Oak Alley Plantation
As soon as I saw photos of Oak Alley Plantation’s grand entrance, I knew I had to come here and photograph it myself.
That mansion at the end of all those oak trees. How romantic and southern — it was something straight out of Gone with the Wind!
There were other mansions in South Carolina and Georgia, a few in Mississippi and Alabama, but this Louisiana plantation would be the one — and its location was ideal, just an hour from New Orleans. This was our first stop on the #SouthUSA road trip after picking our car up in New Orleans.
The “Big House” of the plantation, the main house, is decorated in decor from the mid-nineteenth century.
From a distance, the Big House looks like a behemoth — but with just four bedrooms, it’s much smaller than what you’d expect for a rich family at the time. Far from the mansion you might expect.
A docent dressed in a period costume led a large group around the Big House and taught us about life on Oak Alley plantation and the Romans, one of the most powerful families ever to live here.
A few tidbits that she shared with us:
Men were welcomed to Oak Alley Plantation with a glass of rum. It was considered unladylike to drink rum, so instead women were given fruit — fruit that had been soaking in rum for quite some time, that is!
“Courting candles” like this one were used by girls’ fathers when potential future husbands came to visit. The father would turn the candle to a certain height — tall if he liked the suitor, short if he didn’t care for him — and the suitor would be permitted to stay until the candle burned beneath the top rung.
You might know that pineapples are a sign of welcome. At Oak Alley Plantation, guests were often welcomed with a pineapple on a tray in their room. But if they were given a second pineapple the next day, it was a not-so-subtle sign that they had overstayed their welcome.
The Big House was a beautiful place to visit, as was the alley leading up to it. But as much as I enjoyed it here, I came here for a different purpose.
I couldn’t do this big trip through the South without taking time to see where slavery once took place.
Oak Alley Plantation was once home to 110 slaves, all of them living in shacks behind the Big House. Reconstructed shacks now house an exhibit on slavery at the plantation.
It’s impossible to condense the full-scale horrors of slavery into a finite product. The American Girl books featuring Addy, a girl who escapes slavery with her mother? Excellent history, but they’re sanitized for kids. Django Unchained? Sure didn’t shy away from the horror, but come on, now. Roots? Very good, but antiquated.
The two films that, in my opinion, do the best job of depicting the horrors of slavery, are Amistad and 12 Years a Slave. Either of those films will rip you open and haunt you.
Oak Alley’s slavery exhibit doesn’t take that approach. Instead, it’s a historical display of the aspects of slaves’ lives. The more horrifying aspects of slavery are kept under wraps, making this an exhibit appropriate for children.
Even so, you occasionally see something that stops you in your tracks.
While it may seem to be an overly smoothed over version of slavery veering away from the most difficult aspects, it’s still an excellent historical display. Oak Alley’s goal is to honor each of the slaves that once lived on the plantation.
Throughout the exhibit, stories of the slaves’ lives are told, like Antoine’s. A local botanist was attempting to cultivate pecan trees with softer shells and failed at every turn. Despondent, he asked Jacques Roman if one of his slaves could keep trying to cultivate them.
Antoine, a gardener and skilled arborist, was given the task. Within two years, Antoine had successfully cultivated the pecan trees and had grown them into an impressive orchard.
“Jacques took great pride in his orchard, but it was Antoine’s achievement we remember today,” reads the exhibit.
Antoine’s father, Zephyr, had another story. Jacques Roman’s late mother, Louise, insisted two things upon her death: that Zephyr be freed and that he never be separated from his family.
Jacques Roman freed Zephyr, but his wife and sons remained enslaved. Zephyr stayed with them on the plantation, now working for wages. His goal was to save enough money to buy his wife Zaire’s freedom, which took ten years and cost him $350. By that point, Zephyr was 70 and Zaire was 60.
They were free — and they continued to stay on the plantation.
Every since my visit, I’ve been thinking about the slaves who lived and worked here all their lives with no escape. While this was by no means a comprehensive lesson on the horrors that slaves went through on a day to day basis, it was moving to see one of these places first-hand. If you’re coming to the South, I recommend you visit one of these plantations for yourself.
Essential Info: Oak Alley Plantation is about a one-hour drive from New Orleans in the town of Vacherie. Admission is $20 for adults, $7.50 for teenagers and $4.50 for children. Tours of the Big House are included in the cost of admission and take place every 30 minutes.
If you don’t have a car, there are several group tours to Oak Alley Plantation that depart from New Orleans.
The #SouthUSA campaign is brought to you by Country Inns and Suites by Carlson and Holiday Autos. All opinions, as always, are my own.