DONALDSONVILLE, LA (WVUE) - If you're from Louisiana, you might know that the state capital was not always in Baton Rouge. But you may not know that the capitol was once in Donaldsonville. That River Parish city has deep history that's tied to the riches of 19th Century sugar plantations and its African-American culture. FOX 8's Dave Mcnamara takes us there in tonight's Heart of Louisiana.
The song is “Muskrat Rag” by Joe “King” Oliver, an early jazz great whose roots are along River Road in Donaldsonville.
“Louis Armstrong called him poppa,” said Kathe Hambrick-Jackson. “He gave Louis Armstrong his first job when he was 16 years old. Joe King Oliver was born on a plantation right here in Ascension Parish called the Salzburg Plantation.
Hambrick-Jackson runs the River Road African-American museum in Donaldsonville. She's spent more than 20 years collecting artifacts and digging into the history of the rural area that was the center of Louisiana's sugarcane country.
“Primarily in the 1840s, St. James and Ascension Parish had the highest concentration of millionaires of anywhere in the world, and it's because sugar was king,” Hambrick-Jackson said.
For a brief period in 1830, Donaldsonville was the state capital. And after the Civil War, the voters of Donaldsonville elected Pierre Caliste Landry as mayor, the first elected African-American mayor in America.
“Landry actually worked with both the Republican and the Democratic party of the time and received votes from both sides,” Hambrick-Jackson said.
Among the accomplishments of African-Americans and Donaldsonville is the invention of this machine, a mechanized device that took the handwork out of planting sugarcane. The tractor-driven machine that revolutionized the sugar industry was invented by brothers Leonard and Harold Julien in 1964.
But these accomplishments grew out of a much darker history. Slavery was the shackled human engine that drove the plantation economy. The museum has slave registries from some of those plantations.
“The numbers that you see here are the ages of the people who were enslaved,” said Hambrick-Jackson. “You'll see 9m and 2m, which means 9 months and 2 months old. You also see if a person has a skill or an illness.”
And the slaves had values: $100 for a toddler, $1,000 for a field hand, and skilled craftsmen as much as $3,500.
“Children find it very hard to believe that there was a time here in America where people could be sold just like a horse,” said Hambrick-Jackson.
This museum doesn't hold back from the horrors of slavery, through modern struggles and achievements.
“It gives us strength to know where we have come from, and to know the struggles and everything that we have overcome in the history of America,” said Hambrick-Jackson.
It's a story that plays out on the walls and in the collections of this modest museum - the hardships and the contributions of the African-American people of River Road.
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