April V. Taylor
Retired trial lawyer John J. Cummings III recently wrote a piece for the Washington Post explaining why he poured $8 million and 15 years of his life into opening the country’s first museum dedicated to telling the story of slavery. A country’s museums are meant to help it understand its own history as it shares it with others. Museums “create a common space and language to address collectively what is too difficult to process individually. Cummings says that he has no ulterior motives and no intention of earning back the money he has spent; he simply wants to tell the story of slavery.
Cummings is telling the story by restoring Whitney Plantation, a former slave plantation located in Wallace, just west of New Orleans. The town has just 670, 90 percent of whom are Black and many who are the descendants of slaves and sharecroppers. In regards to people questioning whether or not he is a “honky trying to profit off of slavery,” or if he undertook the project out of white guilt, Cummings responds by stating, “Don;t you think the story of slavery is important? Well, I check into it, and I heard you weren’t telling it, so I figured I might as well get started.”
Tulaen history professor Laura Rosanne Adderley has visited the Whitney Plantation museum twice since its opening, describing it by stating, “Everything about the way the place came together says that it shouldn’t work. And yet for the most part it does, superbly and even radically…the Whitney has figured out a way to mourn those we as a society are often reluctant to mourn.”
Most restored plantations in the area make money by hosting social events, and most of the visitors are white. Whitney Plantation is different, with most of their visitors being Black. Cummings has erected a Black angel embracing a dead infant in honor of the 2,200 enslaved children who died in Wallace in the 40 years before the Emancipation Proclamation.
The most provocative part of the museum by far is a memorial dedicated to the victims of the German Coast Uprising. Most history books do not mention the January 1811 event when 125 slaves walked off their plantations, wearing homemade military garb, and began marching down River Road toward New Orleans in a planned revolt. After two days, militias overtook the group, killing some 95 people. In a horrific message to other slaves, dozens of those who were captured were decapitated. Their heads were placed on spikes along River Road and what is now Jackson Square in the French Quarter.
When discussing the piece, which was completed by Black sculptor Woodrow Nash, Cummings points out that while the piece is disturbing, “It happened. It happened right here on this road,” referring to River Road. The history of slavery in America is morbid and violent. Mississippi has a particularly violent and remaining relationship with slavery, with the state just formally ratifying the 13th Amendment, which abolished slavery, in 2013.
Cummings has taken major steps to make sure the full story of slavery is told. He has plans to build an institute for the study of slavery adjacent to Whitney Plantation. The museum may very well serve as a starting point for the United States being able to come face to face with the ugly truth of slavery and forge some common path forward by acknowledging it and understanding it.
Paul Brown was one of Whitney’s first visitors. In summing up his experience there, he stated, “I wish some of my white co-workers would come to this place. They’d understand me in ways they’ve failed for 30 years.”