EJ Corps Week Seven: Reality check in Donaldsonville

This post summarizes week seven of Akasa Thomas’ Environmental Justice Corps fellowship at LABB. Part of the EJ Corps curriculum involves African American History, and Thomas recently visited the River Road African American Museum in Donaldsonville.

On July 18, EJ Corps fellow Schree Greene and I went to Donaldsonville with UNO Professor Earthea Nance and LABB Community Liaison Iris Brown-Carter. We went to the River Road African American Museum, which is directed by curator Kathe Hambrick Jackson. This museum holds precious artifacts from the 1800s to today that offer a significant timeline of the struggles African Americans have faced in the region as well as their progress.

The bill of sale for a slave.

At right is a bill of sale for an enslaved 14-year-old boy, and he was being sold for $600. Prices for slaves could go up to $1,500, and the price could change depending on age, any handicaps, if you were healthy and knew any crafts or trades, etc. While reading this bill of sale I was amazed at the thought of putting a price tag on someone based on physical traits. These people were treated like cattle.

The next picture (below right) is of handcuffs and a collar along with newspaper clippings of the things slave owners would shout when advertising their “merchandise.” Seeing cuffs in a movie or in a picture hits home, but when you see them in person it brings a totally different feeling. And a collar: Why was that even necessary? They weren’t dogs. Handcuffs and shackles were enough. It was clear that my ancestors endured a lot.

There were also newspaper ads for runaway slaves that featured slave owners describing their slaves in the worst ways and offering rewards for as little as $20. When reading these clippings, I felt an eagerness for the individuals whom they were looking for

Shackles and newspaper clippings.

to get their freedom.

It wouldn’t be long before African Americans began to find progress. For example, Madam C. J. Walker, who was born on a Louisiana plantation in 1867, went on to become the first female millionaire and the first black millionaire who produced and sold her own hair products all over the world. She didn’t have UPS, FedEx or QuickBooks, but she managed to get her products all around the world and even compensate individuals for their involvement in her success.

In addition, there was information on a weekly black newspaper in New Orleans from 1937-1945 edited by Alonzo Willis called “The Sepia Socialite.”

Seeing these individuals and their achievements was uplifting. When there was so much inequality and lack of resources for people of color, these pioneers broke those barriers.

Ms. Jackson brought us to an additional site of the museum complex, the Freedom Garden where vegetables and fruits derived from Africa are grown, such as okra, black-eyed peas, bananas, watermelon and grapes.

The museum complex also features the first sugar cane planting machine, invented and built by Leonard Julien, who only had a 5th grade education. The machine was patented in 1976. As we heard more of the story about how Julien’s idea came about, I began to think to myself that an education is very important, but you must have the want and drive to succeed at whatever you want to achieve in life. You can’t wait on people to make life easier on you, you have to think out of the box and make life easier on yourself!

I greatly appreciate the Louisiana Bucket Brigade for realizing how important African American history is and recognizing that it deserves more than one month and a focus on an array of leaders, not just the four most-known black leaders in history. I also thank the River Roads African American Museum and Earthea Nance for recognizing how essential it is for young African Americans to get to know their heritage and the struggles that preceded them. This trip helped me realize that the battle is not won and we as young African Americans have a lot of work to do!

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