DONALDSONVILLE — The Juneteenth Freedom Festival in Donaldsonville has been canceled this year for the first time in its 17 years, said Kathe Hambrick Jackson, executive director of the River Road African American Museum.
The festival has drawn as many as 5,000 people to downtown, Jackson estimated, but like many outreach programs run by the museum — after-school and summer programs included — the celebration has fallen victim to a slowed economy, and the budget cutbacks that came with it.
“We’ve gone from an (annual) operating budget of somewhere between $150,000 to $250,000 down to $25,000, and our first priority is to keep the doors of this museum open. The museum’s job is to preserve the collective memory of this community,” she said. “And I’m basically back to a staff of myself, and volunteers.”
The Donaldsonville museum raises some money through memberships and fundraisers, Jackson said, but has historically gotten $75,000 every year from the parish’s $300,000 share of state hotel-motel tax revenues.
This year, however, that share shrank to $25,000. “We didn’t realize the impact that would have on federal grants,” Jackson said, particularly for use as matching funds to obtain such grants.
Parish President Tommy Martinez said Jackson has done a great job organizing the festival. “It’s been a good tradition, and we hate to see it go away. I know the citizens of the Donaldsonville area enjoyed it tremendously.”
It’s a big blow to the city, Mayor Leroy Sullivan said, especially since the holiday is two weeks away. “The city’s financial condition is such that we can’t help,” Sullivan said. The mayor added that he has offered to help reach out to area churches to find support for the museum and its programs.
“We’re in survival mode, like a lot of other nonprofits and for-profits,” she said. The museum’s board is in the process of developing a sustainability plan, Jackson said, and working to find ways to increase fundraising efforts and private donations.
Sadie Roberts-Joseph, founder and curator of the Odell S. Williams Now And Then African American History Museum in Baton Rouge, and Louisiana Juneteenth director, is sorry to see the event go.
She’s looking for support for her own museum’s Juneteenth Roots and History Awareness Festival, set from 11:45 a.m. to 6 p.m. June 18 at the museum.
“Both unfortunately and fortunately, we don’t get state funding,” Roberts-Joseph said. The museum is a faith-based organization supported by New St. Luke Baptist Church. “We are struggling, though. There is definitely a need for teaching African American history and culture.”
But funding will be part of the challenge of staying on task with that mission, she said. “We’ll have to find creative ways of doing that.”
For Jackson, survival mode has meant cutting back on all other museum projects. The museum has spearheaded efforts to turn blighted buildings into community assets in Donaldsonville. One of those buildings houses the current location of the museum, where it moved after a fire displaced it from its original home on the grounds of Tezcuco plantation in Darrow in 2002.
The museum will be asking more of the community, Jackson said, including corporations, cultural organizations and churches in the area.
“It’s a matter of how much a community values this as an organization that will determine if we are able to survive or not. It’s a valuable asset to the community,” Jackson said.
The museum gets visitors from all over the world, she said, many on side trips from New Orleans. “We’ve got someone from Lonely Planet coming on Friday.”
The River Road museum is far from out, she said. “There is no doubt in my mind that resources will come,” Jackson said. Those resources will just have to come from the community. “The programs will come back. It’s just not a priority right now.”