Blog Post by
Julie Nicolai
Member of the Presbytery History Work Group
and Dismantling Racism & White Privilege

I try to put Covid-19 and the past year into a constructive framework – make a positive out of a negative; learn from our mistakes; lots of time to think, etc.  Strangely, looking back on the 2020 holiday season, although I was crushed by loss on many levels – my Mom, my beloved dog, three dear friends – I journeyed through a transformative healing and recovery process.  I reconnected with so many people I would not otherwise have talked to in physical isolation, reigniting old friendships and solidifying current ones.  I also found I had lots of time to pray and develop my relationship with God, realizing that none of my lost loved ones are really gone, but always with me in spirit to guide me along life’s course.  I also saw signs of God’s presence and wonder in nature.  As I looked back on good times and global travels, I kept coming back to one journey I will never forget, a trip along the Great River Road from Lafayette to New Orleans.  The haunting beauty of the ruins and folk traditions, along with the accompanying legacy of oppression and hurt, changed my life.  As the great musician and songwriter, Tanya Donnelly, once said, “Nothing ever dies but we still gotta let it go.”

Poignant reminders of a lost plantation culture lurk at every bend along Louisiana’s River Road.  Although the monumental and grandiose “big houses” reflect the stereotypical ideal of Deep South planters’ wealth, the tiny, dilapidated quarters of the enslaved carry the emotional load of the horrid legacy of slavery indigenous to this region.  One of the most intact groupings is located at Laura Plantation near Vacherie.  Named after the alluring and mysterious matriarch who ran the plantation, the grounds include the quarters where ingenious enslaved people spawned the classic B’rer Rabbit tales.

Windsor, a grand Louisiana plantation home later destroyed by fire, evokes mystery and pathos.  Windsor rests in Port Gibson’s vicinity, very near Alcorn State University, an educational haven for African Americans.   Made famous by Clarence John Laughlin, the South’s most haunting and eerie ruin lifts finger-like plaster-over-brick columns toward the sky from the center of a dense gathering of trees.  The cast-iron capitals, second-story balustrades, and four staircases were manufactured in St. Louis, Missouri, and shipped down the Mississippi to Bruinsburg, where they were carted overland to the Windsor site.  These monstrous fragments are all that remain of a huge mansion enveloped by galleries on all four sides.

All is not evocative architectonic form; simple pleasures animate the folks of Paulina.  Every December, along the top of the levee, they build wooden pyramids ringed with sugar cane to be burned on Christmas Eve, air pockets in the sweltering cane producing loud popping noises in anticipation of Papa Noel’s arrival.  Along the River Road, apparitions of a vanished time materialize and disappear, modern reminders of past rituals loom, and history becomes slightly more comprehensible.

Julie Nicolai
Member of the Presbytery Work Group
and Dismantling Racism & White Privilege

1 Comment

  • Posted April 6, 2021 4:48 pm
    Pat Cleeland

    Thank you, Julie, for your vivid portrait of life along the Mississippi. My mother grew up along the Great River Road in Port Allen, LA, just across from Baton Rouge. She grew up playing in the yards of one of those plantation houses. And I am certain that the people who built it never crossed her mind.

    There is a program going on in the Baton Rouge area to recover the names of slaves buried in the unmarked graves in unmarked cemeteries. This link will take you to just one of the stories about it.

Add Your Comment