After visiting Oak Alley with its twin rows of 300-year-old oaks and impressive Greek Revival architecture, I found the modest appearance of the Laura Plantation an interesting contrast.
Laura is one of several plantations off the river road that winds alongside the Mississippi River just outside of New Orleans. The home itself is much different – wooden, yellow, with a raised basement for protection from the inevitable river flooding. Interior photos were allowed at Laura (they were prohibited at Oak Alley), and the overall tour (70 minutes, $18 admission) was more engaging than Oak Alley’s.
The property at Laura is less grandiose than Oak Alley but the stories are richer and more interesting. The 200-year-old saga of the Duparc-Locour family was revealed in largely chronological fashion.
Laura was presented as a 12,000-acre sugar plantation run by four women from a single Creole family for nearly a century. The plantation dates back to 1805 and is named after one of its owners, Laura Locour. Her memoirs chronicle the history of the plantation and provide rich material for the tour. The Creoles blended cultures of non-Anglo descent and European origin. French was the primary language for many years at Laura.
The tour begins in the raised basement of the Maison Principale and winds through the home. Much of the house was actually pre-fabricated, as its wooden beams were pre-cut and arrived ready to be installed. Several original antiques remain and numerous family portraits and photographs adorn the walls. French doors allow it to catch incoming breezes for coolness during the hot summers.
A kitchen attached to the plantation caught on fire in 2004 due to some faulty wiring. The main part of the house sustained significant damage, but the large bricks and beams used in its construction essentially saved it. Restoration work has left little visible evidence of the fire.
The issue of slavery at Laura is not shied away from or glossed over as it was at Oak Alley. 175 out of 195 workers on the plantation were slaves. The cruelties of this way of life were apparent. The story that stuck with me the most involved Laura as a young girl when she was abruptly introduced to the harshness of life on the plantation. She noticed a scar on the forehead of one of the African American slaves. She persisted in asking him where it came from. He finally replied, “When I was a young man I tried to escape. I was caught and your grandmother branded me in the face.” Laura was horrified and ran crying to her mother. The plantation owners could not afford to lose their slaves, because without them there would be no plantation.
After the tour of the house, we were brought into one of the actual slave cabins that still exist on the property. Six original slave quarters out of the 69 on the property before the Civil War remain.
Each slave cabin held two families and had a chicken coop and vegetable garden. Some of them were occupied by descendants of the original slaves until 1977. Most striking are the photos of the slaves and a framed list presenting the names of several of them; included is a brief description of each slave and the price at which they were purchased. One 20-year-old female slave was described as a “lunatic” but was still worth the equivalent of $10,000.
It struck me that slavery, while obviously built on racist principles, was sustained by the choice of greed over a more humane path. One owner actually brought in male slaves as studs to reproduce new slaves to save on the costs of purchasing new slaves. Economically brilliant, morally unspeakable.
The slave trade is another manifestation of the corrosive nature of unchecked greed that devalues humanity and human decency – a choice of profit over people. Though slavery has been abolished in this country (for the most part), can’t say we’ve licked the greed issue, can we?
Slaves from Senegal brought stories about Br’er Rabbit that were told in the slave cabins and translated into French. These were recorded by folklorist Alcee Fortier. Joel Chandler Harris published and popularized them and, eventually, Walt Disney got involved and made the film Song of the South featuring Uncle Remus (“Zip a Dee Doo Dah…”). This film is generally considered an embarrassment now because of its pollyannic view of slavery and is unavailable on DVD.
There is a bookstore and restaurant on the property that serves all the standard favorite New Orleans Creole dishes. The rocking chair on the front porch adds a homey element. The tour whetted my interest to know more about Laura and the family history, and I purchased her memoirs afterward, Memories of the Old Plantation Home.
After running the plantation named after her from age 19 to 29, Laura eventually rejected the plantation way of life and moved to St. Louis, assimilating into American culture. Apparently she didn’t want to wind up like grandma.