Invited to participate in a regional tourism summit in Louisiana, I was also treated to an immersion in the history, heritage, and hardships of sugar cane plantations. My host was Willma Harvey, CTP, director of sales and business development for New Orleans Plantation Country.
Willma’s territory includes 10 plantations along the Mississippi River, and we visited two of them. We discussed the evolution of history-telling that attractions and properties throughout the South have undertaken.
“We don’t sugar-coat the story,” Willma said. “Our tours include the narratives of what slaves went through.”
Movies such as “12 Years a Slave” and “Django Unchained,” filmed on local plantations, have advanced that narrative far beyond the United States.
“What international visitors want to see here is what they saw in those movies,” Willma said. “They want to hear about the African-American history.”
What impressed me during my tour of Laura Plantation was the richly researched stories of the residents.
“People lived here in very complicated situations, and we trace the footsteps of a Louisiana Creole family—white, black, free, and enslaved,” said my guide, Joseph Dunn. “This is not the American South. This is part of the French aristocratic feudal system, and we’ve got a whole different dynamic.”
Tracing footsteps is not uncommon. Our second stop was at Oak Alley Plantation, where Hillary Loeber told me, “There’s so much to share, and this is our mission: preservation, education, and research.”
After Hillary finished saying that, she greeted a visitor who told us she had come from California to see this plantation for herself. Her great-grandmother had lived here.
“There are a lot of different components of a visit here: visual, auditory, and tactile,” Hillary explained. To that, I would add emotional.
Oak Alley has cottages for overnight stays, and while each one is a little different, they all are well-appointed. You can dine on the grounds, too. I enjoyed a fine buffet lunch with folks from surrounding plantations and attractions.
I sat next to Rose Perrilloux, whose organization, Historic Riverlands, is the caretaker of the first Black Catholic church in the River Parishes district and is on the National Registry of Historic Places.
“When visitors come, they get the experience of what it was like going to church here in the Jim Crow era,” Rose said of the time when state and local laws enforced racial segregation in the U.S. South. “We don’t tell the story of plantation slaves; we describe their lives after slavery.”
Guests can tour the church and embark on the Soul River Musical Tour, which chronicles the music that was created by slaves and their descendants—from 1700s hymns to modern-day hip hop.
As I enjoyed some great Cajun food with these tourism pros from various attractions, what struck me was the level of cooperation among them.
“We’re competitors, but we’re not afraid to talk about our challenges,” said Jesse Lambert of Houmas House Plantation and Gardens. “That’s because we’re friends and we trust each other.”
But each attraction is different, said Hillary: “When you’ve toured one plantation, you have not toured them all.”
And there’s more to sample besides history. Willma told me that swamp tours have been a mainstay for tour groups, and that culinary tours are growing in popularity.
“Food tours are big, and much of it is because of our andouille sausage,” she said. “It has turned restaurants into attractions, where you can go into the kitchen and cook andouille and gumbo and jambalaya. You cook it then you eat it—or ‘throw down,’ we say.”
So I’ll add “andouille” to my list of must-do’s when I return. I also have eight more plantations to explore.
Top Photo: Oak Alley Plantation
Photos by Bob Rouse