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Bryan E. Norwood: Museum, Refinery, Penitentiary

by Bryan E. Norwood | Mar 24, 2021

A few monuments to the Confederacy had already come down when I got in my car in New Orleans on a chilly, damp morning in November 2018. A year earlier, mayor Mitch Landrieu had declared “no more waiting,” and the statue in Lee Circle, one of the last to be removed in New Orleans, was taken off its pedestal and trucked to an undisclosed location. Now, at 3:30 pm, roughly 80 miles up the Mississippi River, I was about to start my second plantation museum tour of the day, standing with four White women from Ohio on the downriver side of what was then known as Houmas House Plantation and Gardens. (The word “Plantation” has since been changed to “Estate.”) Our guide, wearing a hoop skirt and carrying a folding fan, walked toward us between the fountains. A thicket of trees obscured our view of the neighboring Burnside alumina refinery, which I would pass that evening on my way back down River Road, its exhaust stacks seemingly suspended in the orange glow of low-pressure sodium lights reflecting off bauxite-coated surfaces and refracting through a mist that flowed over 20-foot levees holding back the Mississippi.

A month later, I approached another museum in the valley, this time well north of New Orleans, near the Louisiana-Mississippi line. Modest Christmas decorations hung from the columns at the entrance, and, in the gift shop, a coffee mug caught my eye: “Angola: A Gated Community.” These nine-dollar souvenirs are sold just outside the Louisiana State Penitentiary, established in 1901 on the composite lands of multiple former plantations and nicknamed for one of them — which, in turn, had been named for a place where Africans were kidnapped. The mug does not depict the security booth in a barbed-wire-topped chain-link fence that actually guards the prison entrance, but rather an imaginary set of decoratively curved gates.

Across the Mississippi from Angola stands the Old River Control Structure, or ORCS. Built in the mid-20th century, the ORCS is a key technology in a federally coordinated flood-protection system that dates back to the end of Reconstruction. The Mississippi River Commission, or MRC, was established in 1879 as an agglomeration of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers with other governmental and private representatives. Prior to this, flood management had relied on the disaggregated efforts of (sometime warring) landowners and state and local governments. The MRC unified administration of the levees. And it did so just as Reconstruction — which, when backed with federal force, had held out a promise of multiracial democracy — was ending in a reunion of North and South that prioritized White reconciliation over reparations for slavery. n the flood-control system of the Jim Crow era that followed (the system to which ORCS belongs), White reconciliation found an infrastructural analogue. Levees that had been built by people enslaved on antebellum plantations like Houmas House were expanded by people incarcerated at postbellum prisons like Angola, whose labor was offered against their will by the state of Louisiana, for lease by private contractors, federal bodies, and the state itself.

In 1927, floods devastated the Mississippi River Valley. Angola LSP was inundated. Yet the levees did protect one segment of the valley, between Baton Rouge and New Orleans. This stretch was a patchwork of sugar-cane fields, hamlets populated by sharecroppers and wage laborers, and oil refineries that had sprung up on former plantation lands. Such facilities, including plants processing other extracted resources like the bauxite at Burnside, continued to proliferate through the next decades, and by the time the ORCS came online in the 1960s, Plantation Alley had transformed into a chemical corridor. Indeed, the ORCS aimed not only to control high waters; the Army Corps of Engineers also sought to avoid low waters so that the industrial machine of the Lower Mississippi could grind on uninterrupted. Today, more than 200 plants processing petroleum, bauxite, phosphorous, and other chemicals operate along the Baton Rouge-New Orleans corridor, emitting toxins at levels that require governmental reporting; some of the highest rates of cancer risk and the most polluted air in the United States course through communities here. The area is now known as Cancer Alley.

Yet despite its heavily industrialized character, this same length of the Mississippi is home to a number of plantation museums, which began to be established at refurbished plantation sites as early as the 1940s. Into the agricultural, carceral, and industrial assemblage of the valley, these museums with their gracious verandahs and ancient oak trees infuse a cultural paramnesia, disguising distortion and denial not only as entertainment, but as historical truth.

Back on the lawn at Houmas House, our guide recounted to the Ohioans a recent visit to their home state, during which she had been a passenger in a traffic stop. They laughed as she described how the officer declined to give her sweet mom a speeding ticket. She then rang a large cast-iron bell, a tool for the time management of enslaved labor now used to announce the beginning of the tour, and we proceeded to the big house porch via a retrofitted ramp that brought the antebellum structure into compliance with the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act. The faux-marble finish on the exterior plaster walls, our guide explained, looked real to 19th-century steamboat passengers on the Mississippi, itself no longer visible behind levees whose expansion had destroyed most of the original oak-lined allée in the aftermath of the 1927 flood. We moved into the entrance hall, and the Ohioans discovered I had traveled from Michigan. The inevitable talk about college football began. Our guide complained that Alabama was just too good. It’s because they make illegal payouts, one Ohioan remarked.

In other words, just a few minutes in, we’d had talk of a traffic stop as humorous rather than potentially deadly, and of compensation for college athletes as unfair, while a would-be plantation mistress welcomed us to an interior that is undoubtedly a thing of historic preservationists’ nightmares. Past and present kept unnervingly colliding as we meandered through the house, hearing about the halcyon days of the 1850s; and the Bette Davis room (Hush, Hush Sweet Charlotte was filmed at Houmas House in 1964); and the current owner’s dogs’ wedding, which marked the site’s reopening after renovations in 2003. We viewed belongings meant to approximate those of the slaveholding elite, on display alongside those of the mansion’s current owner-occupant.

As a historian of the built environment in the long 19th century, I’ve been doing archival research in New Orleans for several years. Visits to preserved plantations like Houmas House and former plantations like Angola LSP help me to consider how the built past is interpreted for public understanding. While agrarian visions of the Old South abound at these sites, oil refineries and prisons do not represent breaks with the antebellum plantation system. Indeed, as Jeremy Zallen has noted, the Confederacy in the 1860s was not far from becoming a slave society capable of large-scale carbon extraction.  A centralized and industrializing military state, surviving well past the mid-19th century, enjoying access to practically limitless coal and oil and poised to combine expropriative racial capitalism with fossil capital, was a real and terrifying possibility. The threat of an industrial slave state was averted — but the United States developed other means for exploiting racism in the production and reproduction of inequity. As W.E. B. Du Bois explains in his monumental study Black Reconstruction in America (1935), in the decades that followed the Civil War, a new industrial feudalism engineered and built, quite literally, a “dictatorship of capital.” 

Reed the full article with images and references here.

Bryan E. Norwood joined SAH in 2017. He has been awarded two Opler Fellowships as a graduate student and as an emerging scholar. He was awarded an Opler Membership Grant for 2019, and will serve as a session chair at the SAH 2021 Virtual Conference.
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