Confronting a painful period in American history

About an hour's drive from New Orleans, along the Mississippi River, sits a Civil War-era sugar cane plantation, the first museum in America dedicated entirely to slavery. The Whitney Plantation looms as a stark reminder: Our nation was built on the backs of slaves.

It's a tough part of our history to remember, but one man is investing a fortune to bring it all back to life, CBS News' Michelle Miller reports.

The house is full of secrets; beneath white-washed ceilings, through quiet gardens, a dark history unfolds. Tourists peer into cages where slaves were beaten. Statues of black children stare back at them.

The owner is a New Orleans native, 77-year-old John Cummings.

"Most people operate on ready, aim, fire; I operate on ready, fire and then aim," he said.

Sixteen years ago, the millionaire trial lawyer jumped at the chance to buy the 250-acre plantation without really knowing what he was getting into.

"I got to the slave part, and I saw some of the inventory from successions, and I was looking, 'Man, 40 people just traded like cattle?' And then I discovered the oral histories, and that's when the light when on," he said. "I've's got a great injustice here."

Cummings decided to dedicate the entire plantation to the slave perspective. He spent $8 million of his own money collecting antiques and commissioning art. The vacant Whitney started coming back to life.

"I tell people when they say, 'Why is a white man involved in this?' I say, 'Don't you remember it was a white man that caused all this?" Cummings said.

To give it a voice, Cummings hired Senegalese historian Dr. Ibrahima Seck.

Seck culled diaries and inventories from auction and estate sales. He found more than 100,000 names of slaves traded and sold through the Louisiana territory. Each name is etched into stone walls on the property.

"There is no order, just like it was total confusion in the lives of the slave. You have African names, French names, Spanish names," Seck said.

Next to those names are the narratives of the slaves themselves.

"Doesn't mean much, but we make them talk," Seck said. "It's a way for us to give them voice because these people were voiceless people."

One of the voiceless, the powerless, was a slave girl named Anna, who had a child named Victor. Victor was born a slave, but records show he's the son of her white slave owner's brother.

Victor's great-granddaughter, Sybil Morial, 82, said her family didn't talk about that part of the past.

"I don't know if it was shame. Or, maybe, they were trying to save us. They didn't want to inflict that sad story on us," she said. "But it was sort of affirmed that my slavery ancestry was real, and it was only three generations ago."

Morial only recently learned of her direct lineage, of her connection to the Whitney and of Victor's legacy beyond slavery.

"He bought land and farmed it, so he overcame that life. And then, the next generation did better. And the next generation did better. And then, it's my generation: educated, successful," she said.

Morial was a civil rights worker, a college vice president and the first black first lady of New Orleans.

But Miller already knew that -- she married Morial's son, Marc.

Morial feels she gave her family the ancestry "in color." Now, Miller's children know that their great-great-great-great-grandmother was an African slave.

Knowing can be freeing, but most often, at the Whitney, it is painful. One of the last sights are sculpted heads, replicas of 60 men beheaded for their role in a local slave revolt more than 200 years ago.

Cummings wants people to realize we aren't that far removed.

"You look at the paper, and you'll see that some militant group has decapitated a French journalist. We all wonder, what kind of barbarians could do that? We did that. Americans, we did that. Americans with white skin we did that," Cummings said.

He said he would only feel guilty if he wasn't doing what he's doing right now.

"Over half of the people who come in here cry," Cummings said.

Cummings said he still does too.

"And proud of it. It affects me. The injustice is there. You really can't do anything about it, to change it, but maybe you can change some of the effects of it, and that's what I think I'm doing," Cummings said.

"Owning" the history, he said, can do that.

Perhaps Cummings' most important point is that we are still living with the effects of slavery: poverty, illiteracy and crime. And if we understand that history, then we can move beyond it by working to get more people educated. In his mind, knowledge is how you end the cycle of slavery.