Black History Month at Magnolia Mound Plantation closed on a high note Saturday with the dramatic telling of slave stories and the singing of rarely heard African-American operatic numbers and familiar spirituals.
About 200 area residents enjoyed sunny skies while singers with Opera Creole performed a dozen songs and actor Oneal Isaac performed “In Their Own Voices — American Slaves Tell Their Own Stories” on the back porch of the main house at the circa-1791 plantation along Nicholson Drive.
This was the 10th annual Black History Month event hosted by the Friends of Magnolia Mound.
“We had a nice turnout today, the weather was beautiful,” said Patricia Comeaux, executive director of the Friends of Magnolia Mound’s board of directors. “It was lovely, and I think the audience enjoyed it.”
The event was important, Isaac said, because African-Americans need to remember their history. If they forget, he said, their culture also will be forgotten.
“There is a line in the beginning of the play where a young man asks an old man, ‘What became of the people of Sumer?’ The ancient records say the people of Sumer, located in the Fertile Crescent of the Middle East, now present-day Iraq, were black,” Isaac said. “The old man said, ‘They forgot their history, and so they died.’ ”
Isaac said he researches and performs oral history of slave stories especially for the benefit of the young people.
“The young people are very receptive,” Isaac said. “The ones you see on the news are a very small percentage of the young people out there that are hard working and very nice in terms of respect for their elders. The media only reports ‘if it bleeds it leads,’ while most of the community is going to work and keeping it together.”
Dawn Thomas brought four of her five sons, ages 5 to 14, because, she said, “I want them to learn their history. I want them to know where they’ve come from. I tell them stories, but I can’t tell the stories like (Isaac) did.”
Isaac dramatically told dozens of short and often gruesome first-person tales of slaves being abused and sold, stories collected in a book, “My Folks Don’t Want Me To Talk About Slavery,” and other oral history entries that have been collected by historians and deposited in state and federal government files.
Donavan Thomas, 14, who attends Baton Rouge High, said he’d never heard anything like the stories Isaac told and said he thought schools should include them in classwork.
Ruth Wesley, who attended with her husband the Rev. Lee T. Wesley, agreed with the teen's assessment.
“This was a wonderful two hours of black history; it was meaningful and it was painful to hear,” Ruth Wesley said. “It is unfortunate that more of this history is not in our Louisiana history and American history books. I just wish more of it was available to our young people.”
A.J. Jelani is a descendant of “Mama Susie White,” who once lived in what is called the Mound’s overseer’s house, a small building that was relocated onto the Magnolia Mound site years ago.
“We’re not here to celebrate slavery —we’re here to celebrate the overcoming of slavery — the triumph of the people,” Jelani said. “We got freedom. Now we need justice.”