LSU Libraries Special Collections is proud to have participated in LSU Discover’s Summer Research Program for the first time this year. Entrusted with Special Collections’ rich repository of resources, two undergraduate participants spent their summers in Hill Memorial Library exploring diverse research and creative projects. Read more about the scholarly endeavors of these groundbreaking students in this two-part series.
From Arlington Plantation to Louisiana State University
Madison Saucier (They/Them)
- Anticipated Graduation: Spring 2024
- Major: History
- Mentor: Alia Kempton, Outreach and Instruction Librarian
The LSU Libraries Special Collections Summer Project Program offered students the opportunity to submit their own project idea or participate in one of three preselected projects including an LSU history walking tour app, documenting enslaved people in Special Collections, or exploring the history of researchers who used their research to benefit social movements of the past. Madison Saucier (they/them) began their project with the intent of identifying registers, lists of names, dates, births, deaths, and locations of enslaved individuals in the LSU Special Collections’ holdings that they would then turn into a database to help other researchers find this information in the future.
However, during Madison’s exploration of the archives, they uncovered information about Arlington Plantation, the people there, and how its land came to be a part of LSU. As a result, they shifted to creating an online research guide focused on the enslaved people of Arlington Plantation and LSU’s ties to the land there.
“The most important thing about this is that it’s going to hold a really important place in this university’s historical narrative,” Madison said. “This type of research can feel really intimidating. So, I’m hoping my online research guide will make the process a little less scary for the people who are looking at these materials after me.”
The story of how Arlington Plantation became an integral part of Louisiana State University’s campus is one that weaves together a tapestry of history, ownership changes, and the evolution of higher education in Louisiana.
Eliza McHatton-Ripley (she/her) was the wife of one of Arlington’s many owners as well as an author and chronicler whose first-person accounts provided Madison with invaluable insights into the plantation’s past. Her writings, housed in Special Collections, offered Madison a glimpse into the lives of the 64 enslaved individuals who toiled on Arlington Plantation circa 1852. Two such persons occupied special places in McHatton-Ripley’s narratives: Charlotte and William, known as “Old Will.” However, their entries in her writings serve as a stark reminder that too often the stories of enslaved people are only ever seen through the perspective of their enslavers. Nonetheless, it was a transformative experience for Madison, as they were given the opportunity to read against the grain to extract the stories of the enslaved from Eliza’s accounts.
“This was the first time that I got to experience physical, primary sources as opposed to digital sources by myself. I feel like this made me a better student and researcher, especially since I’ve gotten so attached to the project,” Madison said.
In the post-Civil War landscape, Arlington transformed into the McHatton Home Colony, one of Louisiana’s four major home colonies. Functioning as centers for formerly enslaved individuals to acclimate to freedom, the formerly enslaved were paid to work on agricultural and other tasks to support themselves and the Union Army—an existence that, while free from slavery, was not entirely free of exploitation.
Early January 1918 marked a pivotal time for LSU when its administration began conversations regarding the expansion of the university. At the time, Louisiana Governor John M. Parker was actively pushing for the expansion of the university’s agricultural program, calling his vision the “Greater Agricultural College,” and felt that former plantation land was the most suitable for this purpose. As a result, between 1920 and 1921, LSU purchased several tracts of land that were formerly part of Arlington Plantation.
Madison’s research into Arlington marks an important convergence of LSU’s history and the rich opportunities for scholarly research it provides to this day. In tracing the trajectory from plantation to esteemed educational institution, Madison’s work illustrates the resilience of the land and the people who lived on it, especially those who have previously gone unacknowledged in scholarship on the subject.