The River Road African American Museum exhibits include Free People of Color; African Influences on Louisiana Cuisine; Rural Roots of Jazz; Black Doctors of the River Road; Louisiana Black Inventors; Folk Artists; Louisiana Underground Railroad; Reconstruction Period; History of Education in Plantation Country and Slave Inventories
Visit the River Road African American Museum and learn about the past in order to understand the future.
Learn about the story of the River Road African American Museum from its beginning to our future plans. Here also you find is our vision/mission statements and a letter from the founder/director of the museum, Kathe Hambrick.
In 1990, Congress directed the Secretary of the Interior, acting through the Director of the National Park Service, to conduct a study of the alternatives for commemorating and interpreting the Underground Railroad and the approximate routes taken by enslaved people escaping to freedom before the conclusion of the Civil War.

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.

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THE PLANTS OF THE PATH TO FREEDOM

Today we have many fruits, vegetables and herbs from around the world, that grow in our area, along roadsides, vacant lots, in the swamps, the woods and small gardens. How many of us would know how to use them for survival? Early Africa people who arrived in America had to be able to identify plants that would be helpful for them to eat and use as medicine. Eating the products from nature, familiar and not familiar, might seem as a hardship for many. But it was the vegetation of the wilderness and seeds sown by many, which provided the sustenance needed for the freedom seekers of the Louisiana Underground Railroad.

 

 
 


 

 

Camphor tree (Cinnamomum camphora)

also known as camphor laurel, is an exotic that has been widely cultivated for more than a century. This is the aromatic tree from which camphor was derived (used in medicines and mothballs). A quick way to identify camphor is to crush some leaves in order to smell the pungent camphor odor.

 

Cattails (Typha latifolia)

The cattail is said to be one of the most important and common wild foods. It has a variety of uses at different times of the year. The plant grows in the marshes, swamps, ditches and stagnant water areas of Louisiana. It was a major staple of the Native Americans.

 

Collards (Brassica oleracea var. ocephala)

One of the earliest varieties of the cabbage family, said to have originated in the Mediterranean region, spread to Asia and Africa, finally reaching the Americas via the slave trade. Today, it is an ingredient of “soul food,” its dark green leaves usually boiled with pork.

 

Corn (maize; Zea mays)

is native to the Americas and was originally cultivated by the Indians in the highlands of Mexico. Corn reached West Africa from the Caribbean. Cush, also known as cush-cush and kush was a popular meal of fried corncake in the south and Africa. Enslaved Africans made “hoecakes” in the fields and ashcakes in the fire from mixtures of cornmeal and flour.

"We ate corn and potatoes which we brought with us, and alligators. We had no weapons."

Testimony of Gabriel, a forty-year-old Mina in Louisiana; Africans in Colonial Louisiana;

Gwendolyn Midlo Hall, 1995  

Cowpea (Vigna unguiculata) black-eyed peas

A bean going back as far as the prehistoric era. Reached the Americas via the slave trade and cultivated today in most tropical and subtropical regions. Its best-known variety is the black-eyed bean, a common feature of southern cuisine in the United States.

 

Elderberry (Sambucus candensis)

This tree is native to North America and grows to 12 feet to 30 feet. It has been called the “medicine chest of the common people”. Native Americans used it in teas and other beverages. The juice from the berries is an old fashioned cure for colds and is said to relieve asthma and bronchitis. Warm elderberry wine has been used as a remedy for sore throat, the flu, and to induce perspiration to reverse the effects of a chill. Raw berries can have a laxative effect. The leaves and flowers have been used in poultices and ointments for burns, swelling, cuts and scrapes.

 

Fig (Ficus carica)

The fig is not a fruit, but the flower of the fig tree. It is higher in fiber than any other dried fruit and a good source of calcium. Commonly used in preserves and cakes.

 

Garlic (Allium sativum)

Garlic is an edible bulb from the lily family. It has been used as both a medicine and spice for centuries.

Garlic cloves can be eaten raw or cooked. They may also be dried or powdered and used in tablets and capsules. Raw garlic cloves can be used to make oils and liquid extracts.

Its close relatives include the onion, shallot, and leek. Garlic has been used throughout recorded history for both culinary and medicinal purposes. It has a characteristic pungent, 'hot', flavour that mellows and sweetens considerably with cooking.[1]

A bulb of garlic, the most commonly used plant part, is divided into numerous discrete fleshy sections called cloves which are used for consumption or for cooking and medicinal purposes. The leaves, stems(scape) and flowers(bulbils) on the head(spathe) are also edible and most often consumed while immature and still tender. The papery, protective layers of 'skin' over various parts of the plant and the roots attached to the bulb are the only parts not considered palatable.

 

Blackberries (Rubus fruticosus)

Thorns are present in native blackberry plants and the thorns prevent grazing wildlife, animals and birds from eating the vines before the berry bushes flower and later when blackberries are produced. When the blackberries grow and ripen, they are not only consumed by wildlife animals and birds, but they have been enjoyed by humans for centuries. Runaways could observe what the animals ate as an indication of what was safe for human consumption.

