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back to index A Brief Ethnography of Magnolia Plantation: Planning for Cane River Creole National Historical Park

Chapter 13: Conclusion

“Cane River Creole NHP” might suggest a park that focuses on French heritage as expressed in ways of life, language, and architecture. The park does that, of course, but the Cane River story is considerably more complex. This brief ethnography, undertaken to meet immediate planning needs, intended to highlight those complexities by making ordinarily muted voices more audible and ethnographically sensitive resources more visible. Research shows that the plantation locally called “the Hertzogs’” signifies ethnically different peoples: the whites, including planters of French Creole descent, the labor force of black peoples, and Creoles of color – their adaptations to each other and to local, regional, and national conditions. Ethnic differences found expression in religious affiliation, celebrations, and language patterns as well as in jobs, residence, and social status. Each of the three major groups differed in ways that were complementary and essential to the plantation’s inception, development, and success as a commercial enterprise and community. Ethnicity and relationship to resources or occupation stratified the plantation, a rural company town. Earlier, it was organized along manorial lines under the hereditary stewardship of the white French Creole Hertzogs, with enslaved black peoples providing labor. The social pyramid following abolition included sharecroppers, mostly Creoles of color, and day laborers, mostly black occupants of the quarters, which formerly housed enslaved workers.

Bitterness about poverty and powerlessness might have dominated black reminiscences of life at Magnolia, but it did not. Memories were undoubtedly reconfigured by the passage of time. Peoples’ continuing membership in the local social system also influenced perceptions or descriptions of the past, and some experiences were not retrieved or shared with outsiders. Still, although former residents expressed deep pain about past indignities and their struggles to make ends meet, they also tended to recall living full and relatively satisfying lives at Magnolia. They described the times they played as children, met and married their mates, reared their own children, fed families partly from their small gardens, and balanced long working days with recreational, religious, and secular events. The quarters provided full lives with social, spiritual, educational, and economic support. Black residents left that behind by the mid-1960s when mechanized agriculture made their labor surplus, undermining the community, transforming rural aspects of culture, and prompting emigration to urban Natchitoches and elsewhere.

The June 19th celebrations may be seen as a metaphor of changing plantation relationships, the severing of traditional power relationships between enslaved blacks and their white owners, and new formulations of their interdependence. The Hertzog family continued to support the event into this century, dispensing largesse by donating foods and giving workers a holiday. The labor community accepted this support, reaffirming its own ties to the plantation community. Mechanization and the associated rural exodus changed, but did not completely sever the relationships among black families as well as between them and white landowners. Concomitantly, the former type of June 19th celebrations, perceived as a “black” event, was waning in many areas. After a period of regrouping and redefinition, interest in acknowledging June 19th recently began to re-surface. While the celebration still marks change in ethnic relationships, in some communities it is becoming a more inclusive event that is no longer exclusively identified as a “black” holiday. White participation in the present celebrations might be an acknowledgement of their own roles in framing the black political experience. To the extent that the holidays people chose to celebrate and the forms those celebrations take express aspects of their social positions, the recent expressions of June 19th reflect continued change, strengthened black voices, and greater equity in some respects, locally and in American society more generally.

The Magnolia portion of Cane River Creole NHP is a circumscribed area with clearly defined fixed boundaries, but the ethnographically relevant landscape is more extensive than the 19-acre park. Places assigned cultural meaning by former residents were located within the park; others were dispersed within the larger plantation or located elsewhere in the Cane River Heritage Area. Some places, such as the AME Church or Ms. Lizzie’s house, no longer supported physical structures, but they remained named place markers in the conceptual map of former residents. Importantly, while the structures are ephemeral, their stories have longevity. Ethnicity influenced peoples’ identification of certain ethnographically important resources. Black people, for example, not only attached importance to the quarters. They also valued the former St. James AME Church, sites in the sharecropper area, and certain Baptist Churches outside the plantation, such as St. Andrew, which partnered in community life with Magnolia’s AME Church. Creoles of color attached greater importance to St. Augustine Catholic Church and other physical evidence of their culture. White people, including French descendents, valued a viable natural environment along with Magnolia’s farm buildings and the larger plantation. Everyone accorded importance to the Big House and the store. Pride in the Hertzogs’ place was also common, expressed by black people as pride in community and their contributions to the plantation’s success and longevity and by whites as pride in the continuing family management and the ability to survive economic and natural hardships. Identification with the Hertzog community was shared, but faceted by different experiences.

