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What should a memorial to slavery look like? One museum's answer: put slave stories first.

"They did what they could to erase your past."

“Coming Home,” by Rod Moorhead, a memorial in the “Field of Angels” dedicated to 2,200 enslaved children who died before they turned three, at the Whitney Plantation in Edgard, Louisiana in July 2017.
AP Photo/Gerald Herbert

The curator of Whitney Plantation Museum, America’s only museum dedicated solely to the history of slavery, has a message for the white supremacists who marched in Charlottesville.

“We should bring them to the Whitney. Something will change in their minds,” says Ibrahima Seck, who began working on the museum in Edgard, Louisiana, 14 years ago. The Whitney finally opened in 2015.

In an era when white supremacists rally to protect Confederate monuments, questions of how America should reckon with its history of slavery are more relevant than ever. The Whitney Plantation offers up the history of the 1811 slave revolt — reportedly America’s largest-ever slave rebellion — as well as a glimpse into the lives of child slaves, an explanation of the roles African leaders played in exacerbating the slave trade, and much more, all through the eyes of slaves themselves.

Seck came to the museum after it was purchased by John Cummings, a wealthy lawyer. “Like every white boy here in the South, he wanted to own a plantation,” recalls Seck, who began curating the Whitney after earning his PhD in history.

Seck, who is black, describes Whitney as a spark. His spark has already begun to catch fire, changing the national discussion on how history is presented to make slave stories relevant — including at the many other famous plantation homes surrounding Whitney, whose "history" tours used to all but ignore the issue of how all that white Southern opulence came to be.

Seck and I discussed the Whitney’s history and the difference between this monument to slavery and Confederate monuments. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Michael Patrick Welch

After my first visit last year, I came away feeling like the Whitney Plantation was one of the few feasible medicines for the problems we’re currently suffering in America.

Ibrahima Seck

You don’t get everything when you go there for an hour and a half. But this will be the spark that ignites something new in your mind. And that’s why it’s important.

Michael Patrick Welch

One thing the Whitney confronts well is how not only were slaves’ bodies taken from them, but also their histories, their lineages, not to mention their names. I feel like that didn’t sink in for me until I visited the Whitney, even though technically I’d already known that.

Ibrahima Seck

I always tell people, they did what they could to erase your past. Even if you run away, you cannot go home. And one day you just surrender. But that doesn’t mean that home doesn’t exist anymore inside you, because you don’t need a suitcase to pack your culture; it is in you. But they erase your identity, your past; you cannot trace your family back.

Michael Patrick Welch

You’ve traced a lot of famous slave names back to Africa — I remember seeing Toussaint on the marble slabs, and Batiste, all of New Orleans’s famous musical dynasties. But then, unlike at, say, the Vietnam War memorial, you have the slaves’ names listed on the marble slabs in complete disarray. Is it symbolic that they are not listed alphabetically or chronologically?

Ibrahima Seck

Yes, the names appear chronological in our database, but when we printed them on the granite the slabs they were just random, to show the way these people’s histories were.

Wall of Honor at the Whitney Plantation in July, 2017.
AP Photo/Gerald Herbert

But I tell African Americans, don’t worry about knowing exactly where you came from. Consider every country of Africa your home — just manage to travel to Africa if you can, one time. Remember that these people [slave owners] did break you physically, but they were never able to own your soul. You kept your soul. You did the job; you built this country. This country was initially built on slave labor — everywhere, North, South.

But beyond that, remember that you contributed tremendously to the making of American culture and identity. And what makes American culture so attractive outside the world has something to do with things that were born on the plantation, that Afro-Creole culture. It is in the food, in the music, it is in the religion. It’s in storytelling, folktales. It’s in the link between Br’er Rabbit and Bugs Bunny — it’s the same bunny!

Michael Patrick Welch

When you were putting together the museum, did you hear from white supremacists?

Ibrahima Seck

We heard from all kinds of people — black, white, people who didn’t understand. That’s when we started giving private tours to people in the community, to friends and people who were just walking by during the 14 years before we opened. During that time, I heard someone say there was going to be a Ku Klux Klan summer camp.

One day we had gunshots; they shot into the plantation — we found the bullets and all of that. It was at night. The person who was there was sleeping in his trailer and heard the gunshots. And I think that’s intimidation too. That’s terrorism.

Michael Patrick Welch

People who can’t tell the difference between a monument to slavery and a pro-slavery monument continually confound me. I’ve actually heard the Whitney brought up during that ongoing argument, as if this place is the same as a state of Gen. Robert E Lee.

Ibrahima Seck

It’s bad education. [American historians] are doing an excellent job on slavery, very strong critical thinking. But do you see any of that in our schoolbooks? No. Maybe you can find some writing there from old-time historians with racist views. That’s where kids learn that the slaves were just “laborers,” “immigrants.” They came here in the hull of boats.

Michael Patrick Welch

But aside from a few detractors the Whitney has been exceptionally well-received. I heard you had so many visitors that it’s now reservation-only.

Ibrahima Seck

Yes, without any advertising, 75,000 and it’s raising. After just one year and a half, the museum can cover its expenses. We are overrun with schools. It is clear this is something that was missing in this country, and now it exists.

Michael Patrick Welch

Is the existence of the Whitney Slavery Museum changing the narratives at other plantations whose tours have traditionally shied away from the topic?

Ibrahima Seck

Since we’ve opened up the Whitney, many of these museum are changing scripts. Now they are willing to put slavery in. They were very successful doing the sort of Gone With the Wind type museum. But they have decided to tell the story of slavery. In the Houmas House, where you go and have a wedding for $30,000, they have been putting two ceramic slave children with a sign saying, “Please, if you want to hear the story of slavery, go to Whitney Plantation.” Now they are moving toward putting the story of slavery inside their own plantation.

Michael Patrick Welch

What was the number one thing that surprised you, once you started letting people in, once you opened the gates?

Ibrahima Seck

The number of people crying. Just crying. “Why I did not know that before? Why nobody told me that before?” That’s really something.

Michael Patrick Welch is an author and journalist covering New Orleans for the past 17 years. He has published eight books, and his work has appeared in the Guardian, Vice, National Geographic, McSweeney's, and plenty of other great places. Find him on Twitter @mpatrickwelch.