When the Banner family sought shelter from Hurricane Ida that was roaring across the Gulf, they looked for the sturdiest building in the tiny community of Wallace, La, where they live. So they decided to ride out the storm in the Big House on the Whitney Plantation.
The Banners are Black. They’ve lived for generations on this rich, alluvial soil beside the Mississippi River, about 50 miles upriver from New Orleans. And they say their enslaved ancestors helped to construct this Creole plantation house 230 years ago for a German planter and slave owner named Jean Jacques Haydel.
As it happens, it was to this white-columned manse that the Banner sisters, Joy and Jo, and their parents, Harriett and William, fled last Sunday.
“Just being back here and going through the experience of being in the hurricane in that house, literally, that was our place of refuge,” Joy Banner says, surveying the grounds that are littered with toppled trees, splintered building material and broken limbs. “It’s really made me appreciate the skill, the craftsmanship of the enslaved people. They were not able to have this kind of house for their own protection when a hurricane hit them.”
The Whitney Plantation is not like the other historic plantations located along the famed River Road that winds along the Mississippi. This acclaimed plantation museum, on what is called the German Coast, was the first in America dedicated to the telling of the slave experience. Joy Banner, who lives a mile and a half away, is communications director here.
She unlocks the padlock and opens a heavy door into the dining room, which is furnished with elegant table settings from that era. It’s sweltering inside from the subtropical heat.
“And this is where we were for 17 hours,” she says, looking around.
At one point, the wailing wind stopped and the family saw the sun and they thought the storm was over. But when the winds picked up again they hurried back to the Big House. The eye of Hurricane Ida passed directly over the Whitney. In fact, St. John the Baptist Parish, where it is located, was among the hardest hit by the Category 4 storm and President Biden visited there on Friday.
“It was just so loud and it sounded like the train was coming through,” says Harriett Banner. “And you looked out and you saw the beautiful trees and they were just all over the place. It was terrifying.”
But they were safe.
Joy Banner runs her palm along the cool plaster that encases the original bricks in the walls that are more than a foot thick.
“This was built in 1791,” she says. “It’s seen hurricanes before. It’s seen (Hurricane) Betsy (in 1965), and now it’s seen Ida, the next biggest storm to hit this parish.”
Her twin sister, Jo, chimes in: “It’s so ironic to run to the Big House. I never imagined as a descendant of the enslaved, that we’d be runnin’ to this house.”
In 1819, sixty-one enslaved African men and women lived and worked on the Whitney Plantation. Workers in the Big House cleaned, hauled water from the cistern, cooked, ironed, served food and drinks to the family, and fanned them while they ate in the stifling heat, according to the Whitney’s website.
The handsome structure, with its broad second-story gallery to catch the river breezes, is considered one of the best examples of decorated wood architecture along River Road. In one room, you can still see the initials of the mistress—”MH”— monogrammed on the ceiling of the parlor.
“As much security and safety as the house provided us,” Joy says, “there’s still the sense of — you don’t belong here, like, the house is not for you.”
Ida caused extensive damage on the Whitney Plantation.
The original slave quarters are still standing, but two sharecropper cabins that were brought onto the property were flattened by the ferocious winds. The double rows of massive oak trees fronting the house lost limbs, but survived. The pigeon roosting houses seem to be OK. The stately, white-washed Antioch Baptist Church — which was built by emancipated slaves and moved here from across the river in 1999 — was also heavily damaged. And the storm thrashed the Whitney Store, which operated as late as the 1960s when the plantation was still growing rice and sugar cane commercially.
Harriett Banner believes it wasn’t just the thick walls and cypress shutters that protected them. There’s a tradition in heavily Catholic South Louisiana that when a hurricane is coming, you sprinkle bread that was blessed on St. Joseph’s Day around your house to protect it.
“So I brought my St. Joseph bread and then when I got to the Big House I sprinkled holy water and threw the bread around the house and I kept my rosary in my hand. So I prayed and I said, ‘Lord, it’s in your hands’ and that’s what calmed me down,” she says with a chuckle.
Whitney Plantation has closed for the time being; the management is seeking donations for what will be expensive repairs.
As for the Big House, it lost one of four chimneys, some cedar shingles and a few windows. But it stood strong against the storm just as it was built to.