Slavery seemed to be the most troubling topic. Although initially viewed as a tabu subject by blacks and whites alike, interviewees came to agree on its legitimacy as an interpretive topic. People were concerned about potentially insensitive interpretations of southern cultures and the introduction of biases and misunderstandings by NPS staff from different backgrounds and regions. Concerns about having the National Park Service convey a painful and shameful past to the different visiting publics troubled others. Despite their trepidation, people agreed the park could cover the topic, provided it was part of a sequence that also addressed local changes and their contexts since the Civil War. In effect, the community gave the NPS permission to tell the story of a past that local people, as well as the nation, finds painful, contentious, and difficult to address. The NPS is now responsible for conveying a complex past on behalf of a diverse community that finds the subject too difficult or sensitive to address itself. In this regard, the community is challenging and trusting the Service to maneuver a minefield of sensitive feelings and divergent perspectives so that it projects the many dimensions of traditional plantation systems in ways that inform national visitors while respecting the concerns of all Magnolia families.

In the future, the NPS might consider periodically conducting focus groups with plantation owners, former tenants, former sharecroppers, and other interested groups to explore and test potential interpretive approaches to slavery or other topics. Hosting a workshop on the public interpretation of slavery in concert with other private and public plantation parks experienced in addressing the issues could be useful. Magnolia staff may also keep contact with local groups as well as the public by making available a section for comments on their web page.

Strong local interest in the park coupled with ethnic diversity would make it beneficial to develop separate alliances and formal agreements with Creole of color, white, and black groups. The benefits would include development of cooperative interpretive or other programs that incorporate local expertise, give the park regular access to community views, and enhance interactions with local groups. Alliances might be a mechanism for disseminating information on employment. Separate alliances with St. Andrew Missionary Baptist Church and St. Augustine Catholic Church or St. John the Baptist Catholic Church, the Black Heritage Society, or the Louisiana Creole Heritage Center at NSU, could make knowledgeable partners available. Contact with the Hertzogs presently occurs through activities associated with the National Heritage Area and Magnolia itself, but the park might find it useful to expand its networks through a small informal discussion group that included the Prud’hommes of Oakland and other local plantation owners.

The park might treat June 19th as a time for workshops, storytelling, or other events generally related to the transformation of agricultural systems and rural community life from the Civil War through mechanization. Melrose has its Arts and Crafts festival, Creoles of color in Upper Cane River have their heritage celebrations, individual plantations in the Heritage Area participate in special country tours, and American Indian powwows are held at Fort St. Jean Baptiste. No rural site is known to mark June 19th as symbolizing the end of slavery and the start of the long process of transforming the nation and its peoples.

Informational brochures for visitors, including one on the etiquette of visiting Cane River and interacting with area residents, might consider ethnicity as different local groups perceive it. Interactive computer programs might be developed to raise and answer questions on local ethnicity, agricultural production, horse racing, and the like. Another pragmatic step to meet local concerns about tourism impacts, yet not inappropriately involve the National Park Service in politically sensitive development issues, might be to co-sponsor workshops on community based preservation and gateway communities, perhaps with speakers from selected gateway communities.

One useful interpretive approach to demonstrating Magnolia’s social dynamics and acknowledging the essential role of black labor families would be to portray the lives of selected families whose past is intimately associated with Magnolia. No doubt the Hertzog family history will be a prominent part of the Magnolia story; the story of families, such as Ms. Lizzie’s and the Verchers', should be told alongside it.

Cane River Creole NHP in general and Magnolia in particular help further traditional National Park Service values of protecting resources and educating the public about nationally important sites, structures, natural features, and landscapes. On the other hand, the park also enjoys uniquely unprecedented opportunities to highlight these resources in human terms. Identifying the ethnographic dimensions of these resources by giving visibility to the meanings assigned by Magnolia’s ethnic/class groups will deepen and enrich the Cane River story. Drafting the content of interpretive programs in collaboration with French Creole and other whites, black people, and Creoles of color will demonstrate respect for their perspectives about the pasts and the messages they wish to convey to visitors to a park that once was, and for some still is, home.

It is important to recall that the park is embedded in a larger context. It includes the entire Magnolia plantation with its sharecropper area and the St. James AME church and its partner, St. Andrew. These places might not appear in formal Cultural Landscape reports and may be unmarked by historic plaques, although places such as the former AME Church deserve official notice. Life in the quarters was not tenable – nor did it occur – without relationships with people and at places beyond its boundaries. Cloutierville, Derry, and other resources in the National Heritage Area are important parts of the plantation community and story. A vision of community that is broad enough to include these places and relationships is imperative to telling the Magnolia, or better yet, the Cane River story.

Finally, despite its brevity, this ethnographic work had penetrated certain social boundaries deeply enough to highlight local people, views, and resources that might have otherwise eluded attention. One resulting pragmatic lesson is that cultural anthropology or ethnography, as it is known in NPS, can go where other research strategies do not and, with community cooperation, bring planners’ insights into the concerns of people whose intimate knowledge of the resources is unmatchable.

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