Wednesday, February 11, 2009


Nottoway Plantation is located on the Mississippi River just between New Orleans and Baton Rouge. Family lore has it that my great-grandmother was born into slavery and worked a plantation somewhere in Louisiana. Maybe, just maybe it was a plantation just like this one.

So I thought it would be a great learning experience for my children if we stayed on an authentic sugar cane plantation, Number 81 on my Bucket List.

There still remains on Nottoway uninhabitable slave quarters. My husband Sarge said, "They'd better not put us in the slave quarters," when I told him what kind of vacation I was planning, but we stayed in what was once the Overseer's Cottage. It was two bedrooms with a balcony that overlooked the quarters, or should I say quarter, as it is only one shack remaining purely for effect, I'm sure. The shack had one opening for a window -- glass was a luxury reserved only for the Big House -- and one opening for a door.

We could have stayed in the mansion, but guests there are required to vacate the rooms for several hours a day, as tours of the historic home go on daily. We were the only African-American guests, but the elderly bell captain told us that several of his co-workers were direct descendants of slaves who had also worked at Nottoway. Somehow, there were two bottles of welcome champagne left in our room.

The Big House is decorated just like it was in the 19th century. It has three stately floors, 64 rooms, 29 closets, 365 doors and windows -- one for each day of the year -- all spread out over 69,000 square feet. It was built with a working toilet on each floor. Quite a luxury for 1849. There is a newly constructed restaurant on the premises today.

The original owners were the Randolph's. Mr. Randolph was a businessman first and a slave owner second -- all of this according to the black docent who gave us a private tour. He treated his slaves like the valuable chattel they were. He sent one of them to be trained as a nurse to care for the sick ones, including his family. This nurse had her own horse and buggy with permission to use it to fetch a doctor when necessary. Randolph had what today would be called a daycare center for his slaves' children, which doubled as a church on Sundays. All of this is documented in files at Louisiana State University.

I enjoyed the experience probably more than the rest of my family, but I like to think they got something out of it, too. With kids, you never know until years later whether something has made an impression, but they got a good idea of how slaves lived and how hard they worked in the sun, all for no pay, and no prospect of any future pay. Maybe they'll think about that on their next unpaid internship.

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