DONALDSONVILLE, LA (WAFB) - We didn’t have to go far to uncover a few pieces of history. Right in our backyard in Donaldsonville is a museum that’s seen its fair share of heartache, but their mission to share stories is unwavering. This museum is connecting families with the past and encouraging young people to take more of an interest in their ancestry.
As you make your way into Donaldsonville, Louisiana, you eventually walk into a place that'll take you to the past.
“Did you know that the very first African American mayor of the entire United States was the mayor of the City of Donaldsonville in 1868?” said Melanie R. Victorian, ambassador for the River Road African American Museum. It’s a place of richness.
“She was the very first self-made female millionaire,” Victorian said as she gestures toward a picture of Madam C.J. Walker, an entrepreneur.
“The kitchen is a collection of varied artifacts,” Victorian said. The kitchen is one of four rooms in the museum.
“It depicts the African influence on the food ways and the multi-fusion of cultures,” she added.
Years of the African American experience are packed in those four walls, known as the River Road African American Museum, but creating a sense of comfort for those wanting to know more about African American history didn’t come with ease.
In fact, this is the museum’s second home. It launched back in 1994 in a small building at the Tezcuco Plantation in Darrow after they noticed a portion of the storytelling during a tour was missing.
"They talked about the furniture,” said Darryl T. Hambrick, interim director of the museum. “They talked about the people that lived in the house, the big house.”
But Hambrick says they didn’t talk about the people that tilled the land and harvested the crops: the slaves.
“Those were the stories that were being left out and we thought that was an important part of history that needed to be told,” Hambrick said.
Hambrick says it was a struggle to get the community engaged, seeing an ancestor’s name on a bill of sale hit home for some, but suddenly, they were hit with a chance for change. In 2002, the big house burned down. The museum was in a different building, so their collections weren’t damaged. However, the museum was forced to find a new home, making the move somewhat rewarding.
“A lot of the history that revolved around this entire community was connected to Donaldsonville,” Hambrick says.
An old house located on Charles Street in Donaldsonville turned into a new home for the museum. It takes on the responsibility of submerging the community with facts, while showing them how African Americans have a hand in just about everything.
“Can you imagine being taken from a place where you had access to things that you love and then being placed where you didn’t have access to any of that?” asked Hambrick.
Hambrick says many African Americans were pioneers in education, music, and culinary arts. During a tour of the museum, Victorian explained that Leonard Julian was the inventor of the first sugarcane planting machine. Victorian also noted that Plas John Johnson Jr., a saxophonist widely known as the soloist on The Pink Panther theme is from Donaldsonville. She says oftentimes, people enter the museum with multiple questions concerning African Americans, along with an air of uncertainty about slavery, but that they leave with a wealth of knowledge.
“It has opened the eyes of many to, unfortunately, what has been eradicated or erased from our history because slavery is a part of America’s history,” she said.
“Sometimes, we have people that come with original, authentic documents that are signed and have been in their families for many years and they go, ‘Here, we want you to be the keeper of our jewels.’” Hambrick said. “Here in Louisiana, we’re sitting in a place that’s undiscovered.”
For the last 25 years, the River Road African American Museum is still on that same mission to uncover hidden history and encourage the community to do the same.
“Most museums you go in, you can’t touch, you can’t talk,” Hambrick added. “But when you come here, conversation begins, dialogue begins.”
Victorian says that shift in the conversation is dynamic. “It’s a life-changing commission,” she said.
“Some people are called to be ministers, some people are called to be doctors,” Hambrick said. “This has become not my job, not my hobby, it’s not something I do just because I like history. It is my passion.”
Hambrick and Victorian say the museum has become a directive to make sure this portion of history is captivated in Donaldsonville.