My husband and I recently took a vacation that led us through several areas of Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and Kentucky. Because we both enjoy architecture, we had decided we would tour several antebellum plantations. The way we had our trip organized, the first plantation we visited was Oak Alley just a short drive from New Orleans. As it turned out, our tour of Oak Alley fell on Easter Sunday afternoon.
The house and grounds were beautiful. The tour was informative about the antebellum age. But the most profound part of the day was a self-guided tour through reconstructed slave quarters.
I can’t say I didn’t know about slavery. I had learned about it in school, read about it in books, and even seen movies that depicted it in various powerful ways. But this was different. Standing in front of what would have been a slave duplex, each side of which was barely bigger than my bedroom at home, and realizing that a dilapidated version of this would have been the home of countless numbers of slaves on whose backs the master’s fortunes were built was sobering, to say the least. And of course the fortunes were clearly represented in the beautiful mansion just a few hundred yards behind us.
Alongside and inside these rugged dwellings were pictures and narrative that described the life of an average slave. Some shacks had rustic beds with primitive mattresses. Some had only a makeshift mattress on the floor. Some had no bed at all. Most had fireplaces for cooking.
The tools the slaves were expected to use to work in the fields were barely stone-age. I don’t really know whether these were the best available at the time, but I got the sense that they were not. Not only were slaves considered nothing more than property, but they were not even given proper tools to do the best work possible.
Two things were especially striking to me that resurrection Sunday. First, the field slaves worked anywhere from 12 to 16 hours every day in miserable conditions. Nonetheless, they often were not given enough provisions to live on. Thus, most had small plots of land as well as a few small farm animals for additional food and income. But here’s the fairly obvious point. After working a long day for the master, they could not come home and rest. Rather, they then had to tend to their own plots and animals. Only after taking care of their own needs were they free to fall into bed.
Second, in the last of the six buildings, there was a book that listed the sale and purchase of human persons – slaves – for the plantation. On one wall in that building the first names of all these slaves were inscribed, row after row of them. It was something like the Viet Nam memorial, but to humans who had never been paid for their work, had been purchased like tools, and frequently treated no better than animals. Is it any wonder that with the Mississippi river within sight, the slaves sang songs like “Deep river, my eyes are over Jordan. Oh don’t you want to go to that gospel feast, the Promised Land”?
On the day we celebrate the resurrection of Christ, the liberator of us from our slavery from sin, I received a fuller picture of just exactly how bound I was apart from Christ, what bondage looked like. And in fact, I am while I am no longer bound by sin, I am still affected by it. My vision, like that of the slaves must continue to be forward looking to that “gospel feast” where sin will no longer have an effect on the world, even as I work in the present reality of one called to resurrection life.