Helping Keep a Legacy of African American History Alive in St. Landry Parish

Sunada Brookins, February 23, 2021

Louisiana is rich with hidden gems reflecting the diverse cultures that come together to create the state’s unique character. One of those diamonds in the rough, the Rural African American Museum, sits unassumingly in the heart of Opelousas, an unexpected treasure trove of displays and artifacts highlighting 100 years of everyday life for African Americans in St. Landry and surrounding parishes.

 

In 2020, though, the non-profit cultural center came very close to closing its doors for good.

 

Since establishing the museum 27 years ago, founder and curator Wilken Jones has depended on grants, donations, fundraisers, and volunteers to run the admission-free museum. Amid the coronavirus crisis, however, money to maintain the museum became scarce.

 

When Hancock Whitney learned the museum was at risk of shutting down permanently, we felt we had to help and stepped up with a $5,000 donation to help keep the Southwest Louisiana landmark in business.

 

Helping Keep the Doors Open. Rural African American Museum founder and curator Wilken Jones (center) accepts a $5,000 donation from Hancock Whitney to help maintain and expand his invaluable Opelousas repository of African American history in St. Landry and surrounding parishes from the 1860s to the 1960s. Also pictured (from left): Hancock Whitney Retail Sales Leader Lexi Baldridge; Financial Center Leader Denise Collins; Client Solutions Leader Marshell Rosette; and Regional Sales Leader Stephen David.

 

We were born in the Gulf South, and preserving the region’s history is important to us. The Rural African American Museum is an educational experience that lets us look first hand at a century of African American life and become more aware of the history, community identities, and ways of life that have influenced culture and opportunity in Acadiana and across the region for generations—differences that ultimately bring us together and keep us strong.

 

Supporting the museum also aligns with our core values, our commemoration of Black History Month, and our ongoing diversity, equity, and inclusion commitment to celebrate and help educate our teams and our communities on Black Americans’ contributions to a vibrant Gulf South.

 

Struggles, Success, and a Caring Community

Wilken Jones first opened the Rural African American Museum in the unincorporated St. Landry Parish community of Plaisance in 1994. In 2019 he moved the museum to Opelousas’ Main Street. Packed with information and pieces Jones has thoughtfully amassed over many years, the museum offers an invaluable look at African Americans’ struggles and contributions in Acadiana.

 

Exhibits depict African American homes, schools, churches, businesses, music, sports, and agriculture from the 1860s to 1960s. Displays also chronicle Jones’ own story as the great-grandson of an escaped slave.

COVID-19 precautions caused the Rural African American Museum to close temporarily to visitors in March 2020. As the pandemic continued and the museum’s financial plight grew, concerned St. Landry Parish leaders, businesses, and citizens rallied to make sure the museum could pay the basic bills. Hancock Whitney’s donation will help maintain and expand the museum’s exhibits.

 

Hancock Whitney Opelousas associates Denise Collins and Marshell Rosette helped facilitate the bank’s donation. Both women have been longtime advocates for the museum. Before COVID-19 Marshell created a Facebook story telling what the museum means to the St. Landry Parish community. Raised in the area, she’s proud of Mr. Jones and the museum for helping the community understand and appreciate the African American history that has been such an influence on American history. Marshell believes the museum is way to bring the community together because “textbooks can only teach so much.”

 

Mr. Jones has dedicated his life to history and culture and has considered the museum a way to make St. Landry’s African American heritage interesting and educational for the community and, especially, students. In fact, young people’s reactions to exhibits that document the lives and tribulations of their ancestors give the 77-year-old retired teacher and Vietnam War veteran the drive to ensure the museum stays open.

 

As he says, “If you know where you come from and you know where you are, you know where you want to go.”

 

At Hancock Whitney, we’re honored to be part of a community effort to help Mr. Jones go far in keeping his vision of the Rural African American Museum alive.