The tours in New Orleans are well worth taking. We took a ghost tour, a voodoo tour, the swamp tour, and a tour of the Whitney Plantation. And the museums are also great and affordable. We visited the WW2 Museum, the Jazz Museum, and the Voodoo Museum.
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If I were to recommend only one of these activities, it would be the Whitney Plantation. There are many plantation tours available, but this one is given from the from the perspective of enslaved peoples. If you don’t walk out with either tears in your eyes, or a huge lump in your throat, you have no soul.
They close the tour with an exhibition of the 1811 German Coast uprising. This uprising never took place – but it was planned. And the 50 people associated with planning the rebellion were found guilty, beheaded, and their heads were displayed on stakes alongside a roadway. Slave holders were ordered to bring their enslaved people to stand in front of a single head for an hour a day for a month, as a warning against planning a rebellion. The display had the heads of 50 people on a stick with their eyes removed, and name tags. Oh – and the worst part, the majority of them were ages 10-13. I was there with my girls, ages 12 and 15, looking at these kids as if they could be their classmates. This was raw and powerful.
We needed a chaser after this, so we went to Preservation Hall and heard some fantastic jazz. The girls said this was the best day of the trip, and I have to agree.
Voodoo Tour | Ghost Tour | Jazz Museum
The ghost tour, for example, explained how deeply rooted Roman Catholicism is in the local culture. Why does this matter and why does this relate to the Whitney? Well, after enslaved peoples were given their freedom, four of them built a church to practice their faith. They didn’t want to use the slave bible, because that was whitewashed. This, by the way, is why people that descended from the institution of slavery do not practice the Roman Catholic faith–they simply can’t trust it. The church was a magnificently built church, and is the first black church. It’s still standing today on the Whitney, and the Whitney foundation is responsible for maintaining it—why? Because the state of Louisiana will not recognize it as a historical building. This is because only catholic churches only get this designation. Church and state anybody?
Also, the ghost tour covered the LaLaurie mansion in the French Quarter. Uhhhm—this is some uncomfortable stuff. The dude was a doctor and would practice and experiment on the people he had enslaved in his house. He was a really good doctor as legend tells us, but this means that there was a lot of uncomfortable experimentation going on. There is a story about enslaved people with body parts sewn on them from other enslaved people, looking like rag dolls or dangling marionettes. I’ll stop there.
This was a very cruel era in American history. And we learned that history sucks. These tours warmed us up for the Whitney – but nothing can prepare you for witnessing the cruelty depicted on the plantation.
The voodoo tour covered the origins of the voodoo faith and demystified it. Voodoo is a religion brought over from Africa and pays homage to elemental spirits, for example, fire, water, etc. To pray to these spirits, catholic saints were used and adopted as their gods, for example, Chango = Saint Barbara, or Santa Barbara in Spanish. Over time the religions intertwined. Interestingly, bad voodoo came in the form of poppet dolls from France that resembled voodoo dolls. In order to whitewash religion, the evil dolls became associated with practices of the enslaved people.
Sunday was a religious holiday and practicing Catholics took the day off, and therefore since slaveholders were not working, neither were enslaved peoples. Enslaved peoples were allowed to gather in specific park and practice religion, play music, and simply be together. This is the spot that created jazz. It is referred to today as Congo Square. All three tours touched up on this.
Back to the Whitney – there wasn’t really cultural gathering spot similar to Congo Square. Enslaved peoples probably stayed on the plantation on Sundays.
The voodoo tour also talked a lot about Marie Laveau–why she is famous, who she was, etc. We walked past her house, and her grave. The graveyard was interesting. The takeaway there was the economy of death created by the Roman Catholic church – death is serious business in New Orleans. We even saw Nicholas Cage’s grave. Interestingly enough, he was one-time owner of the LaLaurie house. While owning it he hit a string of bad luck. A voodoo priestess told him to get a plot next to Maria Laveau to reverse his fortune. All previous owners of this property experienced some sort of bad luck, this probably hast to do with the spirits alive in this place. It is now owned by a corporation, and as we all know, corporations are people too. Maybe this is a way of breaking this curse?
After having been on these tours, gumbo now has a different taste to me, and jazz sounds different. Okra is front and center in the dish, and in jazz–where I used to focus on piano, rhythm is central.
And speaking of jazz – they need a jazz tour.
At the jazz museum they had a display about Professor Long Hair. I never heard of him before. Now I know all about him. He had long hair and lived a difficult life. But he was one hell of a piano player.
Swamp Tour | WWII Museum
The swamp tour was just that. Alligators. But driving out there I was reminded of Waterboy and Bobby Bushay. The highways are built on a swamp, and houses are elevated. It was rather interesting to see. And it makes you wonder how much longer this state can exist.
World War Two museum was really good. The display walked you through the story of the war. It kind of brushed over the bombing of Japan and focused a lot on key victories. There was a display that showed all the fascist leaders that were responsible for the world. History has a way of repeating itself. There is a teaching moment here, and I used it to explain to the girls that similar things are happening today with the rise of fascist and autocratic leaders in key areas of the world. War is inevitable, especially with the looming recession and election cycle coming up. Only difference is, America doesn’t have the manufacturing capabilities to rescue itself this time around. We outsource everything. They walked away scared of that thought, as we all should be right now.
Anyway – back to the vacation – we also visited the voodoo museum. It’s a small museum in the middle of the French Quarter. It contains a lot of altars where one can make offerings, and a description of the displays and some historical artifacts. It is also a church. I got my cards read there with Madame Cinnamon Black. I’ll be alright according to the cards I drew and her interpretation of them.
Next time I go, I’d like to hit the vampire and pirate tour. Also – need to focus more on jazz. It’ll be a shorter trip.
My recommendation to anybody going though is that the Whitney is a must see.