Traveling Outside the Comfort Zone

February 2, 2022
Canisius students get a sobering look at American history.

On the Laura plantation on the west bank of the Mississippi River, at the end of our guided tour, we were led to some slave cabins. At those cabins, we learned that after the Emancipation Proclamation, many former slaves stayed. However, they were paid in tokens that could only be used at the general store owned by one of the ‘big house’ family members. The tokens that workers were paid rarely amounted to enough money and they were forced to take on debt. The people were not free to leave the plantation until they had bought out their debt, which was passed down by generation. It was revealed that people had still lived in those cabins in the 1970s. My father was already in junior high or high school by that time.

That’s how Matthew Tomasulo ’20 recounts his visit to Louisiana’s Laura plantation during a class field trip. Built in the early 19th century, the property was originally owned by Guillaume Duparc, a French naval veteran who had fought in the American Revolution. Today it’s a historic site that honors the region’s Créole heritage.

The Laura plantation was just one stop during a three-day excursion to the Bayou State organized by Dr. Bruce Dierenfield. Dierenfield led Tomasulo and his classmates on the immersion trip as part of a new elective called Plantations, Ghettos, Prisons. Offered through the All-College Honors program, the interdisciplinary course uses readings, multimedia presentations, guest lectures and field trips to highlight the African-American experience from the 18th century to the present. Students studied three successive examples of enforced confinement: the plantations of the antebellum South, the urban ghettos that resulted from black families migrating to northern cities in the 20th century, and the modern carceral state. They also learned about the traditions that have shaped African-American culture.

Plantations, Ghettos, Prisons was created to help students understand the enduring stain of racism through the lens of history. “As a historian who has benefited from ‘white privilege,’ I will, of course, never fully understand the burden of race, but I think it is important to offer carefully conceived courses at Canisius that deal with diversity,” Dierenfield explains.

The Whitney Plantation Museum 

The Louisiana trip included stops at four other former plantations, most notably the Whitney. Built by a family of wealthy German immigrants, the Whitney plantation was once a prosperous sugar cane farm. By late 2014, it had been transformed into a unique museum whose emphasis on slavery immediately set it apart from other historic plantation sites. Rather than showcasing the elegance of the “big house,” the Whitney tells the story behind the property from the perspective of the slaves, not the owners. Museum highlights include two original slave cabins and replicas of additional slave quarters. Detailed artwork and first-person narratives bring the transgressions of the past into sharp focus. Sculptures of children are a haunting memorial to the youngest victims of American slavery. 

Canisius Students Visit a sobering part of american history
A replica of the interior of a slave cabin at the Whitney Plantation Museum (Photo credit: Claire Rosenecker ’21)

Angola Prison

In addition to touring former plantations, the travel group visited the Louisiana State Penitentiary, better known as Angola State Prison. For Meighan Murphy ‘21, it was the guided tour of Angola—the nation’s largest maximum-security prison—that made the deepest impression during the trip. “It was amazing how concerned inmates were with getting an education and how they talked about faith like it was the only thing that allowed them to stay hopeful in their situation,” she explains. 

Guest Speakers and Local History

Guest speakers for the semester-long honors course included Dr. Dan Berger, a professor at the University of Washington, and Dr. Robert Butler, professor emeritus at Canisius. Berger, whose scholarship focuses on mass incarceration, presented a comparative analysis of pre-Civil War slavery and the modern prison system. Butler, who taught English at Canisius for more than 50 years, shared his love of African-American literature.

Local co-curricular activities included visits to the African American Cultural Center, where students took in musical and theatre performances, and the Niagara Falls Underground Railroad Heritage Center. Dierenfield and his students also attended worship service at True Bethel Baptist Church, one of Buffalo’s best-known black churches. 

Honoring Our Jesuit Mission

While it may be one of the newest All-College Honors offerings, the one-semester course exemplifies the traditional foundation of a Jesuit education. Ignatian values such as magis (striving for excellence in the classroom), being for and with others (in the larger society), and cura personalis (respecting each person as a child of God) inform the approach. The goal, according to Dierenfield, is to instill behaviors “that reflect critical thought and responsible action on moral and ethical issues of our day.” 

Murphy, who plans to pursue a career in medicine, is determined to apply the knowledge she gained from the class. “I'd like to be a doctor someday and most of the demographic of people we learned about will probably not have insurance,” she explains. “Also, the black community has had their trust broken by the medical profession before. There is good reason for this distrust, and I'd like to spend my career rebuilding that trust.”

For Dierenfield, a course like Plantations, Ghettos, Prisons reflects his lifelong commitment to scholarship and teaching, even when the lessons are painful and offer no easy answers. “I hope students will see that America's promise of equality for all is far from being fully realized,” he says. “I hope, too, that the students in this course will heed the call of Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, who said, ‘Where you see wrong or inequality or injustice, speak out, because this is your country. This is your democracy. Make it. Protect it. Pass it on.’”