Late in the evening, I was in the backyard with friends and one commented about HouseZilla behind us – the renovation gone awry, which led us to talk about the Spanish Custom House being renovated one house over on the bayou. One called it the “plantation house” and said under her breath, “you know I wouldn’t be living in a plantation” followed by an acknowledgement from my other friend. That moment marked the glaring divide between how people perceive the artifacts of our history. I remember when the Spanish Custom House was going on the auction block, I had dreams of buying and restoring it. I didn’t consider it a plantation house, but the plaque on the front gate says it is one. Remarkable how my eye skips over that detail each time I pass the house, which is frequently, and a one-time pass by my friends spotted it right away.
It’s called perception, and when it comes to history, white perception is skewed towards a favorable and romantic story of the past. I woke to read an article in the New York Times about an Edisto Island slave cabin that is being moved to the African American Museum slated to open on the National Mall in 2015. I don’t need to add that a national African American history museum is not going to be on the Mall until 2015. “Edisto Island is home to two of the nation’s oldest slave cabins, dating to the 1850s — vestiges of what was once an entire village for field workers at the Point of Pines Plantation. Black families lived in the wood-sided, two-room houses, without electricity or heating, until the 1980s.” It’s mind boggling to think that at one point there were 50,000 plantations in full operation in the United States, mostly in the South.
It got me thinking about Kathe Hambrick and our recent visit to the River Road African American Museum, which was obscured by a sad ending to an otherwise enlightened day. Hambrick started the museum in an annex at Tezcuco Plantation, after touring one too many plantations when she returned home from California and encountering no interpretation of slavery, African American life or their contribution to the history of this area.
Tezcuco welcomed 100,000 visitors a year before a fire consumed it in 2002. The River Road African American Museum has since moved to its own location in Donaldsonville and is slowly but surely growing to encompass a broader interpretation than originally conceived but it still only averages 5,000 visitors per year (including another 5,000 through outreach).
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.
The museum houses an impressive range of artifacts from domestic items to the recreation of the box that Henry Brown used to ship himself to freedom. The tour touches on topics about Free People of Color, Influences on Cuisine, Rural Roots of Jazz, River Road Black Doctors, Louisiana Black Inventors, Folk Artists, Louisiana Underground Railroad, Reconstruction, Plantation Education and Slave Inventories.
Every inch of wall space is filled in the museum, and so it has begun to spread outside with an original Rosenwald schoolhouse moved across the Mississippi river (a feat in and of itself!) and in need of restoration. Rusting outside is an International Harvester tractor converted to the task of planting sugar cane – also in need of restoration and preservation. It was invented by planter and inventor Leonard Julien Sr. Julien in 1964 and it greatly shortened the task of planting sugar cane. “Not only was he an inventor, but he was also a talented musician and well-respected in his community.” And he is the grandfather of Epaul Julien, with whom a conversation about resources for parenting children who don’t match their parents evolved into this site.
Hambrick has done a lot in 19 years to build a foundation to tell the stories of African Americans whose lives contributed richly to the history and culture of this area. Her collection not only rivals, but I dare say exceeds the New Orleans African American Museum in its comprehensive collection and interpretation. But it is the spirit in which she has staked her and others history firmly into the landscape that is truly remarkable.
The New Orleans D Day Museum has attracted 3.4 million people since it opened in 2000, I wonder (aloud) what effect 3.4 million people visiting the collective African American Museums would have on the understanding of New Orleans by outsiders; I wonder what effect it would have on insiders too. We made a plan on the drive home to visit another Louisiana African American museum – Hammond is our next stop – and then maybe Monroe – but I’ve already decided that there will be no plantation tour for my out-of-town guests that does not include a trip to Donaldsonville as long as I am an ambassador of this city.
My perception is changing minute to minute. When I began speaking to my son about slavery, I had to understand that this country that I love has a very complicated history – and none of it is is easy to digest. Most people who came to the United States were oppressed, and when you are oppressed you either heal or your wounds harden and you become the oppressor. Our forefathers chose the latter path unfortunately, and built their wealth on the strong backs of African slaves. None of these facts are easy to accept, for anybody, but if the people who were hurt are allowed to tell their story and are heard, there is a great chance for healing. It’s the silence that is numbing.
As I’ve said before, it’s a drop of water that has the greatest force.