Angola guard tower and cell donated to Smithsonian Institution

Courtesy of the Smithsonian's National Museum of African American History and Culture -- This guard tower at the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola is being moved from the prison to the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of African American History and Culture. Excavation work on the tower so it can be moved will begin Monday.
Courtesy of the Smithsonian's National Museum of African American History and Culture -- This guard tower at the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola is being moved from the prison to the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of African American History and Culture. Excavation work on the tower so it can be moved will begin Monday.

A guard tower and jail cell from the Louisiana State Penitentiary will be hauled from Angola to the National Museum of African American History and Culture, a new Smithsonian branch scheduled for opening in 2015.

The guard tower comes from Angola’s Camp H, while the jail cell hails from the prison’s Camp A.

Angola Warden Burl Cain said Friday that having the items moved to the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., is an honor for the penitentiary and the state.

“Angola is a very historical prison,” he said. “It has a very colorful past, and a very horrible past as well.”

The tower and jail cell are no longer in use and are simply historic objects, said Paul Gardullo, one of the museum’s curators.

Gardullo said museum officials have been working with Angola for the past few years to have some artifacts or structures of the penitentiary brought to the museum.

He said museum officials particularly wanted an item from Angola’s Camp A because it’s the oldest part of the prison. Camp A no longer houses inmates.

The land on which Angola is situated used to be the site of an old plantation. The land was bought by Samuel James, who in 1869 was awarded the lease to run the state’s penitentiary.

James, who had attained the rank of major in the Confederate Army, housed inmates at what used to be old slave quarters, which later became Camp A.

“It was very important for us to try to collect materials from Camp A and talk about the long history of Angola as a former plantation site,” Gardullo said.

Excavation work on the tower is set to begin Monday, said Carlos Bustamante, the project manager for the excavation. Work on moving the jail cell will begin in the fall, possibly in November.

The tower is embedded in a base of concrete, so workers need to cut it from the base before it can be moved.

Crane operators then will load the tower in two pieces onto a semitrailer that will haul it to a storage facility in Kentucky, where the tower will be kept until it is shipped to the museum in October.

The excavation work should take a few days, Bustamante said.

The tower, erected sometime between the 1930s and 1940s, measures about 21 feet tall and about 14 feet wide. Bustamante was not quite sure how much it weighs.

“It’s cast concrete with steel reinforcement inside. It is heavy,” he said.

The jail cell can be moved in smaller components than the tower, so its parts will be stored in crates and moved to a storage facility in Maryland.

The cell will then be reassembled at the museum, said Cathy Fontenot, assistant warden at Angola.

Fontenot said Angola officials wanted to send artifacts to the museum as a way to preserve the prison’s sometimes-harsh history.

“It’s being used as a symbol for what went on in America,” Fontenot said.

Crews will have to build the museum around its artifacts because some of the artifacts, such as the tower, are so large in size, Gardullo said.

The tower will reside in an exhibition focusing on segregation from Reconstruction through the civil rights movement. The jail cell will be kept in an exhibition about places in African-American history.

Gardullo said the tower represents surveillance and discipline methods during eras of Jim Crow and segregation, when the prison population was “so predominantly African-American.”

“This is an important part of American history we should not overlook, and we need to uncover the dark corners of our history,” Gardullo said. “The Smithsonian is a place where people come to see the real thing.”

The museum was chartered in 2003 by President George W. Bush. Officials broke ground for the museum at its National Mall site last year.