River Road African American Museum celebrates 19th Year Anniversary

Staff Writer
Donaldsonville Chief

Over the past nineteen years the River Road African American Museum has become one of America’s most recognized institutions dedicated to the preservation of African American history and culture. The mission of the Museum is to collect, preserve, and interpret art, artifacts, and buildings for the purpose of educating visitors about the history and culture of African Americans in the rural communities between Baton Rouge and New Orleans, Louisiana.

The idea of a museum depicting the lives of enslaved and free people of color manifested after founder, Kathe Hambrick-Jackson returned to her native Louisiana from California in 1991. In her spare time, Hambrick-Jackson visited plantations along the Mississippi River between Baton Rouge and New Orleans where tour guides described plantation life. The narratives seldom, if at all, mentioned the enslaved Africans who were vital to the success of this region. Stories about the African American culture were simply not discussed. These omissions motivated Hambrick-Jackson to discover how these workers lived and survived under the plantation system.

Hambrick-Jackson began researching the history of the area to learn more about the lives of the plantation workers. This research yielded a more realistic view of how they lived, but more importantly, provided insight on how they used their experiences to evolve into contributing, self-sufficient, free citizens within their communities. Hence, the concept for the River Road African American Museum was conceived.

Hambrick-Jackson approached the owners of the Tezcuco Plantation and asked if they would provide vacant space to house the museum. The community helped establish the museum collection by generously donating family documents, artifacts, photographs, maps, art, and eventually buildings. The River Road African American Museum (RRAAM) opened its doors on March 12, 1994, as a tribute to the hundreds of African Americans who worked on plantations in the rural area known as “sugarcane country”. On Mothers' Day 2002, the Tezcuco Plantation was engulfed by flames, destroying the 4,500 square-foot main plantation house. The Museum’s collection was spared, albeit, the owners of Tezcuco decided not to rebuild. Subsequently, in 2003, the Museum relocated to its current home in historic Donaldsonville after Motiva Enterprises purchased the old plantation property.

The Museum was incorporated as a 501(c) (3) non-profit organization and is led by its founder and current director, and an eleven-member Board of Directors and contributes to the cultural, educational, and economic development in the rural Mississippi River parishes of Louisiana. It is designated as one of America’s top ten African American Museums by American Legacy Magazine and is listed as one of the first attractions on the Louisiana African American Heritage Trail.

The Museum serves approximately 5,000 local, national, and international visitors annually, representing a fifty-percent decrease from 10,000 visitors before Hurricanes Katrina, Rita, and Gustav struck the area. These figures match decreased tourism experienced by New Orleans and surrounding areas. As New Orleans tourism has improved, Baton Rouge and surrounding communities receive more traditional leisure tourists, as reported in the Louisiana Tourism Forecast 2009 -2013, a study by the University of New Orleans, Hospitality Research Center and the Louisiana State University, Division of Economic Development. The same report projects that tourism should return to pre-2005 disaster levels by 2013. As such, government funding was diverted from the Museum to address infrastructure projects designed to revitalize industries most affected by the hurricanes.

The Museum has grown from a one-room entity in 1994 to five buildings, a Jazz Plaza and a Freedom Garden. The River Road African American Museum has evolved over the years from a major tourist attraction for the State of Louisiana to an educational and cultural center for the community. Most importantly, the Museum is highly regarded as a cultural resource for historical documentation and research.

Prior to funding cuts, the Museum had four full-time employees. Presently, the Museum is staffed by the founder/director and a cadre of volunteers. Consequently, the Museum has had to suspend its after school tutoring program known as the RRAAMSCHOOL. The Museum is seeking funding through the tireless efforts of the Board of Directors and the Executive Director to support the general operations, the restoration of a Rosenwald School and surrounding landscape on Williams and Lessard Street, the community garden referred to as the Freedom Garden, construction of the Leonard Julien Cane Planter Pavilion; and, to restore educational programming and staffing.

Message from the Director

The River Road African American Museum is an important anchor in this community as demonstrated by more than 19 years of continuous operation. No collection of artifacts, buildings and historical documents of this magnitude have been amassed that are dedicated solely to the contributions of African Americans regarding plantation life in the State of Louisiana or elsewhere in the United States. As noted previously, the Museum is regarded highly as a leading authority in this category of historical research and preservation.

The Museum provides cultural and educational programs that improve the quality of life for those of us who live in the rural river parishes. Our ability to attract a steady stream of local, national, and international visitors contributes to the economic impact and tourism in the rural communities along the Mississippi River.

We want to thank the many churches, individuals, other non-profit organizations, small businesses and industry leaders for your support over the years. We look forward to future collaborations as prepare for our 20th anniversary in 2014.

Kathe Hambrick Jackson, M.A., Executive Director; Darryl Gissel, Board President; Rev, Ernest Marcelle, Jr. Board Vice Pres; Alyce Julien Robinson, Secretary; Florence Dumas, Treasurer;At Large Board Members: Mica Foti-Landry, Marion Ceaser, Darryl Hambrick, Co-founder; Harold Hambrick, Jr., Co-founder; Leo Caillier, Jr.; Trina Moll and Glenda K. Parks, Development Chair.