Chris Ramirez for The New York Times
STRIDING across the rain-soaked field of an abandoned Louisiana plantation, Mitch Landrieu, the state’s lieutenant governor, waved his hands impatiently. “C’mon, you’ve got to see this,” he called out, sounding more P. T. Barnum than politician. Marching beside him was the Whitney Plantation’s owner, John Cummings, a wealthy Louisiana lawyer turned preservationist who, with Mr. Landrieu’s help, hopes to prove that the old Southern plantation, or at least this one, is still very much in business.
Centuries past its prime, the Whitney Plantation sits grandly beneath a canopy of oak trees along a dusty road in St. John the Baptist Parish, a sleepy river community 35 miles northwest of New Orleans. The estate, promoted as the most complete plantation in the South, is an antebellum gem. It includes, among other things, a Creole and Greek Revival-style mansion, an overseer’s house, a blacksmith shop and the oldest kitchen in Louisiana.
Built in the late 1700s by Jean Jacques Haydel Jr., the grandson of a German immigrant with a penchant for fine art, the house walls are adorned with murals said to be painted by the Italian artist Domenico Canova, a relation of the neo-Classical sculptor Antonio Canova.
Yet Mr. Landrieu is far less interested in the Haydels than the legacy of the 254 slaves who once inhabited the nearly dozen shacks behind the big house during Whitney’s reign among the largest sugar farms in Louisiana. His muddy shoes planted in front of a row of neatly situated sun-bleached shacks during a recent visit, Mr. Landrieu nudged a reporter toward what he likes to call a living museum:
“Go on in. You have to go inside. When you walk in that space, you can’t deny what happened to these people. You can feel it, touch it, smell it.”
He compared the experience to visiting the former Nazi death camp at Auschwitz.
Personal politics aside, in an era of proliferating theme parks and “Girls Gone Wild” spring breaks, it is entirely possible that hanging out in former slave quarters — or, for that matter, the adjacent so-called “nigger pen” lockup — runs counter to most Americans’ idea of a vacation. But in post-Katrina Louisiana, where an antidote to recent images of black disillusionment, despair and displacement has so far proven elusive, the recently started African-American Heritage Trail offers a disarmingly triumphant immersion into Louisiana’s rich black history and culture through such powerful juxtapositions of freedom and bondage and the creativity that sprung out of both conditions.
Served up in heaping gumbo-style portions, the African-American Heritage Trail is not always easy to digest: it spans 26 sites, wending its way through museums, marketplaces and cemeteries from New Orleans to Shreveport.
To be sure, this is one wandering, race-obsessed road trip: not even those tasty Cracklin or Boudin balls at Highway 190 truck stops, or the reassuring baritone of the actor Louis Gossett Jr., who narrates a fact-filled audiotape of people and places, can always cut the lull of hundreds of miles of often barren, rural highway. And if you’re toting kids as this trailee was, you might feel at points as if you’re driving the African-American Headache Trail.
But if you can hang in, there’s a realism to this traveling history lesson, with a richly tactile and authentic quality. You’ll find it as you stand in front of the childhood home of Homer Plessy, whose refusal to move from the “whites only” section of a rail car would lead to the landmark Supreme Court case Plessy v. Ferguson; as you take in the story of Madame C. J. Walker, the hair-care entrepreneur who bootstrapped her way out of poverty to become the nation’s first black female millionaire; as you stroll through Armstrong Park in New Orleans, named to honor the jazz pioneering work of Louis Armstrong. And of course it’s there in the Cajun and Creole cooking that puts an exclamation mark behind each stop.
In a state that relishes its contradictions, Louisiana’s African-American trail is actually the brainchild of Mr. Landrieu, the white liberal scion of a famous Louisiana political family. In the 1970s, his father, Maurice Edwin Landrieu, known as Moon, made history, and his share of enemies, when as New Orleans mayor, he hired the first blacks into his administration. Mitch, a self-proclaimed champion of social justice, said he conceived the trail as a way of brokering dialogue between the races at a time when the nation sorely needed it, an idea that gained urgency in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
“We want to transform the discussion about race and poverty in America,” said the 47-year-old Mr. Landrieu, who served 16 years in the State House of Representatives (his father and sister, Mary Landrieu, also a Democrat and currently a United States Senator, held the same seat). “Many, many white people and black people of good will have been separated by ideological fights that have been powerful. But you can’t transform the discussion if you can’t remember what happened.”
