African Influences on LA Cuisine
In this exhibit, we explore the origin of various foods, which have become a part of American cuisine. Many of the foods referred to as soul food are influenced by the crops and preparation methods carried over to the new territory in Louisiana by the enslaved Africans.
Like the gumbo for which it is famous, South Louisiana cuisine has been influenced by the African presence of spices, vegetables, and grains. Sometimes called Creole or Cajun, the food is a rich blend of African, French, and Spanish cultures. Preparation methods and traditions have been greatly influenced by the Africans; it was sometimes the black hand in the pot which made the food interesting and unique to Louisiana culture.
Rural Roots of Jazz
Although New Orleans is known as the birthplace of Jazz, a lesser-known fact is that many African American performing artists hailed from or were born in the river parishes: Ascension, Assumption, St. James, St. Charles and St. John. Trace the roots of Jazz through its rural beginnings by exploring local musicians such as:
Joe King Oliver was Louis Armstrong’s mentor. Oliver was born in Abend, Louisiana in 1885, a mile or two down river from Donaldsonville.
Plas Johnson played the slinking intro to Henry Mancinis’ “Pink Panther” theme. This Donaldsonville native has played a standard part of the orchestral recordings with Nat King Cole, Peggy Lee, and Frank Sinatra. www.plasjohnson.com
Bill Summers grew up in Ascension Parish. Summers is internationally recognized for his work on Emmy Award winning television series Roots, The Wiz, and The Color Purple.
Other entertainment greats from the rural area include Claiborne Williams, Billy Kersand, Papa Celestine, Worthia “Showboy” Thomas, Ernie Kato, Kid Ory, Fats Domino, and hundreds of others. Look for the future exhibit on the rural roots of jazz designed for the True Friends Benevolent Society Hall.
Rural Black Doctors
Dr. John H. Lowery was a very prominent doctor in Ascension Parish. He was originally from Plaquemine, Louisiana, and he went on to receive a medical degree from New Orleans University in 1894.
Ulysses Grant Dailey was born in Donaldsonville in 1885. Dailey assisted the well-known African American medical expert, Dr. Daniel Hale Williams, with the first successful open heart surgery.
Ernest Nester Ezidore was one of the first students to attend Southern University. Ezidore served both black and white patients during the time of segregation in the St. James parish rural community.
Visit the museum to learn more about Dr. Feaster Dean, Dr. Watkins, Dr. Brazier, and Thelma Wakefield. Each person was born one generation out of slavery, and they became prominent citizens in the rural communities along the Mississippi River.
Rural Folk Artists
Alvin Batiste is a native of Donaldsonville. Batiste began drawing at the age of three, and he has become a world-renowned self-taught artist. Discover the works of this artist who reflects different themes of African American culture and life. Learn more about Batiste at www.alvinbatiste.com.
Malaika Favorite is an acclaimed poet, artist, and author who was born in Geismar, Louisiana. “I learned to do without what I didn’t have and to use what was there.” The River Preacher, painted on an 8’x4’ roof tin, is a featured mixed media work of art in the museum’s collection. Malaika’s art can also be seen at Hambonz in downtown Donaldsonville. To contact Malaika, email malaikafavorite.artspan.com/home.
Michael Smith is known as Louisiana’s “toothpick sculptor.” His Jug of Faith captivates young visitors as they try to figure out his method of sculpting a toothpick church in an uncut wine bottle.
Freedom Garden and Louisiana’s Underground Railroad
In 2001, the River Road African American Museum became a recognized facility and member of The National Park Service’s National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom. The Freedom Garden reveals the history of Louisiana’s Underground Railroad and shows a variety of vegetation that was cultivated through the use of slave labor. Freedom seekers might have used the edible and medicinal plants displayed in this garden as a mechanism of survival while escaping from the plantations in the region. Some of the plants are indigenous to Africa, some were domesticated on the plantations, and many could be found in the wilderness along the bayous, rivers, and swamps.
Learn more about local black elected officials in Ascension Parish in this exhibit about Reconstruction in Ascension Parish. The Reconstruction Period in United States’ history was the process of rebuilding that followed the Civil War. While much has been written about the role of blacks in state governments, little has been said about their role in local governmental affairs.
Pierre “Caliste” Landry was the first elected black mayor of Donaldsonville in 1868.
River Road African American Museum: Brazier House circa 1890’s
The museum moved to this location after the fire at Tazcuco Plantation in 2003. This restored Caribbean-style cottage was once the home of retired teacher and principal, Sylvia Watkins.
Central Agricultural Schoolhouse: Rosenwald School
This Rosenwald school was moved from Convent, Louisiana to Donaldsonville in 2001 by the RRAAM. It will house the museum’s education collection. The four-room cypress building is among America’s most endangered school buildings.
True Friends Hall
The Benevolent Society provided medical and burial insurance for the members, and it was a center of business operations, concerts, plays, dances, and carnival balls. The hall served as a meeting place for black fraternal orders and political organizations. The hall was a venue for musicians, such as Fats Domino, Papa Celestine, and Joe Tex. The upstairs was once used as a school.
Dr. John H. Lowery Medical Office/RRAAM Office
This restored shotgun-style building was the medical office of Dr. John H. Lowery who received his medical degree from New Orleans University in 1894. Dr. Lowery owned the Africa Plantation, a 450-acre sugarcane and rice farm.
Elijah Clark is listed as sickly at the age 46 in this slave inventory from the Houmas Plantation dated 1858. Over 783 people were enslaved in Ascension on this sugarcane plantation. The museum has names of over 5,000 enslaved people from various plantations in Louisiana.
The museum provides leadership in the presentation of issues relevant to South Louisiana’s “Plantation Country.” More importantly, the museum serves as an international resource for genealogical research.
Free People of Color
This exhibit lists the names of hundreds of individuals who either obtained their freedom in Ascension or moved to the parish. The exhibit shows occupation, skill, and property ownership of these free people. The list of names dates back to 1806 when the town of Donaldsonville was founded.
Louisiana Black Inventors
Leonard Julien Sr. was born in 1910 in Modeste, Louisiana. His great love for farming, combined with a lifelong ambition to improve agricultural production, lead to his invention of the sugarcane-planting machine. Learn the amazing story of this incredible inventor and see his actual invention.
Madame C. J. Walker was born in 1867 on a cotton plantation in Delta, Louisiana in Madison Parish, to enslaved parents. She was orphaned at the age of seven, and at the age of twenty, she became America’s first female self-made millionaire. The museum collection includes photographs and original documents from the Madame C.J. Walker Manufacturing Company & Beauty School.