There’s a place in St. Landry Parish where there’s the story of an Olympic sports legend. You can also experience the famous flavors, and unique music. Plus, it’s was the dream of an historic mayor. Come along for a Dave Trip to the Opelousas Museum and Interpretive Center.
Just up the I-49 for a short time, you can take the US 190 exit into Opelousas. Not far from the interstate, you’ll find a little known spot called the Opelousas Museum and Interpretive Center. You’ll be greeted by Delores Guillory, the director of the museum, who will immediately lead you through the main hallway to an exhibit called “Reaching for Gold”. “Rodney Milburn. He was a gold medal winner in 1972”, says Guillory.
His road to being a star, began while running 110m hurdles in Opelousas at J.S. Clark High School under coach Claude Paxton using his “dime” philosophy. This meant, there should only be a dime’s space between Milburn as he soared over the hurdle. He earned a spot on the 1968 All American team and eventually the Olympic Team. His world record time of 13.24 was unbeaten in five years.
Guillory noted, “When he won the gold medal people back there in Munich, they didn’t know where Opelousas was. They wanted him to say New Orleans, because they knew where New Orleans was!” She continued, “He said, ‘No, I’m from Opelousas, and I want you to put Opelousas on that!'”
Milburn continued as a professional, and for a while coached at Southern University. Unfortunately his life was cut short in an industrial accident in Port Hudson in 1997. He was just 47 years old.
Down the hallway, you’ll find the current exhibits for Black History Month. You can enjoy the paintings of Jerome Ford, an instructor in St. Landry Parish who has made his home here since Hurricane Katrina. And the award winning photography of Michelle Colligan who has documented the Creole Heritage Project and Juneteenth.
Tucked in the a corner, you’ll learn why this museum is here. Mayor John Joseph was the first African American mayor of Opelousas. Taking office in the late 1980s, he got the museum opened in 1992 and called it one of his biggest accomplishments while in office. The legacy of the museum features exhibits representing the many cultures of Opelousas from French, to African American, Native American and Cajun. You can learn about the foods and those who made their name famous for those foods and flavors. Music plays a big part, where this region is the birthplace of Zydeco.
“This is our Zydeco area”. Guillory says “Geno” is the big name these days. But you can go back to see the King of Zydeco Clifton Chenier. “I dont’ know how to dance it, but they have people come from Everywhere to listen to it!” exclaims Guillory.
Famous folks have passed through too. She says, “You know Bonnie and Clyde stopped by here in Opelousas. They stopped at Shutes! It was a barber shop, and Clyde stopped by and has his haircut here.”
You can get up close to items from the Orphan Train, view the 4th of July fashions from long ago.
Guillry notes, “Back then the ladies had to cover all the way to their necks if they’re not married, and down their hands.”
Opelousas is one of the oldest cities in Louisiana, even holding the title of State Capital for a short time during the Civil War. You can see how agriculture evolved and thrived in the area, and how the Yambilee Festival was once one of the oldest agriculture festivals in the state.
If you didn’t know, Opelousas takes it’s name from the Native American Tribe, Opelousa. They settled the area before the Europeans arrived. The museum is open weekdays from 8-4:30 and tours and field trips are welcome. Visit the Opelousas Museum and Interpretive Center website for more information.