Mr. Cummings puts it another way: “Is black men not caring for their children today in any way connected to slavery? These are the kinds of questions we should be asking. I want to get beyond the moonlight and magnolia myths of the plantation.”
There is a more practical basis for the trail also. “There’s not enough money to build a museum in every parish in Louisiana,” Mr. Landrieu said. So, over the past couple of years, he has spearheaded an effort to link private-sector cultural attractions into a network of state-sponsored tourism programs, from bird-watching to golf tours. The African-American Heritage Trail is but the latest example of fiscal creativity with Louisiana’s tourism program.
“The whole state of Louisiana really is a museum,” he said.
At the turn of the 19th century, Louisiana was a major player in the Deep South in international slave trade, thanks to its location on the Mississippi River and its rise as a sugar capital. Far more compelling than its robust slave population, though, was the culture that developed around it, as a blend of French governance, liberal manumission laws and tradition of racial mixing created an especially unique twist to an already peculiar institution.
A trail weighted with such historical crosscurrents could easily turn into a kind of four-wheel Rubik’s Cube in the wrong guide’s hands. That is why what appears at first blush a freewheeling journey that can begin and end virtually anywhere in Louisiana is best approached with a degree of conformity.
There are some obvious reasons to start the trail in New Orleans, including the fact that airfares to there will most likely be cheapest. But perhaps the most compelling reason to begin in New Orleans is that one of the oldest, richest strains of African-American culture flows directly from there, or more specifically, from Tremé, which according to historians, is the nation’s oldest surviving black community. On the northern fringe of the French Quarter, Tremé, also known as Faubourg Tremé, bears resemblance to a well-to-do Caribbean community, with pastel-colored Creole and shotgun-style cottages and Greek Revival-style homes lining narrow shaded streets.
Throughout the 19th century, Tremé (named after Claude Tremé, a Frenchman who split up the lots and sold them off) was populated by free people of color — many of them fair-skinned French-speaking Creoles — who identified more with their European than African ancestry as they dominated the trades as merchants, businessmen and real estate speculators.
Louisiana Travel Guide
Chris Ramirez for The New York Times
The River Road African-American Museum
In many cases, their ascension up the social ladder was orchestrated through Cordon Bleu or quadroon balls, private soirees in which wealthy Creole families presented their daughters to white suitors for long-term relationships.
So fascinating are the quadroon balls that you’ll want to visit the African-American Museum, located in the heart of Tremé, for more nitty gritty on these affairs, as well as the lowdown on Tremé’s most infamous Creole woman, Marie Laveau, known as the voodoo queen, who is believed to have resided, at one point, in the Passebon Cottage on the museum’s property.
The centerpiece of Tremé, though, is St. Augustine Catholic Church, which embodies much of the community’s complex cultural narrative. Built in the mid 1800s at the request of people of color, St. Augustine remains the spiritual nerve center of the New Orleans black community.
The church also has the distinction of being one of the nation’s first integrated churches thanks to a legendary “War of the Pews” in which free people of color and whites one-upped one another in purchasing family pews for Sunday Mass. Free blacks not only nabbed two pews for every white family pew, but also gave them as gifts to their enslaved black brethren. After church, and filled with the spirit, colored congregants would migrate to Congo Square (today within Louis Armstrong Park) where they would sing, dance and play music in their native African traditions.
With the French Quarter so nearby, dinner at the Praline Connection, a black-owned, child-friendly Creole soul food joint in neighboring Faubourg Marigny, is a good way to cap the evening — and the New Orleans portion of the trail. While this unpretentious, affordable place, isn’t exactly historic — it was founded in 1990 — its gumbo has earned praise from locals, as have the smothered pork chops and other specialties. And kids, exhausted by now, will squeal as straight-faced waiters serve up fried alligator as nonchalantly as a bowl of Cap’n Crunch.
