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Charlotte McKeithen explains the history of Greenwood Plantation to the many guests on the tour.

As a child, Hannah Leming enjoyed dressing up in 19th-century costumes and heading to evening soirées in her hometown of St. Francisville during the Audubon Pilgrimage, an annual spring event aimed to showcase the town's history.

But after connecting recently with some of her former classmates who are black, some told her they didn’t share the same experience.

Some told her they often wouldn't attend the gathering, feeling that it glazed over the realities African Americans faced under slavery. Others shared memories of class field trips to the tour's rural homestead where they were encouraged to buy wooden paddles and whips, which were said to be used as cooking utensils and whips for horses and other animals.

“I knew I had to do something,” said Leming, 27. “It was so insensitive.”

She started a petition last week calling for the popular Audubon Pilgrimage to either be scrapped or changed to include perspectives of black people living in the area before the Civil War.

Within a few days of the petition circulating online and among social media groups within the tight-knit town of about 1,600 people, the West Feliciana Historical Society announced it would end the event for good.

The board overseeing the society said its decision came after hearing concerns voiced from the community and vowed to rethink future events.

“We will focus our efforts on providing a complete and accurate history of our parish in a meaningful way that is relevant today and in the future,” the board wrote.

The move is part of a broader nationwide trend following the killing of George Floyd, a black man, who died at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer last month. His death has spurred nationwide and global reckoning regarding police practices and racial injustice, leading to calls for policy changes.

Recent protests in some U.S. and European cities have included calls to remove public statues memorializing Confederate and colonial figures. Some statues have been toppled by protestors in recent days.

In Louisiana, LSU plans to strip the namesake library recognizing Troy H. Middleton, who as president wrote to college officials in Texas in 1961 saying LSU still kept black students "in a given area."

Unlike efforts to scrub away the figures, some community members in St. Francisville say they want to see festivals like the Audubon Pilgrimage include black history.

“We need to be able to tell our story,” said Amanda Moorer, 36, a former St. Francisville middle school teacher who supported the petition. “There’s a lot to gain from knowing where you came from and where you’re trying to move forward to.”

The Audubon Pilgrimage is named after the family of John James Audubon, an artist and ornithologist who lived in the area during the late 1700s and early 1800s.

Its initial aim when the pilgrimage was created in the 1960s aimed to draw outside visitors and showcase the town’s local artists, historical homes and sites, drawing thousands to the rural town.

But the slave quarters or those living in them weren't included in the festival or during school field trip tours, community members say.

Brandon Lewis, 36, said he was impressed the historical society recognized the concerns brought to light by him and others who lived or grew up in the community.

Still, he said the board’s quick response came as a surprise. Lewis had anticipated resistance from pilgrimage organizers and that he and others planned to meet with boycotts of the event and the businesses supporting it.

“I thought we were going to receive a whole lot of push back,” he said. “I didn’t expect this to happen and I didn’t expect this to happen so soon.”

Lewis said he doesn’t fault the society's museum or its organizers for continuing to hold the annual tradition as it had been for the past five decades, while acknowledging change is difficult to bring to a small community with longstanding traditions.

“It showed they recognized it was the right thing to do,” Lewis said. “Kudos on behalf of the board.”

As a descendant of slaves who lived on plantations in the area, Lewis said he would be interested in working with the museum and historical society to contribute family stories — often passed down by word of mouth — about its history and contributions to the parish.

Moorer, too, sees room for conversations on ways to hold a similar event that captures the Audubon Pilgrimage's initial mission in showcasing artists and historic sites for the thousands of tourists and day-trippers who journeyed to the town each spring.

“St. Francisville is a great place, a great community but certain things need to change,” she said. “We can do better.”


Email Youssef Rddad at yrddad@theadvocate.com, and follow him on Twitter @youssefrddad