For more than three decades, Beverly and Dwight McKenna have collected rare documents, furniture, books, artworks and artifacts that together tell the history of free people of color in New Orleans.
“When I think about those people and what they did, it gives me chills,” Beverly McKenna said.
The McKennas created Le Musée de p.f.c., a museum, to share the story.
In a stately Greek revival mansion on Esplanade Avenue in Treme, they display hundreds of items, including 19th-century paintings depicting Creoles in everyday life, manumission documents giving slaves their freedom and photographs taken by Jules Lion, who opened a daguerreotype studio in 1840.
On Friday, the museum will open a special exhibit of portraits by local multidisciplinary artist Jose Torres-Tama celebrating the legacy of New Orleans free people of color and their cultural, political and artistic contributions.
The contemporary pastel portraits are inspired by seven years of research and archival photographs and prints found in books such as Sybil Kein’s “Creole: The History and Legacy of Louisiana’s Free People of Color” and Keith Weldon Medley’s “We As Free Men: Plessy v. Ferguson,” Torres-Tama said.
Portraits include Henriette DeLille, C.C. Antoine, Marie Couvent, Basile Barres and other notable figures, he said. Also highlighted are paintings of Dr. Louis Charles Roudanez, a 19th-century surgeon and activist of African and French descent who published two Civil War-era newspapers.
There will be a reception at 6 p.m.
Free people of color, who made up 60 percent of the city before the Louisiana Purchase, left an indelible fingerprint on music, cuisine and architecture, Beverly McKenna said.
The museum takes visitors through the history of free people of color beginning in 1708 with the arrival of Frenchman Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne de Bienville with two enslaved Africans, called George and Marie.
Bienville brought men and women from Senegal and Gambia to sell as slaves, and those people brought with them okra and rice, as well as local customs.
In the museum, a bronze statue by artist Ed Dwight titled “Lest We Forget” shows a slave in shackles, gazing upward.
The museum’s front gallery chronicles the first 100 years, including the period under Spanish rule, 1763 to 1800, when slaves were encouraged to purchase their freedom and often earned it by serving in the military.
“People of color owned 70 percent of property in this area, going back to the 1700s,” said Dolores Heylar, a museum docent.
The golden age for free people of color in the 1830s and 1840s produced Henriette DeLille, founder of the Catholic Sisters of the Holy Family; inventor Norbert Rillieux; businessman Thomy Lafon; and musician Edmond Dede, whose images are framed on the gallery wall.
One of the most impressive museum pieces is a floor-to-ceiling petition to President Abraham Lincoln, dated Jan. 5, 1864, from 1,000 free men of color who were property owners, asking him for the right to vote.
Many are visibly moved when viewing this unique collection. Jamie Foxx and Quentin Tarantino visited Le Musée and read a poem that accompanies a painting showing an enslaved man’s fearless willingness to carry his love to freedom.
The two men hugged and cried because it was so much like the story of “Django Unchained” that they were in the midst of filming.
“We want to preserve this story, telling it from our own perspective,” Beverly McKenna said. “Today, we have a collection we are excited to share, not just because it is interesting or unique, but because of the important truths it helps to tell.”