It was a little surreal. Even after seeing similar scenes in photos for decades. That first glimpse still made me gasp as we rounded the corner onto the grounds of the still working sugar cane plantation.
The live oaks lined the shell-crusted lane like a mile-long hug from an ancient ancestor. One who long forgot to shave yet still exudes an air of warmth despite the wrinkled, rough exterior. The branches no longer belong to one tree. They intertwine, pulling you toward the main house and the dark past that links it, like so many others, to history. The Spanish moss adding intrigue and mystery.
Evergreen Plantation, according to their documents, is one of the largest and most intact plantation complexes in the South with 37 buildings on the National Registrar of Historic Places. The majority of the buildings are antebellum (existed prior to the American Civil War). It has existed for close to 250 years with the original French Creole farmhouse
being built mostly in 1790. In 1832, the owner at the time - Pierre Clidamant Becnel - hired John Carver to do a major renovation which turned it into its present Greek Revival style.
The property remained in the Becnel family until 1894 when it was sold to Alfred and Edward Songy who subsequently lost it in 1930, near the start of the great depression. The only period the plantation sat uninhabited was the 14 years prior to its purchase by an oil heiress and restorer of historical architecture, Matilda Gray, from Lake Charles, LA. So, in 1944, the Gray's became the last-to-date owners of Evergreen. After Matilda's death, her niece, Matilda Gray Stream was sole heir to the property.
Upkeep for such a property cannot be cheap, which is why, I'm sure, the house was opened up for tours and many film crews have swarmed the grounds for productions such as Tarantino's Django Unchained
, The Beguiled
. The Roots
production team built replica slave cabins closer to the main house, leaving them there after the series wrapped.
|Reproduction slave cabins built for the series 'Roots'.
Slavery in America is still a hard concept for me to grasp. To feel you have the right to own another human being is something I will never understand, but it happened. It's part of American history. You have to look no further than Evergreen Plantation to see it firsthand.
The allee leading to the slave quarters from the main house is stunningly beautiful. Even peaceful. The 200-year-old live oak trees hang with Spanish moss, giving them an eery, yet serene look. But once you approach the 12 original slave cabins and realize that you are walking on the same ground they walked prior to the American Civil War, well, it's unsettling and sad and interesting and heartbreaking and informative, all at the same time. It leaves you breathless.
Slaves were essential for the existence of the sugar cane and cotton plantations that lined the Mississippi River pre 1863, when the Emancipation Proclamation was signed by President Abraham Lincoln. It stated "that all persons held as slaves" within the rebellious states "are, and henceforward shall be free."
Before this though, records show that in 1835, 54 slaves lived in the cabins on this property which meant that four or five resided in each of the cabins.
|This shows the left half of one of the cabins.
A fireplace in the middle of the open room is all that separates the two halves.
After the Civil War, freed African Americans continued to live and work at Evergreen until 1940.
Since visiting the plantation, I plan on rewatching the television series 'Roots' and, at the recommendation of a friend, am reading 'The Invention of Wings' by Sue Monk. It was inspired by the life of Sarah Grimke, an American abolitionist, writer, and member of the women's suffrage movement. It can't hurt to remind oneself of their own luck in life, while remembering those who were never as fortunate.
Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.