Museum hindered by lack of funds

After 13 years on the drawing board, a civil rights museum in New Orleans appears to be far from becoming a reality in Louisiana.

“Right now, given the fiscal condition of the state, I don’t think it’s going to become a priority,” Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne said.

The pace of the project frustrates former state Sen. Diana Bajoie, who originally pitched the museum to the Legislature in 1999.

Bajoie, D-New Orleans, introduced legislation establishing the Louisiana Civil Rights Museum as the state’s official civil rights museum. The museum was supposed to take responsibility for the “collection, preservation, and exhibition of archives, books, charts, documents, maps, records and other artifacts relative to the evolution, development, and history of civil rights in Louisiana.”

Louisiana has a rich civil rights history. Chapters include:

  • The 1953 boycott over seating restrictions on Baton Rouge buses. The boycott came two years before Rosa Parks refused to yield her seat to a white passenger on a bus in Montgomery, Ala.
  • New Orleans was the birthplace of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, a civil rights organization brought to prominence by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
  • In 1960, 6-year-old Ruby Bridges integrated an all-white school in New Orleans.

“It’s a story that needs to be told and we need to preserve the history,” Bajoie said.

Before leaving the Legislature, Bajoie tried to revive the project in 2004 by requiring an annual report of the museum operations and management. A museum board was established.

However, a lack of funding continues to stall the project.

Building a state museum generally requires obtaining money in the state construction budget, which the governor largely controls.

The civil rights museum has obtained $900,000 in construction money, or capital outlay, money over the years, some of which has been spent on a feasibility study.

Former Gov. Kathleen Blanco and Gov. Bobby Jindal scrapped millions more dollars that legislators tried to secure for the project. Most recently, Jindal nixed a $75,000 cash line of credit for the museum.

Some museum board members seem reluctant to talk about the project.

State Sen. Karen Peterson, D-New Orleans, declined to return calls over a three-week period about the museum’s progress. Another board member, Nolan Rollins with the Urban League of Greater New Orleans, did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

The museum’s only employee, Turry Flucker, quit earlier this year. Dardenne said he does not plan to replace Flucker.

Dardenne said the feasibility study suggested several sites in New Orleans’ museum corridor for the civil rights museum. The problem, he said, is that acquiring land and building a museum takes money.

The National World War II Museum in New Orleans is a privately held attraction that sometimes attracts state dollars. The Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame in Natchitoches took years to build.

“It’s not easy to get capital outlay dollars,” Dardenne said.

Currently, the state is strapped for cash. The governor recently made mid-year budget cuts that included curtailing funding for hospice services. State parks are dipping into a maintenance fund to operate. The Jindal administration said repair money will have to come, as needed, out of the state construction budget.

“I don’t expect this to be going forward in the capital outlay system anytime soon,” Dardenne said.

Bajoie said that is a shame.

She said she wants to preserve the state’s civil rights history for future generations. “As long as some of us are still living, we can provide institutional knowledge,” Bajoie said.