Way back in the 1700’s someone planted two rows of oak trees in land facing the Mississippi River. More than a hundred years later Jacque Roman, a wealthy French Creole, saw the avenue created by those trees and purchased the land to build a mansion for his wife and a plantation as a business. The estate that he created would one day become known as Oak Alley and it stands today as a reminder of a controversial time in our nation’s history.
Jacque Roman was a handsome, wealthy and well educated fellow who grew up in the French Quarter of New Orleans. He was considered a promising catch for some fortunate young lady. He thought that he had found the woman of his dreams when he saw Celine, a high spirited soul who lit up drawing rooms and parties wherever she went. Jacque was as shy as Celine was outgoing, but he impressed her with his gentlemanly devotion to her. They married and he promised to one day create a magnificent home for her. Thus he knew that he had found just the place when he saw those elegant oaks.
Jacque started his sugarcane business first. He added more than a hundred fifty slaves to those who came with the land. He paid top dollar for some of them and even sent one to France to train as a chef for the time when Jacque would bring Celine to his dream house. He thought of every little detail that might make her happy and indeed when she first set eyes on the place she was overwhelmed. Sadly her joy was not long lived. She birthed six children in seven years. She had to watch three of them die from diseases like yellow fever and tuberculosis that were the norm for plantation life. It was a sad lifestyle for a social butterfly like Celine. The only people around for miles and miles were Jacque’s relatives with whom she had little in common. Her dislike for them only grew to total disdain as the tedium overtook her once delightful personality. She came more and more to hate the plantation and the dreary routine that her husband had created for her.
When news came that Celine’s mother had died and that her father needed help raising her younger siblings she jumped at the opportunity to leave the plantation. She took her remaining children with her to New Orleans and her visits to her husband grew farther and farther apart until she was no longer even pretending to want to go back to what had been a home built just for her. She made one final visit when Jacque was dying from tuberculosis. After that she attempted to run the plantation from afar racking up huge debts from her profligate spending habits. By the time that her eldest son took over the plantation was mostly in ruins and the Civil War would sound its death knell.
Celine and Jacque’s three children abandoned the family estate. One of the girls lost her left leg in a terrible accident and with no prospects of marriage after becoming disabled she entered a Carmelite convent. The other daughter lead a rather mundane life with a husband and four children. The son was a successful businessman but had to sell the plantation at a huge loss which barely covered the family’s debts.
The house itself languished in ruins until the nineteen twenties. By then the roof had caved in and animals roamed freely through the once elegant rooms. The Italian marble floors were broken and it seemed as though the old place was destined to be destroyed but for a woman from south Texas who had met and married a wealthy New Orleans businessman by the name of Stewart who had promised her that when he retired he would purchase a farm or ranch for her. When the time came Mrs. Stewart became enchanted with the idea of resurrecting the old structure. With an investment double the price of the property the house was renovated and made more modern. Mrs. Stewart brought cattle and horses to the land. She lived happily in the house until the nineteen seventies. She had no children and fearing that her heirs might neglect the estate, Mrs. Stewart created a foundation to care for the antebellum home in perpetuity. Today it stands as a reminder of a time long ago, open to visitors seven days a week.
The story of Jacque and Celine was touching but my feelings for them were offset when I walked to the area that would have once held the slave quarters. The names of the people who built and cared for the house and the land are listed on a wall. They are souls with only first names whose dignity and freedom were stripped from them without regard to their humanity. There were implements of punishment and torture on view. Chains and shackles that were used to hold and torture them. There were copies of letters in which Jacque gave his overseer instructions on how to imprison and punish disobedient slaves. Somehow those very clear words erased the pity that I had felt for this man who was making millions of dollars off of the free labor of two hundred souls. I imagined them living in cramped quarters without heat. I thought of how oppressive it must have been for them in the summer when the humidity was at one hundred percent and the mosquitoes were swarming. The contrast with the way that they were forced to live versus the members of the Roman family was heartbreaking.
One of the things that most struck me was the irony that Jacque thought enough to have his slaves baptized in the Catholic church but he did not see the immorality of his actions toward them. On the one hand he saw them as God’s people but on the other hand he considered them his possessions. He carefully recorded their names and the prices that he paid for them in a ledger. His handwriting was neat and precise and without feeling of any sort. They were simply part of the inventory of his possessions. While they served his every need, he was inside his elegant mansion with ice transported in barrels from the north to the tune of three hundred pounds each week. Somehow I began to feel that his estrangement from his wife and his family’s ultimate downfall was a kind of karma.
I realize that it was a different time. Slavery was legal and very much the rule in both the north and the south. The slaves were the human engines who drove the economic machines. Somehow the vast majority of people had convinced themselves that what they were doing was just, but the fact is that the abolitionists were already quite active when Jacque first decided to build his plantation. He would have heard their calls for emancipation but obviously ignored their arguments. It would take many more years for a war to break out between the states that would ultimately become a means of freeing the slaves. Sadly amidst all of the splendor of the remarkable home there is a stain that somehow can never be erased. Perhaps touring this place should remind us of our own duties to speak up for the rights of those who have no voices for themselves. We will all ultimately be judged by history. Let us hope that we will be on the right side.