Celebrating 22 years of black resilience

Briana Brownlee Special to The Donaldsonville Chief
The River Road African American Museum.

The River Road African American Museum (RRAAM) started as a vision to tell the stories of the black slaves who worked on plantations in south Louisiana, but over the past 22 years, the RRAAM has expanded to also tell the stories of freedom, resilience and reconciliation.

Kathe Hambrick-Jackson, inspired to be the voice of the people who provided the slave labor to sugarcane plantations in Ascension Parish, spent three years researching before opening the non-profit museum. Her research showed her the wider mission of educating the public with the full story of her ancestors’ journey.

When I went on plantation tours, there was no mention of slavery whatsoever,” Hambrick-Jackson said. “They would sometimes refer to the Black people who worked on the plantation as servants or workers.”

RRAAM opened its doors in March 1994 on the Tezcuco Plantation on the east bank of the Mississippi River in Ascension Parish. On Mother’s Day 2002, a fire destroyed the museum and it was relocated to the corner of Railroad Ave. and St. Charles St. in downtown Donaldsonville, where it has remained for the past 13 years.

It’s really been a good thing for us to move here in Donaldsonville, because of the history,” Hambrick-Jackson said.“It is the third oldest city in the state - it was the capitol before Baton Rouge in 1830 - and Donaldsonville had America’s first Black mayor, Pierre C. Landry, elected in 1868.”

RRAAM is filled with artifacts, art, and information that highlights important figures from black history and how they relate to Louisiana, as well as important historic south Louisiana events.

We are a public history institution and it is important that this museum remains open so we can clarify the difference between fact and fiction, and teach the next generation no matter what their ethnic background is,” Hambrick-Jackson said. “It is important that people around the world know that we as African Americans have made a tremendous contribution to the economy and the cultureof this world and that is what this museum is about.”

A red room is the first thing visitors see when entering the museum. It features the history of the people enslaved in the south Louisiana region. The room showcases famous photos, runaway “wanted” ads, historic artifacts and names of slaves. One photo that stands out is of a Louisiana slave named Gordon. His name isn’t famous, but his picture has become one of the most recognizable and redistributed photos in history. The famous photo of Gordon, taken in Louisiana, has been shown worldwide.

Gordon’s story is really unique, he was a slave in Mississippi who escaped three times,” Hambrick-Jackson said. “He made his way to Baton Rouge and joined the Union Army, and it was the Union doctors who took the photo that so many of us has become familiar with.”

Hambrick-Jackson said she believed Gordan’s story was special because he was a slave who didn’t travel north, but stayed in the south to become a part of the Louisiana Underground Railroad.

When we think about freedom, resilience, and reconciliation, Gordon is one of those names that needs to be lifted up,” she said.

The yellow room exhibits reconstruction, black inventors, and the musical history of Louisiana.

People do not realize that Madam C.J. Walker was born in Delta, Louisiana,” Hambrick-Jackson said. “One thing we emphasize at this museum is that Madam C.J. Walker was the first female entrepreneur millionaire. She did not inherit the money,and she did not marry the money, she made the money on her own by building her own enterprises at the time when we did not have telephones or fax machines. She hired more than 2,000 women around the world.”

Hambrick-Jackson added that Walker’s story helps accentuate the freedom message the museum portrays.

The final room showcases famous black rural doctors.

If you look at these exhibit as you leave the museum, we often ask the question how did these men make it to medical school and graduate one generation out of slavery.” Hambrick-Jackson said. “Certainly, if those men could make it to medical school one generation out of slavery, there is nothing young people can’t achieve today."