled to open next year. The Times piece briefly references the Whitney Plantation along with another museum—the Old Slave Mart Museum in South Carolina—which purports to have “operated sporadically since 1938.” If you know of any other good examples, drop us an email.
It’s worth noting that Americans got close to having an entire national museum dedicated to slavery:
In 2001, Douglas Wilder, a former governor of Virginia and the first elected black governor in the nation, announced his intention to build a museum that would be the first to give slavery its proper due — not as a piece of Southern or African-American history but as essential to understanding American history in general. Christened the United States National Slavery Museum, it was to be built on 38 acres along the Rappahannock River in Fredericksburg, Va. Wilder, the grandson of slaves, commissioned C. C. Pei, a son of I. M. Pei, to design the main building, which would be complemented by a full-scale replica of a slave ship. A number of prominent African-Americans, including Bill Cosby, pledged millions of dollars in support at black-tie fund-raisers.
The ambition that surrounded the project’s inception, however, was soon eclipsed by years of pitfalls. By 2008, there were not enough donations to pay property taxes, let alone begin construction; in 2011, the nonprofit organization in charge of the project filed for bankruptcy protection.
While those efforts may have stalled, the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture is scheduled to open this fall. The new museum, located on the National Mall, will reportedly be divided into 10 “major” galleries—one of which is titled “Slavery and Freedom.”
Update from a reader who flags another notable museum:
Father Moses Berry in Ash Grove, Missouri, runs the Ozarks Afro-American Heritage Museum, with a significant emphasis on the history of slavery in the area, displayed with the explicit goal of confronting that aspect of the area, and the nation’s, past. One striking artifact is a neck iron used in the slave trade, which he apparently encourages visitors to try on for themselves. For more, see this NYT article from 2010, “Black Priest Shares Past, Enlightening White Town.”
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