Hermione Museum honors African American heritage in Louisiana
The first stop on the North Louisiana African American Heritage Trail is a museum that honors, among others, the nation's first female self-made millionaire.
Signs along U.S. Highway 65 near Tallulah point to the Hermione Museum. Also called Hermione Plantation House, this structure was moved here from its original locationsouth of Milliken’s Bend on the Mississippi River, the site of a famous Civil War battle between black Union and Confederates soldiers. Like most plantation homes on this stretch of the Mississippi, the Hermione is modest compared to many of the lavish plantations in South Louisiana. It was owned by absentee landlords who lived across the river in Mississippi – many on large estates, like the ones in Vicksburg and Natchez.
Before the Civil War, there were more than 70 plantation homes in Madison Parish, and all but three were destroyed by the Union troops. Hermione was spared because it served as a hospital for federal troops during the Civil War. When I visited Hermione, there were three exhibits on African-Americans. The most prominent was the one on Madame C.J. Walker, an African-American who in the early 1900’s became the nation’s first female self-made millionaire by manufacturing cosmetic products for black women. The child of slaves, she was born Sarah Breedlove in 1867. The display has some of her personal correspondence, photos, news articles and samples of her products -- including, ironically-- a tanning cream for whites. To sell her line (manufactured at a plant she owned in Indianapolis) she developed an elaborate national marketing system that employed thousands of African-American women. This was the forerunner of the marketing concept used later by such companies as Avon and Mary Kay cosmetics.
Another exhibit on local African-American leaders and achievers brought back memories for me of the 1960’s Civil Rights Movement in North Louisiana. Titled “They Made a Difference,” this exhibit recognizes some of the Blacks in Madison Parish who first attempted to vote in 1947 and continued their efforts for two more decades before achieving this right.
Civil rights was big news for me as a young man. I recall the resistance of local governments to allow blacks the right to vote in many parts of the state, especially in these Mississippi Delta parishes. Under court order, Madison (Tallulah) and East Carroll parishes were two of the last three parishes in Louisiana to open their voting rolls up to blacks, in 1962 and 1963 respectively. The neighboring delta parish of Tensas was the last when, in 1964, they finally allowed blacks the right to register to vote.
Even in slavery, African-Americans have always been in the majority in this Mississippi Delta plantation region. And so, in the 1970s, armed with the right to vote, blacks could (and did) drastically change the political and economic landscape of this region. Municipal and parish governments in most of this area are now headed by African-American elected officials. The final exhibit relating to African-Americans at the Hermione focuses on the 1930s Delta Project/Thomastown Project designed to transform sharecropper farmers into landowners through low-interest loans and other programs. This New Deal project involved a resettlement program where African-American tenant farmers were moved from Transylvania to Thomastown, an area near Tallulah. As a result, Thomastown grew into a viable community during the 1940s and 1950 with a black high school which closed in the 1960s. Many of its graduates went on to professional careers in education, medicine, accounting and the military among others.