DONALDSONVILLE — For the first time in 20 years, a funding shortfall has led the River Road African American Museum to cut its hours from five days a week to Saturday and Sunday afternoons only with group tours by appointment.
The nonprofit museum, at the corner of Railroad Avenue and St. Charles Street in downtown Donaldsonville, is filled with artifacts and documents that shine a light on African-American history makers as well as the story of slavery.
But two decades after its inception, the founders want to make sure the museum dedicated to the past has a future.
When he talks to schoolchildren about history, Darryl Hambrick, who describes himself as a “lifetime board member” of the museum, often brings a top hat and vest to evoke Pierre Landry, who in 1868 became the first black mayor of Donaldsonville and the first black mayor in the U.S.
“Many stories like that will not be heard because of funding problems. The doors of the museum may close” without new sources of funding, Hambrick said.
In April, the museum will launch a fundraising campaign on the crowdfunding and fundraising site GoFundMe.
“We’re about to make an appeal not only in Louisiana but internationally. We’ve had visitors from all over the world,” Hambrick said.
The little museum is about to host six buses of eighth-graders, Hambrick said, and that’s a regular occurrence.
Hambrick, along with his sister, Kathe Hambrick-Jackson, the museum’s executive director, and their three brothers are the backbone of the museum.
The family is grateful for all the support they’ve received from the community and visitors over the years, he said. But after two decades, Hambrick-Jackon said the question for the museum is: “If we’re (she and her brothers) no longer here, how does this institution sustain itself for another 21 years so the next generation of children growing up in this community will be able to learn” about their heritage?
In 1991, Darryl Hambrick and his sister returned to Louisiana from corporate jobs in California after the death of their father, Harold Hambrick, founder of Hambrick’s Family Mortuary in Gonzales. Today, Darryl Hambrick is president and director of the funeral home.
Once back in Louisiana, Hambrick-Jackson said she was struck with a vision for establishing a museum that would tell the stories of the African-American slaves and, later, sharecroppers who “never figured in the tours of the plantations.”
“There needed to be a place to interpret slavery,” she said.
The museum’s focus has expanded over the years.
“It represents the story and the history of a community,” she said.
Hambrick-Jackson spent more than two years in research. With the help of her brothers, she opened the River Road African American Museum in March 1994 on the grounds of Tezcuco Plantation.
The 147-year-old plantation, however, burned to the ground in 2002 and the museum was without a home for a year, until it moved into a little frame house in Donaldsonville. The house, which has about 700 square feet, once belonged to the granddaughter of the city’s first black doctor. The museum leases the property for a minimal amount from the city.
Inside, visitors can learn about Donaldsonville and area history-makers such as Leonard Julien, inventor of the sugar cane planting machine; musician Joe “King” Oliver, mentor of Louis Armstrong; and Dr. John Lowery, the first black physician in Donaldsonville.
“We have tourists from all over the world,” Darryl Hambrick said.
And there were regular programs at the museum for children.
“The River Road African American Museum is a tremendous asset to this community,” said Becky Katz, who recently retired after 34 years as executive director of the Donaldsonville Chamber of Commerce.
“We have a jewel here because of her love of history,” Katz said of Hambrick-Jackson.
When Katz worked at the Chamber of Commerce, “It was amazing how many people would come in, looking for the museum,” she said.
Hambrick-Jackson, she said, “is trying to present history to the young people today. There are beautiful artifacts there.”
The museum is funded, in part, by the Ascension Parish sales and motel tax, but it also relies on volunteer help, donations, grants and fundraisers to keep its doors open.
Hambrick-Jackson said grants for nonprofits in the U.S. are becoming scarcer and scarcer.
Despite their money woes, the museum’s founders still dream that one day they’ll be able to move to a larger building that was donated to the museum some 10 years ago after it was moved from other side of the Mississippi River to property within walking distance of the museum’s present location.
The handsome building, which is on the National Register of Historic Places, was once one of the Rosenwald Schools, which were built for African-American children in the early 20th century.
The museum has established a community garden there, and it has reroofed the building and restored it to its original sky blue color.
“The important thing right now is, we need to keep the lights on and the doors open,” Hambrick said.