I took a trip down to Louisiana recently. I’ve been working on a theatrical project about the New York City Draft Riots of 1863 and was in need of some background.
Even the well-documented past can be inscrutable until you get to its roots; besides, I love the South - just scratch the surface and you’re in a different country.
New Orleans was as ever welcoming but I wished to spend some time on one of the old antebellum plantations. I found just the place upstate on the banks of the mighty Mississippi River.
Great Oaks sits on 1200 acres of farmland to die for. Imagine the rich grassy fields around Mullingar stewing in a semi-tropical climate.
No bullocks graze this demesne, however, sugar cane rules! With the tall green shoots quivering in the humid breeze a stately sense of order pervades the vast fields, just as it must have done 150 years ago before the world of the Confederacy was turned upside down.
Great Oaks is beautiful. 28 great Live Oak trees frame a stately avenue - all planted 300 years ago.
With your back to the Mississippi you gaze upon a perfectly proportioned white-pillared mansion – the actual setting for Interview With A Vampire by Neil Jordan.
You’re greeted by young ladies in period costumes, accents dripping with honey; two of them smiled and joked with the familiarity of sisters – one black as the night, the other with the pale skin of her Irish ancestors.
They narrated the story of the great house and those who owned it – a Catholic family of French descent. What rich and powerful lives they led, their portraits lined the halls next to the pictures of familiar saints.
And yet one could almost taste the sadness – of six children, three had died of Yellow Fever and Tuberculosis; the father too had succumbed to the latter.
This tragedy paled in comparison, however, with the inhumanity caused by the economic system that made all the luxury possible – slavery. Even more troubling - how snugly this heinous crime was accommodated by the various shades of local Christianity.
History, indeed, makes for strange bedfellows; money is usually the aphrodisiac. For on my second day I came upon the Great Oaks property assessment for 1848; it baldly listed the individual values of the plantation’s 113 slaves – neatly divided into “house” and “field.”
A carpenter topped the list at $1500, followed by a blacksmith and mason at $1300. A seamstress headed the women’s ranks at $900; in general women were valued less than men, unless they possessed children. From the age of 30 the value of both sexes dropped, until in their 50’s those still alive were barely worth appraising at $25 a head.
Christianity did have one leavening effect – it was not permitted to work slaves on the Sabbath, no doubt they would need the day to attend to the salvation of their souls.
That night an eerie silence hung over the land. It was hard to sleep and I arose early. An old black man was already at work, grouting a brick fireplace of the soon-to-be-restored slave quarters. He didn’t appear to catch the irony; in this economy a gig is a gig.
Why is any of this of interest in an Irish-American newspaper? Well, January 1st will mark the 150th anniversary of President Lincoln’s emancipation of slaves. Six months later – days after the Battle of Gettysburg - the Irish in New York City, among others, would erupt against the unfairness of the Draft Laws and the threat of a tide of cheap Black labor arriving from the South.
Terrible things happened; Irish and African-Americans who up until then had lived in relative harmony went their separate ways.
Time has healed many of the wounds – the Draft Riots are barely remembered. How far we’ve come, what rivers we’ve crossed. 150 years later we have a black president – love him or hate him.
On this Fourth of July that’s a credit to the US and something the 113 slaves in Oak Alley could never have even dreamed of.