I stood there on the dirt pathway, the guide’s voice drifting into the breeze under the rustling leaves of the towering live oak trees. The humid, warm air surrounded me, as my mind transported back 250 years. I began imagining the unbearable summer heat, the trees providing the only shelter and escape from the sun’s harsh rays and life outside the shanty homes. I thought about the babies crying, the women sweeping their respective porches, the men gathered – laughing and catching up on the latest news and gossip. This was the site of a living and breathing community for generations of Americans, unfairly and unjustly, brought to Louisiana for dark, self-serving purposes of others. Evergreen Plantation is one of the few plantations left in America where you can get a realistic view of the Antebellum era of slavery in America in the late 18th century. It is a raw, beautiful, and introspective journey into one of the most blemished chapters in this country’s history.

Slave cabins at Evergreen Plantation

Evergreen Plantation, located approximately an hour out of New Orleans, is one of the most intact plantations in the South. The plantation is a National Historic Landmark, with 37 buildings on the property registered on the National Register of Historic Places. Evergreen is not only still a working sugar plantation, but its 25 original slave cabins are still standing. The rooftops, front porches, wood flooring – all exist more-or-less exactly as they did almost three centuries ago. The Masters’ home still welcomes passers-by and visitors, an unmissable gleaming-white faux mansion, that is as beautiful as it is ostentatious.

Arriving at the visitor center, a simple building filled with various historical documents and a surprising lack of souvenirs, we were greeted by a friendly woman (she also turned out to be the guide) who welcomed us to the plantation. After taking our admission fees, we waited for the walking tour around the grounds to begin. There are several rooms in the visitor center which discuss the previous owners, slaves who were bought and sold, and different events throughout the plantation’s history. I suspect that much of the information would be especially useful to visitors who have traced their lineage back to Evergreen.

When it was time for the tour to start, our guide instructed everyone to follow her in our respective vehicles to begin nearer the main sights on the property.

We started the narrative at Evergreen’s slave quarters. A scene straight from a movie set, except this was as authentic as it gets. (And randomly has also served as a set in several period piece films.)

Tour at Evergreen

“I want you to take all your ideas about slavery, and push them to the side,” said the charismatic tour guide. “Forget what you’ve seen in the movies and read in your history books, because we’re gonna talk about a different side to the story.”

I was intrigued. I was uneasy. I had expected a certain narrative, but it was clear that I had maybe relied too much on Hollywood and high school history class to give me the full picture of slavery in the South. That picture of slavery in America is not a pretty one, and it’s a story that continues to have a resounding voice in our culture. How could it not? The atrocities that took place, the disregard for human life, the prejudice and tragedy – it is undoubtedly one of America’s most looming ghosts.

“What if I told you that slaves at Evergreen Plantation had a school? What if I told you that they were skilled, not just skilled at working the fields, but were chosen because of their leadership qualities, their metal work, their backgrounds?”

Evergreen Plantation was different than the typical Southern plantation for a few reasons. First, Louisiana began as French territory. (It actually began as Indian Territory, but local tribes were forced out by the French.) As a French territory, many of the laws were dictated by the church – and this included laws on owning slaves. Slave owners were required by church law to provide shelter, plentiful food, and offer Sundays off so that the slaves could attend church service. If a slave was mistreated they could report it to the church, and if the report was justified, they could be removed from their respective owner. Because of this, the tales of abuse were less rampant in Louisiana – particularly at Evergreen where historical documents show that the family had close relationships with their slaves.

To look at it a different way, a slave at Evergreen Plantation cost around $1200 – varying by sex, skills, and experience. In today’s money that would be the equivalent of hundreds of thousands of dollars. The guide explained that if you think of slavery in terms of an investment, most (definitely not all) plantation owners wanted to take care of that investment and wouldn’t risk losing their money by risking the lives of their slaves.

This isn’t to say the slavery was hunky-dorey down in Louisiana, but it was still a different picture. They were still human beings being bought and sold, working in extreme conditions – but according to our guide, slaves at Evergreen had it better than many of their neighbours down the road.

cabins evergreen

The slave quarters at Evergreen are exactly as you might imagine. Simple shacks with covered porches to protect against the elements – built side by side in two rows. Large families shared the simple room inside, and the enclave acted as a micro-universe where cultures, language, and traditions could continue in some form despite the circumstances.

After taking in the slave quarters, we proceeded to our vehicles once again and were lead to the Masters’ home.

Walking in from the back garden, where the landscape is still meticulously maintained, we were caught off-guard by the Hollywood movie set which was being put together around the existing facade. Our guide spoke quietly, explaining that they were currently in the process of filming the new Roots mini-series on the property. (Django Unchained was also filmed at Evergreen Plantation, for all you movie-buffs out there.) It isn’t a surprise that the plantation is such a popular location for films, I imagine that budget can be kept pretty low when your set is already turn-key ready…

Rear of Masters House at Evergreen Plantation
We made our way to the front of the Masters’ home, taking in the cascading staircases and covered porches wrapping themselves around the sides. The home began in a simple French Creole style, where only the top section served as living quarters, and the bottom section was empty in the event of floods from the neighboring river. Future owners added the columns and bottom half of the structure, likely more for appearances than practicality.

Inside the home is surprisingly small, much different than one would expect looking at it from the outside.(Further proof that the outside was designed solely to impress.) Each floor is made up of only one narrow hallway, with modest adjoining rooms where guests were entertained and the owner’s family slept.

After taking a peak into each of the rooms, our tour concluded and we were brought back to the visitor’s center where we began.

masters house
Visiting Evergreen Plantation:

I not only highly recommend visiting Evergreen Plantation, I implore you to make time for it in your itinerary when visiting Louisiana. The guide was fantastic, and was extremely well-versed on the history of slavery in Louisiana – both from research and first-person narratives from actual descendents of slaves who lived on the property.

It is not possible to reach the property by public transportation due to its rural location, so if you would like to visit Evergreen you will need to rent a car. Only cash is accepted, and the tours are scheduled intermittently throughout the week – so check the Evergreen Plantation website to make sure one is running on the day you plan to visit. At the time of my visit, admission was $20 per person, $6 for under 18’s.

evergreen plantation

{An important note: I am not a voice for the history of slavery, and I would never try to be. Much of the insight and historical background was provided directly by the guide, who traces her own roots to the region – and her voice does matter. I have tried to stick with the facts, but if you are interested in the stories of this magnificent historic site, I urge you to visit and hear them for yourself in person.}

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