 

Gourds (Cucurbitaceae)

This plant is native to America and is closely related to pumpkin and squash. They grow wild in America, Africa, and the Pacific Islands. The fruit of the gourd can be many different colors and shapes. So important were gourds to Haitian people in the early 1800s that gourds were made the national currency. Gourds when dried can be used as dippers and musical instruments.

 

Maize (corn; Zea mays)

Native to the Americas was originally cultivated by the Indians in the highlands of Mexico. Columbus carried it to Spain. It reached West Africa from the Caribbean, used on both sides of the Atlantic as an inexpensive means of provisioning slave ships across the Atlantic. Cush, cush-cush, kush was a popular meal of fried corncake in the south and Africa. Enslaved Africans made “hoecakes” in the fields and ashcakes in the fire from mixtures of cornmeal and flour. Enslaved Africans took hominy (the hauled dried kernels of Indian corn) and made grits by grinding the corn hauls and cooking them; grits are similar to eb, which is eaten in Africa.

 

Muscadines (Vitis rotundifolia)

This grapevine is native to southeastern United States and thrive on summer heat. The berries range from bronze to dark purple to black when ripe. They can be eaten fresh, but are also used to make wine, syrup, sauce, juice and jelly.

 

Mustard greens (Brassica juncea)

Mustard Green leaves are cooked as a vegetable in Africa. They are an essential part of “soul food” cooking in America. The taste is more pungent than the related kale, cabbage and collard greens. In the south, it is sometimes mixed with peppergrass and dandelion and seasoned with smoked meats. They are very high in Vitamin K and Vitamin A.

 

Okra (hibiscus esculentus)

It is the gooey seed pod of the hairy plant that is used to make stews and soups. This fruit is annual and grows best in warm climates. The seeds can be used as a substitute for coffee. The leaves can be used medicinally as a softening ingredient in making a poultice. Native to Africa, okra was grown by the Egyptians, then brought by Spanish Moors to Europe.

 

Pecan (Carya illinoensis )

Pecan is native to the Americas. Wild pecans were a major food source for Native Americans during the autumn months. In 1876, an African American slave, Antoine, from Louisiana successfully grafted a superior wild pecan to pecan seedling root stocks. This planting was the first official planting of improved pecans.

 

PawPaw (Asimina triloba) wild banana

Opossum, raccoon, foxes and squirrels eat the fruits. Some Native American tribes cultivated the pawpaw for fruit and are responsible for its widespread range today. The Cherokee and many other tribes used the pawpaw fruit for food. Pawpaw is the largest tree fruit native to the United States. It is reported that the explorers Lewis and Clark survived on this fruit in the wilderness. It is best eaten when soft and mushy and has the taste of a strong cantaloupe.

 

Peanuts (Arachis hypogaea)

Peanuts came to North America by way of Africa. They belong to the family of legumes, just like peas and beans.It has several other names: groundnut, earthnut, ground peas. Two other words of Africa origin for peanuts is pinder (Congo word) and goober (Bantu word). Enslaved Africans used the goober to make peanut pie and peanut soup. George Washington Carver is credited with finding over 300 uses for the peanut.

 

Peppergrass (Lepidium virginicum)

This weed has shoots and green seed pods that are edible raw or cooked. It can be found on roadsides and grows wild in the sugarcane fields. The Creole women of New Orleans picked it from the medians and included it in gumbo zherbes. It is sometimes cooked with mustard greens in the river road communities; said to have laxative properties.

   

Persimmon (Diospyros virginiana)

Bayou Plaquemine got its name from the persimmon trees which lined its banks. Indians called the persimmons pikamine and used them to make bread. This well known southern fruit  will make your mouth pucker if eaten out of season.

The roasted seeds can be used as coffee substitute and smell like Community coffee, the state coffee of Louisiana.

 

Polkweed (Phytolacca americana)

This is a native American plant sometimes called poke-weed. It is a perennial weed or wildflower. Used with a combination of other wild greens to make “poke salit”. Leaves vary in size, as the plant seems to be constantly growing. Colonials used the berry’s juice as ink. Poke is also used as a cooked green in the early spring. Pokeweed is also known to be poisonous. There is a delicate balance between its use as an edible plant and a dangerous poison. Cherokee Indians are said to have used the plant to stun and catch fish.

 

Rice (Oryza glaberrima)

Rice came to the Unites States from the banks of the Niger River and the Atlantic shores of Senegambia. The African rice is a different species than from the Asia, Oryza sativa which is the main species in commercial production in the U.S. today. Jambalaya is an African-influenced dish similar to jollof.  The nutritional value of African rice is greater than that of Asian rice, and the African rice competes better with weeds than some of the newer varieties because of its height. 

 

Roselle (Hibiscus sabdariffa)

Probably of West African origin, its young shoots and leaves are eaten raw or cooked as vegetables, its flowers used for sauces and jellies. Introduced in Brazil in the 17th century through the slave trade.

