Many cultural entities have been knocked for a loop by the effects of the novel coronavirus.
At the Rural African-American Museum in Opelousas, there have no visitors since mid-March and thus, no donations. The museum has been issued an eviction notice and needs $11,000 by the early part of August.
First in Plaisance, now in Opelousas—former teacher Wilken Jones has been the curator of the Rural African-American museum for nearly 30 years. “There’s a rich culture over here, and a lot of history,” says Jones. “And believe me—most of the black history is not in the books or not even documented.”
Signs of St. Landry Parish’s black history are at every corner of the museum.
Displays detailing the stories of black churches and black schools are next to each other in one spot; while tales of educators and athletes rest at opposite ends of the building.
“Well, I’m into history, and I taught history for 20 years in the St. Landry Parish schools,” offers Jones. “Our museum has answers to questions like, ‘Who was the first black to get a college degree in St. Landry Parish?’ and ‘Who was the first black police juror to get elected?’.”
And there are articles and pictures profiling those who dared to take a stand and make a difference. “We have displays about civil rights movements, citizens, the boycotts… so, yes, my favorite is history,” says Jones.
From the outside, the small building at 1414 N. Main Street in Opelousas doesn’t look like much, but inside there is magic. There are gems. There are stories that ring with emotion.
“We had one woman who actually cried remembering things her father used to or remembering how they had to use the old outhouse. So a lot of things come back to people, things they’re able to touch and share with their grandkids,” explains museum volunteer Gervis Williams.
Williams came to the Rural African-American Museum just over a year ago because (1) he was asked by Jones, and (2) because, he says, of the possibilities for educating the people of Acadiana, regardless of their races.
“Because we all come together as a melting pot,” he begins, “and this is one of the places you can learn about how we celebrate our culture, through how we lived, how we were educated and how we celebrate our God.”
Williams is also a local minister, so it’s natural that the displays on the aforementioned churches are his favorite.
“Our historical churches are the foundation of our community, which holds all of the records of our births and our deaths and the lives that we have today,” he says. “We celebrate our life through the church, because the church is where all the hope is.”
But, hopeful treasures or not, they are pieces of history that may soon be lost.
With rent and utilities unpaid since the spring, there’s a notice of eviction hanging over the museum. “We have been notified ‘if you don’t come up with X amount of dollars, you will be removed’,” says Jones.
Ever-the-gentleman, Jones understands his landlord’s plight and harbors no ill will toward him. “And you can’t blame the person that owns the building. He needs money, too.”
And that brings up fundraising which essentially is non-existent. “It’s on hold right now,” says Jones. “Without getting some funds, to catch up on the back end and to have some money to operate in the future. We’re probably going to have to lose it, shut it down.”
But Jones also says if the Rural African-American Museum were to disappear in early August, the loss of our past, would also damage our present and future.
“The old folks used to say, ‘if you don’t know your history, then most likely you don’t know where you’re going’, for your future.”
Donations to the Rural African-American Museum in Opelousas can be made via Chase Bank. For more information, contact (337)-945-1050.
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