River Road museum fetes 19th anniversary

The River Road African American Museum celebrated its 19th anniversary March 12 with little fanfare, founder Kather Hambrick-Jackson said.

Jackson reflected on the history of the museum, which was moved from Tezcuco Plantation to Donaldsonville in 2003.

While a slowed tourism industry and budget cuts have hampered the museum’s plans in recent years, Hambrick-Jackson said she is optimistic about the museum’s future.

“Over the past 19 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,” she said in a news release.

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, she said.

The idea of a museum depicting the lives of enslaved and free people of color was manifested after 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, she said. 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, she said.

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,” she said.

The owners of the Tezcuco Plantation agreed to house the museum and residents helped establish the museum collection by donating family documents, artifacts, photographs, maps and art, she said.

RRAAM opened its doors on March 12, 1994. 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, but the owners of Tezcuco decided not to rebuild.

The museum relocated in 2003 to its current home in historic Donaldsonville.

The museum operates as a nonprofit organization and is led by its founder and current director, and an 11-member board of directors.

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 50 percent decrease from 10,000 visitors before Hurricanes Katrina, Rita, and Gustav struck the area, she said. The slowdown was part of a statewide problem after the hurricanes, she said.

The museum has grown from a one-room entity in 1994 to five buildings, a Jazz Plaza and Freedom Garden.

RRAAM is seeking funding to support the general operations, the restoration of a Rosenwald School and surrounding landscape on Williams and Lessard Street, the community garden, construction of the Leonard Julien Cane Planter Pavilion; and, to restore educational programming and staffing, she said.

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http://www.africanamericanmuseum.org