 

Sassafras (Sassafras albidum)

The leaves and bark are known for its aromatic properties. The roots have a strong root-beer odor. Sassafras tea and root-beer were popular drinks in early America. It is said to have value as an astringent, pain reliever and treatment for rheumatism. From the Choctaw Indians came the use of filé, a powdered herb from sassafras leaves, to thicken gumbo.

 

"I ran; but did not know what way to go, and took into the pines. Now, after I had done this, I began to study what to eat…I continued there for four-days without any food except sassafras leaves, and I found water."

Narrative of a runaway purchased by a trader on his way to New Orleans. The Narratives of Fugitive Slaves in Canada;

Benjamin Drew;1856

 
 

“He believes in herb medicine of all kinds but can't remember except garlic poultice is good for neuralgia. Sassafras is a good tea, a good blood purifier in the spring of the year.”

Name of Interviewer: Irene Robertson
Subject: NEGRO LORE

 

Sesame (Sesamum indicum)

Slave ships carried the seeds (benne seeds) from West Africans to the Carolinas. The plants were grown for the oil some 5,000 years ago in the valleys of the Tigris and Euphrates. Enslaved people grew large crops of sesame. Sesame seeds were used in soups, breads, puddings and sesame oil was used for cooking and lighting lamps.

 

Shallot (Allium cepa) “green onion”

This vegetable is frequently and incorrectly called “scallions”.  It is believe that the explorer Desoto brought shallots to U.S. during his Louisiana explorations in 1542. Within many Louisiana plantation gardens shallots, onions, garlic, pole beans and a variety of peppers and herbs were found. Louisiana is the number producer of crawfish, alligators and shallots.

 

Sugarcane (Saccharum)

Sugarcaneis a tall perennial grass crop that originated in southeast Asia. There are several species of sugarcane but Saccharum officinarum is the major species grown in the U.S.  Louisiana produces about 20 percent of sugar grown in the U.S.  Sugarcane stalks are planted in the fall and buds on the stalks produce new shoots in the spring. At the sugar mills, the cane is crushed and juice is boiled down to a thick syrup.  The syrup is separated into crystals (raw sugar) and molasses (used in livestock feed).  The raw sugar is further refined at refineries.

 

“A Runaway. LEFT WHEN CANE WAS A FOOT HIGH "

The Gazette of Jan. 17, 1809 contains the usual runaway slave notice, which in this case, is of interest: In the goal at Donaldson’s Ville, county of Acadia, a runaway negro, of the Congo nation; has remarkably thick lips, and is aged about 21 or 22 years. Says he belongs to Madame Benson of Bayou Sarah, and left there when the cane was a foot high.

E. D. Turner, Judge

 

Sweet Potato (lpomoea batatas)

Popular in the American South, these yellow or orange tubers are elongated with ends that taper to a point. The paler-skinned sweet potato has a thin, light yellow skin with pale yellow flesh which is not sweet and has a dry, crumbly texture similar to a white baking potato. The darker-skinned variety (which is most often called "yam" in error) has a thicker, dark orange to reddish skin with a vivid orange, sweet flesh and a moist texture.The    leaves are used to treat diabetes, hookworm, hemorrhage and abscesses. The tuber is used to treat  asthma.

 

Taro (Colocasia esculenta)

Taro is also known as coco yam, tannia, and dasheen. Some varieties apparently originated in Asia but at least one, Colocasia antiquorum is believed to have originated in the Congo basin.  Slaves introduced the crop to the Americas.  The leaves are consumed as greens while the tubers and corms are edible starchy parts of the plant.  A related plant, Xanthosoma sagittifolium (Yautia) is native to America and was consumed by Native Americans, and could have been used by runaway slaves. The leaves are said to relieve fever when placed on the forehead or body of someone who is ill.

 

Thistle (Cirsium Asteraceae)

At first glance, thistle seems unappealing as an edible but a large machete will aid in removing the leaves from the stem. Once peeled, the stem that tastes like celery can be eaten raw or cooked.

 

Watermelon (Citrullus lanatus)

A vine cultivated for its fruit is a native of Africa is said to have originated in the Kalahari Desert. They arrived in the Americas via the slave trade. Enslaved Africans sometimes planted watermelons in the fields, where they could enjoy them during breaks from their work on long hot summer days.  The plant can produce up to 100 melons on a vine. For this reason it is a popular source of water in the diet of the indigenous people. Evidence shows that watermelon cultivation existed in the Nile Valley as early as the second millennium B.C.

 

West Indian gherkin (Cucumis anguria)

A native of tropical Africa, crossed into the Americas in the early 16th century through the slave trade. From there, it crossed the Atlantic once again towards Europe. Mostly used for pickles.

 

Yams (Dioscorea batatas)

The word yam comes from the African word njam, nyami, or diambi, meaning “to eat.”  The true yam is a tuber (root) of a tropical vine that is not even distantly related to a sweet potato. They are generally sweeter than a sweet potato and can grow to be seven feet in length. They were the most common African staple fed to enslaved Africans on board slave ships bound for the Americas.

 


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