Big house and the small house, and the dark history they tell

In May 2000, I took a road trip through Louisiana and Mississippi. I photographed a number of slave cabins and old plantations. My notes are buried somewhere, and one day I might dig them up. I do not recall getting the name of this old plantation home in southern Mississippi. I photographed it from the distance, from the road. If you look close, there are two cabins to the left. Those are the slave cabins. On many plantations, the “small house” stood very close to the “big house.” All of the plantation’s wealth was derived from using slave labor to grow cotton and other agricultural commodities sold to local, national, even international markets. It was a system built and sustained by the lash, as President Abraham Lincoln so eloquently referenced in his Second Inaugural Address.


Slave quarters and slave ledger, Laura Plantation

I visited Louisiana and Mississippi in 2001, partly inspired by the Coen brothers’ great film Oh Brother, Where Art Though. I was also intrigued by the weird tourist subculture built around the glamorization and glorification of the South’s very brutal plantation system, which exploited blacks as slaves and left nearly everyone else out the political system, except very rich, very powerful, and as we later saw in the Civil War, very violent aristocracy. There is a very good book on the economic system that flourished around cotton, North-South trade on the Mississippi River, and slave labor called River of Dark Dreams, by Harvard Professor Walter Johnson. It was in his book where I first learned about a little-known book called 12 Years a Slave, about six months before it burst on the global scene as a movie that won best picture at the 2014 Academy Awards. I figured it was more important to show these pictures of Laura Plantation than fret about their quality (these are now 13-year-old pictures, not well scanned I admit).