Thursday, July 5, 2012

Once upon a time in the South ...

THE OTHER DAY, I happened across the glossy website of Louisiana’s Southdown Plantation House, “a 19th-century sugar manor house and home to the Terrebonne [Parish] Museum of history, culture, and arts.”

Tourism is its raison d'etre today, of course.

The manor house and museum, located in the city of Houma, is run by the Terrebonne Historical & Cultural Society. On its “history” page, they write:
“For more than nearly a century and a half, sugar was king in South Louisiana, enticing pioneers to the region and rewarding them with prosperity and progress. ... Southdown Plantation House is a lasting tribute to the sugar industry which helped to nurture Terrebonne Parish from its infancy to its present population of over 100,000 residents. Four generations of the Minor Family, along with hundreds of mill workers, fieldworkers, and their families, lived and labored at Southdown Plantation. The Minor Family occupied Southdown House until 1936.” (My italics)
Ah, the pastoral South — so quaint, so genteel.

A succinct timeline is provided. In 1798, the first owners receive Spanish land grants. From 1821-1828, an indigo plantation was established. In 1828, the William J. Minor family purchases the 1,020 acres to establish Southdown Plantation. In 1831, the principle crop changes to sugarcane. First sugar mill built in 1846. In 1859, Minor builds Southdown Plantation House as a one-story Greek Revival house.

And then … the timeline suddenly jumps to 1893 when we learn that William's son, Henry, adds the second floor and details of Victorian architecture.

Um, wait. What happened between 1859 and 1893? That’s nearly a 50-year gap, people.

Slavery (as in human chattel) is what happened — oh, and that whole Civil War thing. My jaw nearly dropped to my keyboard at the omissions. I mean, “Hundreds of mill workers, fieldworkers, and their families, lived and labored at Southdown Plantation?” Seriously? I daresay there was a tad more to the bucolic scene they airily paint.

In reality, sugarcane production in antebellum Louisiana was nothing short of a horror show. When African American slaves weren’t cutting cane, they’d help bundle up the stalks for stacking in windrows or transport to a plantation mill. It was backbreaking work, and notoriously dangerous. The “fieldworkers” would have labored dawn to dusk in oppressive heat and swampy conditions with the constant threat of injury from sharp hatchets being swung only inches away. And there was no such thing as sick leave. If you could walk, you were worked. The monotonous toil must have felt endless to those who endured it under the uncaring eyes of the overseers, and their lash. Oh, and let’s not forget one other pesky detail: The exquisite Southdown Plantation House, in all of its Greek Revival glory, was mostly built by slave labor.

Look, I don’t hold the current generation of Anglo Louisianans responsible for the sins of their great-great-great grandfathers. Indeed, I doubt that this whitewashing of history was even done consciously by the Society members. Let’s call it bad-memory tissue rejection and leave it at that. But those reasons make it no less appalling.

(NOTE: The above photo is the manor house as it appeared in 1891. Click here to see it today.)

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