Public slave auction, 1965. A print from The Slave Trade and its Abolition, edited by John Langdon-Davies, Jonathan Cape, London, 1965. (Photo by The Print Collector/Print Collector/Getty Images)

The myths about slavery that still hold America captive

Updated 1:27 PM ET, Sat October 2, 2021

(CNN)At first, Clint Smith had trouble making out the objects beside a white picket fence in the distance. Then he drew closer; what he saw made him shudder.

Planted in a garden bed in front of the fence were the heads of 55 Black men impaled on metal rods, their eyes shut and jaws clenched in anguish.
Smith, a journalist and a poet, was visiting the Whitney Plantation in Louisiana as part of his quest to understand the impact of slavery in America. He had spent four years touring monuments and landmarks commemorating slavery across America and in Africa, but his stop at the Whitney, in his home state, stood out.
Author Clint Smith: "America has a lot of accounting to do for what it has done to different groups of people."
There he encountered no mint juleps or "Gone with the Wind" nostalgia about slavery. Instead, the plantation displayed statuettes of impoverished, emaciated Black children. Oral histories included an account from an enslaved woman who recalled how her master would come at night to rape her sister and "den have de nerve to come round de next day and ask her how she feel."
The plantation's harrowing centerpiece, though, was what made Smith stop in his tracks. The severed heads were ceramic sculptures -- a memorial to the largest slave rebellion in US history. In 1811 some 500 slaves, led by a mixed-race slave driver named Charles Deslondes, marched through Louisiana in military formation before federal troops captured them. Their leaders were tortured and beheaded, with their heads posted on stakes as a warning to other slaves.