Northeast Louisiana Delta African American Museum
A former women's hat shop is now a museum and a stop on the North Louisiana African American Heritage Trail.
It may be fitting that an African-American museum is located in a six-room house that was once a women’s hat shop. In the African-American culture, they are not just hats. They are crowns – a suitable metaphor for a people descended from African kings and queens.
A new $2.5 million Northeast Louisiana Delta African American Museum soon will rise on a site that was once the Killoden Plantation in Chennault Park. On this ground, where Africans once toiled in captivity, the story of their contemporary contributions and noble ancient history is told. “We are descended from the Egyptians,” said Lorraine Slacks, the museum’s executive director. “The background of African-Americans is not just as slaves and in chains.”
The museum is intended to speak to the struggles but more importantly -- to the positive message about African-American contributions to our culture. The new museum will include history from surrounding parishes and weave an informative narrative of both the struggles and contributions of African-Americans in a 15-parish region of Northeast Louisiana and the United States.
Life-sized figures of three famous African-Americans are the first displays that greet visitors – abolitionist Frederick Douglass, cosmetics millionaire Madame C.J. Walker and noted educator Mary McLeod Bethune. The mannequins tell their story through recordings when visitors push a button.
The museum hosts regular tours for school groups from the Northeast Louisiana region, South Arkansas, Detroit and Jackson, Miss. A visit to the museum is a requirement for a multicultural class at the University of Louisiana-Monroe. The other two rooms in the museum focus mostly on local history. These rooms brought back memories of my childhood growing up in North Louisiana. There were references to Dr. John I. Reddix. He was my dentist when I was growing up. He was also a black activist in the Civil Rights Movement in Monroe. As a child, my parents drove the 36 miles to Monroe because they did not want their children to go to segregated offices in Lincoln Parish where there were no black dentists or doctors at the time. It was almost as if I were reliving the 1950s and 1960s as I glanced over newspaper clippings recounting the Civil Rights Movement, school integration lawsuits and other prominent black institutions that are now closed.
For many, the schools were the cornerstones of viable black communities. Along with the black churches and black-owned businesses, they were important components of the segregated black social structure of the time. I saw pictures and references to Robinson Business College where my late father graduated in the 1940s. Robinson Business College no longer exists. But the real emotional moment for me came as I was looking at a World War II group photo of an all-black platoon at the Selman Field U.S. Army navigation training station in Monroe. Sitting in the center was my dad, Master Sgt. Charles H. Owens, platoon sergeant in the 599 Infantry Company.
Less emotional, but just as familiar, was the adjoining room filled with farm artifacts I recalled as a child from visiting great-grandparents and other relatives who lived in rural areas – iron kettles, wash boards, a wood burning stove, a wash bowl and water pitcher and a bale of cotton, among other memorabilia. Monroe is the appropriate place for this museum to tell the story of African-Americans in the Northeast Louisiana delta region. Monroe was what my dad used to proudly call the “Queen City.” Historically, where there were large numbers of African-Americans with means, they developed social institutions to provide for their community. Monroe was the economic, social and political center for many who ran away from life on nearby plantations and farms. Monroe was where blacks went to school when there were no schools in the surrounding delta communities. Monroe was where blacks didn’t have to sit in segregated places when they went to the movies or to the doctor. North of the railroad tracks on Desiard Street, Blacks had a thriving black-owned/controlled downtown business community adjacent to the white one.