River Road African American Museum honored during Black History Month

Michael Tortorich
River Road African American Museum Board Chair Todd L. Sterling and acting Executive Director and Co-Founder Darryl Hambrick receive a certificate of appreciation from Donaldsonville Mayor Leroy Sullivan Feb. 25 at City Hall.

Donaldsonville Mayor Leroy Sullivan recognized the contributions of the River Road African American Museum in conjunction with Black History Month.

Todd L. Sterling, the museum’s board chair, and Darryl Hambrick, acting executive director and co-founder of the museum, were among museum representatives welcomed to City Hall for the Feb. 25 presentation. Hambrick also serves as funeral director for Hambrick Family Mortuary in Gonzales.

“As many of you know, we have been celebrating Black History Month profiles all month during February,” the mayor said during his live program. “Today, we conclude our special profiles by featuring the River Road African American Museum for the efforts of their founders, directors, and past and current board members.”

The City of Donaldsonville’s Director of Community and Economic Development, Lee Melancon, contributed to the Black History Month profiles.

Co-founder Kathe Hambrick sparked the idea for the museum back in 1991. After returning to Louisiana from southern California, she spent her spare time visiting plantations along the Mississippi River parishes between New Orleans and Baton Rouge.

At the time, guides seldom, if at all, mentioned the contributions of enslaved people. The omissions of African Americans drove her to research the history of life in the rural communities along the river.

The museum’s initial collection began with help from the community, as families offered documents, artifacts, photographs, maps, and art. 

RRAAM opened its doors March 12, 1994 at the site of Tezcuco Plantation on the eastbank of Ascension Parish.

“She was proud to say that the museum was started initially without any public funds. It was just an idea and a drive to show that history was important to the economic and cultural development of this great nation,” Sullivan said.

This month, the museum celebrates its 27th anniversary after welcoming thousands of visitors in-person and virtually from around the world. 

Educational exhibits include: Rural Black Doctors, Louisiana Black Inventors, Freedom’s Journey on the Louisiana Underground Railroad, the Freedom Garden, The Rural Roots of Jazz, and African Influences on Louisiana Cuisine.

“Since the beginning, co-founder, past Executive Director and board member emeritus Kathe Hambrick has committed herself to the belief that ‘You can’t know where you’re going until you know where you’ve been,’ and this philosophy still holds true some 27 years later,” the mayor said.

The 4,500 square-foot Tezcuco Plantation was destroyed by a fire May 12, 2002. Fortunately, the museum’s collection was spared.

Though the owner of Tezcuco decided not to rebuild on the property, the museum was able to find a new home in the historic district of Donaldsonville at 406 Charles St., adjacent to City Hall and Bicentennial Plaza.

“The museum’s relocation to Donaldsonville is significant in that it now incorporates the stories and unique history and landmarks of the Donaldsonville area, which once was the capital of Louisiana,” Sullivan said. 

The core philosophy remains: More than just a slavery museum, it is an institution of freedom, resilience, and reconciliation.

The museum has added many exhibits including: Purchased Lives: The American Slave Trade from 1808 to 1865, African Influences on LA Cuisine, the Rural Roots of Jazz, Rural Black Doctors and Folk Artists, the Freedom Garden and Louisiana’s Underground Railroad, Louisiana During Reconstruction, and its collection of noteworthy historic buildings including Brazier House circa 1890s, the Central Agricultural Schoolhouse, a Rosenwald School Building, the True Friends Hall, Dr. John H. Lowery Medical Office, the Slave Inventories, Free People of Color, and Louisiana Black Inventors.

Sterling said he and those affiliated with the museum appreciated the recognition they have received. He invited the public to visit the museum virtually during the pandemic.

“Once COVID settles down, come and see all of the exciting things we have going on,” Sterling said.

Darryl Hambrick also thanked the city for the honor, and for being a part of their success.

“A lot of things we’ve been able to do happened right here in this great city,” Hambrick said.

For more information, see aamuseum.org.