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Read about plantation life from a slave's point of view.

And from a slaveholder's daughter's point of view.



Millionaires Along the Mississippi

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One bale of cotton = 1,217 shirts or 330 pairs of jeans
The land of millionaires. To me, this means Silicon Valley, where I grew up and where Internet and high-tech companies have produced massive amounts of wealth this past decade. According to Business Week, in 1996, sixty-two new millionaires were created every single day! Even though it might not be that dramatic, the amount of money floating around does translate into very expensive homes and very lavish lifestyles. But this does not mean that everyone is raking in the big bucks. Whenever there are riches, there is also inequality. And this is not a new phenomenon.


Beads! In high school, I used to always accessorize with colorful plastic beads

Let's look back 150 years ago, in the decades before the Civil War. Where do you think all the millionaires were living back then? Any guesses? Well, it definitely wasn't California. In fact, nearly two-thirds of America's known millionaires at the time lived along the winding Mississippi River Road in Louisiana. This was the era of the antebellum (pre-Civil War) Southern plantations. The money came not from computers, but from cotton and sugarcane. And just like today, the wealth was not for everyone.

What made something a plantation, as opposed to just a farm? A plantation was larger. It produced one or two major crops to be sold. It also relied on a bigger labor force, primarily of slaves. A farm was smaller and generally family-run. Farmers grew a variety of crops, most of which they harvested for themselves.

To learn more about life when cotton was king, Becky and I visited Frogmore, a working plantation in northeastern Louisiana. Cotton was not the number one crop in the South, but it was the one that brought in the most profits. One of the reasons this was possible was because of Eli Whitney and the cotton gin. I remember always learning about Whitney's cotton gin in school, but it was interesting to see first-hand how much of a difference it actually made. When cotton is picked from the fields, it is not as pure and white as those cotton balls you can buy in the store. It is instead filled with seeds, an average of twenty-eight per boll. Removing all those seeds by hand would take an awfully long time. When the gin came along, you could dump a whole cart full of cotton into the machine and have the seeds strained out by the rotating saws in no time.

A lot of cotton-pickin' hands would be needed to remove all these seeds!
Another key contributor to the cotton boom was the steamboat boom. The plantations depended on these boats for survival, as they were used to ship their products up and down the rivers to various markets. This explains why the banks of the Mississippi River were dotted with plantation homes, a few of which can be visited today.

As Becky and I drove along the river road, we commented that it was unlike any other part of the country we have been in so far. The Louisiana Bayou is quite unique, with raised highways crossing over the marshy landscape and giving way to the narrow roads that wind through fields of sugarcane. Along the way, we passed worn houses of all sizes and colors, people sitting out on their porches, and roadside stands advertising okra, pecans, and lunch plate specials. Amidst this rural scenery are images of wealth: homes of the great Southern planters, grand in scale and each trying to outdo the other.

The colorful world of the Creole
The first place we stopped, the Laura Plantation, was not the typical white, columned home I tend to associate with that era. Instead, it was a brightly colored abode with a strawberry red roof, yellow walls and vibrant green shutters. We learned that the color of a house during that era could be used to determine who lived there and what language was spoken. The white houses were inhabited by English-speaking Americans, while bright colors indicated a Creole family and a French-speaking household. Laura is a sugarcane, rather than cotton, plantation. Sugar was the other main crop in the South, challenging the reign of King Cotton, particularly in this part of Louisiana.

A slave cabin: quite the contrast from big plantation homes
Laura was dependent on the labor of approximately two hundred slaves, most of them from Senegal, West Africa. The Senegalese were skilled in construction and masonry. Thus, the buildings on the plantation are very sturdy and well made, having withstood the test of time and even earthquakes. This is especially impressive considering that the houses are built on marshy land, without a good solid foundation. Besides construction, the slaves were mostly used for agriculture, working brutal hours in the sugarcane fields. Living together in slave cabins that stretched for miles behind the main house, the Senegalese tried to keep alive parts of their culture through oral stories. Some of these folktales have actually been transformed into classic American tales, such as "Br'er Rabbit."

Getting silly at Nottoway
The next stop on our self-made plantation tour is Nottoway, also known as the "White Castle of Louisiana." Nottoway is the largest surviving plantation home in the South, and more in line with my ideas of what we would encounter. The house is gorgeous, with twenty-two columns and a total of 365 doors and windows. Yes, the guy who made the house wanted one opening for every day of the year... I'm not sure why. I picture this man entering his house only through a specific window each day, even if it meant having to climb trees or scale the walls in order to do so. I have a feeling it probably wasn't used for such fun purposes though. The place is pretty uppity, with its elaborate hand-painted doorknobs and extravagant rooms to host grand-scale parties and important visitors. Goodness, this place definitely needs a dash of silliness, which I decide should come in the form of my attempting to do handstands in the garden.

28 oak trees line the path at Oak Alley Plantation
And there are many other plantations along the river road. One of my favorites is Oak Alley, which gets its name from the fabulous trees that line its entranceway. The question, though, that keeps popping up in my head is, "How many people actually lived like this?"

Neda ponders life as a yeoman farmer
Large plantations with hundreds of slaves - the standard image of the South - were actually quite rare. Three-fourths of southern whites did not own slaves, and the majority of those who did owned less than ten slaves. This is not meant to downplay the fact that there were four million slaves in the South, who were forced to work long hours to help support the plantation economy. Plantation life was the harsh reality for so many of the first African-Americans. Yet the wealth of such an economy was not the common experience for most European-Americans. The majority worked on smaller farms; they were called yeoman farmers. The poorest white Southerners only got the land that no one else wanted, and were scornfully referred to as "white trash." Although they did not own slaves, they still helped defend the idea of slavery. They may have been bitter towards the planters for being so wealthy, but at the same time, they aspired to own slaves themselves and join the elite class. The yeoman farmers gained a sense of power simply by being white and feeling that they were higher on the social scale than the slaves.

While the products that make an elite few millionaires change over the years, the situation really doesn't. Our class system today still depends on a huge base of laborers that create enormous profit for the wealthy few. Whether you tour the magnificent mansion at Nottoway or spy pictures of Bill Gates' glamorous grounds, the concept of the "upper class" at once intrigues and infuriates those of us on the middle and lower economic layers of society. What remains clear is that it is the skill and intelligence of nineteenth-century slaves and today's commoners that make those profits possible for "high society."


Please email me at: neda@ustrek.org


Links to Other Dispatches

Rebecca - Pass the gumbo and another sweet potato biscuit please
Stephanie - Huckleberry Finn makes waves along the Mississippi
Making A Difference - Let's add some cyanide in this cigarette
Teddy - The amazing Booker T. Washington, former slave turned college founder