Before Whitney Plantation opened to the public in 2014, we discovered that boxes of records had been left on the shelves in the Whitney Plantation store when it closed in the early 1970s. The papers inside the boxes were extremely damaged from water, mold, insects and rats. Nonetheless, after months of careful cleaning, we were able to salvage about 15 boxes spanning the years 1939-1975.
These records provide us with an understanding of how the plantation's finances worked. The collection includes dozens of payroll sheets, time books, pay envelopes, debt calculations and doctor bills. From payroll sheets, a concrete pattern emerged: the inability of field workers to work their way out of debt. In many cases, we found that debt carried over week by week, with workers sometimes paid nothing at all when payday came.
We also found that debt and plantation work were inter-generational. In many cases, we found the records of two or more generations of workers -- fathers, sons, grandsons -- buying groceries at the same store, living in the same houses, and working the same fields. When harvest season came, full-time field workers would send their children and wives to work in the fields to earn extra money. Some people worked at Whitney Plantation only for a month or two per year. Though the core workers remained steady, there was a constant flow of transitory laborers. Between 1944 and 1972, 440 people worked at Whitney Plantation including at least one family of Mexican migrant workers.
With payroll records in hand, we knew the names of many people who worked at this plantation. In early 2015, we began to make contact with people who lived and worked at Whitney Plantation and record oral histories with them. We were able to find several different people whose families occupied different spaces on the plantation. We spoke with family members of the last owners and overseers as well as field workers, domestic workers, and people who rented housing but did not work at the plantation. We spoke to African-American sugarcane farmers, both from Wallace and Modeste, Louisiana, to understand how life was different for landowning African Americans in 20th century Louisiana. We also spoke with community organizers from New Iberia, the founders and staff of the Southern Mutual Help Association, whose work is featured in this exhibit.
When Whitney Plantation finally closed down in 1975, there were only a handful of families still living on the plantation. It had operated as a sugarcane, rice, and indigo plantation for over 200 years. Many of the people at Whitney Plantation in the 1970s were direct descendants of enslaved people, overseers and owners of the Antebellum Era. These are their histories, each memory recorded in their own voices.