A few sites on the heritage trail veer from Mr. Landrieu’s “living museum” construct, though they are not necessarily any less satisfying. Among them is the River Road African-American Museum, in the town of Donaldsonville, about 65 miles north of New Orleans. The River Road area is brimming with historical significance: Donaldsonville elected the nation’s first African-American mayor, Pierre Caliste Landry, in 1868, Others who hail from the area include King Oliver, Louis Armstrong’s musical mentor, and a corps of enslaved African-American soldiers who fought with the Union at nearby Fort Butler.
The museum’s founder, Kathe Hambrick, a native of Donaldsonville, enthuses over their tales to audiences as though reminiscing over her own family scrapbook. Ms. Hambrick started the museum in 1994 after living for several years in California.
“Everywhere I turned, there was this word ‘plantation,’ ” Ms. Hambrick said. “And every time I heard it, I would get this knot in my stomach. One day I decided to take one of these plantation tours. It was all about antiques, furniture, architecture and the wealthy lifestyle. But I wanted to know how many lives of my ancestors did it take to produce one cup of sugar.”
Since then, Ms. Hambrick has assembled a collection that combines everything from shackles and plantation tools with antebellum maps and deeds from slave auctions. The production is heavy stuff, and its details, while fascinating to adults, may be less so to small children yearning to return to the open air.
But a couple of hours north, the Louisiana landscape opens wide, and as you travel along Highway 1 toward the town of Natchitoches (pronounced NACK-ah-tish), home of the Cane River Creoles, the hard stories in Donaldsonville fade under the great magnolias that shade the entrance of Melrose Plantation. This is where the love story of Marie-Therese, known as Coincoin, the grand matriarch of Melrose, took place.
Raised as a slave in the household of a Louisiana military commander, Marie-Therese was later sold to Claude Thomas Pierre Metoyer, a French merchant. The two fell in love and she eventually bore him 10 children. Marie-Therese and her children eventually gained their freedom and became wealthy landowners in their own right. As the story goes, Marie-Therese Metoyer owned slaves but also bought many slaves their freedom along the way.
One of her sons, Nicholas Augustin Metoyer, financed the first Catholic church in the United States built for people of color. St. Augustine Catholic Church was founded in 1803 and is located in Natchitoches.
The story of the Metoyers seems to illustrate Mr. Landrieu’s belief that the trail “is about so much more than civil rights — it’s about hope.” He paused, and rephrased his thought for wider appeal. “This trail is really about how hope hits the streets.”
IF YOU GO
The Web site for the Louisiana African American Heritage Trail, louisianatravel.com/explore/cultural_history/african_american_heritage_trail, offers maps and detailed information on the trail’s sites. You can also call (800) 474-8626.
WHERE TO EAT
The Praline Connection (542 Frenchman Street; 504-943-3934; www.pralineconnection.com) in the New Orleans neighborhood of Faubourg Marigny offers affordable local dishes like gumbo and smothered pork chops. Entrees $12.95 to $19.95.
In a restored Art Deco building in historic Donaldsonville, the Grapevine Cafe and Gallery (211 Railroad Avenue; 225-473-8463; www.grapevinecafeandgallery.com) offers arty atmosphere and lauded South Louisiana cuisine, like crawfish étouffée ($13.95) and seafood gumbo ($5.25).
WHERE TO STAY
The major hotel chains might offer convenience for families, but Louisiana boasts a wide array of B & B alternatives. In New Orleans, the Hubbard Mansion Bed and Breakfast (3535 St. Charles Avenue, 504-897-3535; www.hubbardmansion.com), set behind oaks along St. Charles Avenue, blends modern amenities with classic charm for about $160 a night.
Farther north, near Melrose Plantation along the Cane River in historical Natchitoches, there’s the cozy Creole Rose Estates Bed and Breakfast (318-357-0384; www.creoleroseestates.com), a three-bedroom waterfront getaway with scrumptious Creole meals cooked by the host, Janet LaCour. Rates range from $145 for two people to $250 for six people a night.
RON STODGHILL, a former staff writer for The Times, wrote “Redbone: Money, Malice and Murder in Atlanta.”