Originally known as Habitation Heidel, or the Heidel Plantation, what we now know as Whitney Plantation has undergone many changes in its 250-year history. Ambroise Heidel, a German immigrant from the Rhineland area, purchased this property in 1752 and established a small indigo plantation. During these early years, Ambroise Heidel owned approximately 20 enslaved Africans whose expertise in indigo production he relied upon for successful crops. In 18th century Louisiana, many captive Africans who were sold into slavery had originated in areas of West Africa known for rice and indigo production, two major cash crops in the early colony.
The Heidel family, like many other German immigrants, adapted to French Louisiana. Their children learned the French languages and their German names changed spelling and pronunciation – eventually the Heidels became known as Haydels. Ambroise Haydel’s son, Jean Jacques Haydel, took control of the plantation in the late 18th century, and he oversaw its transition from an indigo to a sugar plantation in about 1800.
The development of sugar production in Southeast Louisiana after 1795 brought significant changes to the way of life for both free and enslaved people. The population of enslaved people drastically increased, since sugar is a very labor-intensive crop. Plantation owners like the Haydels, well established with many decades of land ownership, grew very wealthy from the profits of sugar production. Enslaved people who worked sugar found their days lengthening and the labor regimes more demanding. Many were sold from the Upper South and separated from their family members. Sugar was a brutal crop and for many enslaved people, being sold south to Louisiana was considered a death sentence.
Jean Jacques Haydel operated the plantation until 1820, when his two sons, Jean Jacques Haydel Jr., and Marcelin Haydel, took over ownership as partners. This third generation of the Haydel family operated the plantation, expanding its footprint and increasing the size of the enslaved population, until 1840. Jean Jacques Haydel Jr. sunk into tremendous debt during his ownership, and Marcelin sued to partition their property so that he could dissolve their partnership. Almost as soon as the judge granted this partition, Marcelin died, leaving his 1/3 stake of ownership to his widow, Marie Azelie Haydel.
Azelie Haydel bought out her brother in law Jean Jacques Jr., and became the full owner of the plantation from 1840 until her death in 1860. During her ownership, the Haydel Plantation saw its most profitable years. She owned over 100 enslaved people who produced over 400,000 pounds of sugar annually. She was a very wealthy woman at her death in 1860, just six months before the start of the Civil War.
The majority of enslaved people who worked on the plantation were engaged in the cultivation of sugar. Many worked as field hands, carters, and ploughmen. Both men and women worked as field hands growing sugar, rice and other staple crops. Others were skilled artisans such as distillers, blacksmiths, coopers, and engineers. Some with specialized skills as sugar makers worked inside the sugar mill leading crews of people who boiled cane juice to make crystallized sugar. Herdsmen tended hundreds of animals on the plantation including oxen, mules, horses, sheep, pigs, cows and chickens. Enslaved domestic workers, most of whom were women, worked inside the Haydel family home cleaning, cooking, and caring for children.
One such enslaved domestic was a woman named Anna, who Marcelin Haydel purchased from an auction house in New Orleans. Anna worked inside of the Big House at Whitney, which brought her into close contact with the owners’ family members. In 1835, Azelie Haydel’s brother Antoine Haydel sexually assaulted Anna, and she became pregnant with his child. That child was born at Whitney and named Victor. His owner, Azelie Haydel, was also his aunt. Victor Haydel lived and worked at Whitney for most of his life. After the Civil War, he and his wife Celeste bought land nearby and continued to work as domestics and farmers. His great-granddaughter, Sybil Haydel Morial, became a prominent Civil Rights activist in New Orleans in the 1960s. Her son – Victor’s second-great grandson – is Marc Morial, president of the National Urban League.
Because of the disruption of war, the plantation was not sold until 1867. Bradish Johnson, a prominent plantation owner and business man who had family ties in both Louisiana and New York, bought the plantation and named it Whitney for his daughter, who had just married into the Whitney family. Later owners in the 19th and 20th centuries included the St. Martin, Perret, Tassin, and Barnes families.
The plantation continued to operate until 1975 with resident workers and overseers. The two original slave cabins which are on display at Whitney Plantation today were the last workers’ cabins that were still occupied in 1975 when the plantation shut down. Many families lived and worked at Whitney Plantation throughout the 20th century, including the Howard, Poche, Gordon, Joseph, Jasmin, Zeringue, Tassin, Grow, Narcisse, and Cleofer families, among dozens of others.
After the plantation ceased operations, descendants of the last owner, Alfred Barnes, sold the plantation to Formosa Chemicals and Fibre Corporation for the purpose of turning the property into a heavy industrial site.
In 1999, John Cummings purchased a portion of the Whitney Plantation property from Formosa Chemicals and Fibre Corporation. After a decade-long battle with the local community, Formosa had pulled out of their plans to build the world’s largest rayon manufacturing plant on the site. Formosa’s requirements for the sale were very restrictive, which limited potential buyers. The purchaser had to agree to invest one million dollars into the restoration of the site, and to open it to the public for at least part of the year.
After learning the history of the site and seeing succession documents – property transfers – that included the names of enslaved people, Cummings realized how little he knew about the institution of slavery. He embarked on a 14-year restoration process, with a goal to open the plantation to the public as a museum that focuses entirely on the lives of enslaved people.
Cummings worked with many artists, historians, preservationists, conservators, curators and researchers as he worked to plan what would become Louisiana’s first plantation museum dedicated exclusively to the history of slavery. In the mid-2000s, he met Dr. Ibrahima Seck, a Fulbright scholar from Dakar, Senegal, whose research interests included the intersections of culture between Louisiana and Senegambia. A college professor at the University Cheikh Anta Diop in Dakar, Seck spent his summers working on research for the Whitney Plantation. He joined Cummings full-time in 2013.
Whitney Plantation opened its doors on December 7, 2014 to a crowd of over 750 people, both local and international. Since its opening, the museum has welcomed over 500,000 people from around the world.
After the first five years operating the museum and over $15 million invested, John Cummings donated the property and converted it to a nonprofit institution in 2019.