Louisiana Lt. Governor Mitch Landrieu, NY Times
Today’s New York Times features a great article on Louisiana’s newly-minted African-American Heritage Trail, a brainchild of Lt. Governor Mitch Landrieu. The trail includes a stop here in Alexandria at the Arna Bontemps Museum, as well as several other places in Central Louisiana.
Landrieu invited the Times to the Whitney Plantation, believed to be “the most complete plantation in the American South.” Quoting:
Yet Mr. Landrieu is far less interested in the Haydels than the legacy of the 254 slaves who once inhabited the nearly dozen shacks behind the big house during Whitney’s reign among the largest sugar farms in Louisiana. His muddy shoes planted in front of a row of neatly situated sun-bleached shacks during a recent visit, Mr. Landrieu nudged a reporter toward what he likes to call a living museum:
“Go on in. You have to go inside. When you walk in that space, you can’t deny what happened to these people. You can feel it, touch it, smell it.”
He compared the experience to visiting the former Nazi death camp at Auschwitz.
For Landrieu and others, the trail isn’t about celebrating our antebellum past, which some plantation tours are wont to do; it’s about understanding and learning from our shared history.
“We want to transform the discussion about race and poverty in America,” said the 47-year-old Mr. Landrieu, who served 16 years in the State House of Representatives (his father and sister, Mary Landrieu, also a Democrat and currently a United States Senator, held the same seat). “Many, many white people and black people of good will have been separated by ideological fights that have been powerful. But you can’t transform the discussion if you can’t remember what happened.”
Mr. Cummings puts it another way: “Is black men not caring for their children today in any way connected to slavery? These are the kinds of questions we should be asking. I want to get beyond the moonlight and magnolia myths of the plantation.”
“The whole state of Louisiana really is a museum,” he (Landrieu) said.
Louisiana is a living museum. The discussions conjured up by this trail are relevant and timely. Our history surrounds us. And like Mr. Landrieu says, confronting our history together will allow us to confront our future together.
The Arna Bontemps Museum in Downtown Alexandria
…(A) couple of hours north, the Louisiana landscape opens wide, and as you travel along Highway 1 toward the town of Natchitoches (pronounced NACK-ah-tish), home of the Cane River Creoles, the hard stories in Donaldsonville fade under the great magnolias that shade the entrance of Melrose Plantation. This is where the love story of Marie-Therese, known as Coincoin, the grand matriarch of Melrose, took place.
Raised as a slave in the household of a Louisiana military commander, Marie-Therese was later sold to Claude Thomas Pierre Metoyer, a French merchant. The two fell in love and she eventually bore him 10 children. Marie-Therese and her children eventually gained their freedom and became wealthy landowners in their own right. As the story goes, Marie-Therese Metoyer owned slaves but also bought many slaves their freedom along the way.
One of her sons, Nicholas Augustin Metoyer, financed the first Catholic church in the United States built for people of color. St. Augustine Catholic Church was founded in 1803 and is located in Natchitoches.
The story of the Metoyers seems to illustrate Mr. Landrieu’s belief that the trail “is about so much more than civil rights — it’s about hope.” He paused, and rephrased his thought for wider appeal. “This trail is really about how hope hits the streets.”
The Central Louisiana leg of the tour follows this itinerary:
On scenic Highway 1 below the town of Natchitoches, you will find yourself in a section of the rich in history and culture, a last outpost of the French Creole culture of south Louisiana. This district, instate particular, is unique, having been the home of a distinct group of “Creoles of Color” for more than two centuries. Descendents of the French planter Claude Thomas Pierre Metoyer and his common-law wife of African descent, Marie-Thérèse Coin-Coin, they are tied together by blood, faith, and tradition. Today they still form a vibrant group with a strong focus on their common heritage. A number of sites are accessible via a driving tour. Melrose Plantation, the original seat of the Afro-Creole Metoyer family, includes the original “big house” as well as many plantation outbuildings. One of these, the “African House,” is an extremely rare example of African architecture in Louisiana. Melrose was later home to the famed African American folk artist Clementine Hunter, whose work is prominently featured.
Nearby is St. Augustine Catholic Church, the spiritual center of the Creole community. This structure is over two centuries old and still in active use. In the same vicinity, the Cane River Creole National Historical Park includes sections of Magnolia and Oakland Plantations. The park relates the story of plantation slavery in the area, particularly the complex intersections of French and African cultures in the creation of a truly Creole society. The brick slave cabins on Magnolia are particularly striking. Natchitoches has some great restaurants, so be sure to stop at one of them for lunch or dinner.
Spend your second day in Alexandria, home of the Arna Bontemps African American Museum. Bontemps was one of Louisiana’s most prolific African American writers, and this museum, his birthplace, serves as a
memorial to his incredible life and work. Although he left the state at an early age, much of his writing
dealt with black life in Louisiana and the South. As a novelist, poet, playwright, essayist, and historian, he
continually opposed the injustices of segregation. An important member of the Harlem Renaissance in the 1920s, Bontemps’ contributions to African American history and culture are immense, as the museum’s exhibits make readily apparent. Grab lunch or dinner in Alexandria, then continue on to your next stop on the trail!
As an addendum, while you’re in Alexandria, it is definitely worth your while to visit the Kent House Plantation. From its website:
Kent House is a classic example of French colonial architecture. Standing on the original land grant from the King of Spain to Pierre Baillio II, it offers a glimpse of the French, Spanish and American cultures that have influenced Louisiana. All three flags fly over the entrance.
The plantation house is one of the oldest standing structures in the state of Louisiana. Together with its outbuildings, it preserves the homestead of a successful Creole family typical of a Louisiana colonial era working plantation.
Kent Plantation House preserves, interprets, and promotes its historic site to educate the public about the history and culture of central Louisiana between 1795 and 1855.
See also: The Daily Kingfish