Bank’s gift part of parish-wide effort to carry on St. Landry landmark’s legacy of culture and history
OPELOUSAS, La. (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.
“Before the virus, we could see interest in the museum was picking up,” said Wilken Jones, the museum’s founder and curator. “The virus just shut down everything.”
Since establishing the museum 27 years ago, 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 leaders learned the museum was at risk of shutting down permanently, the 122-year-old bank stepped up with a $5,000 donation to help keep the Southwest Louisiana landmark in business.
“We were born in the Gulf South, and preserving the region’s history is very important to us,” said Hancock Whitney Senior Regional President Robert Schneckenburger. “When we heard about the financial challenges Mr. Jones was facing to keep the museum open, we felt we had to help.”
Stories of Struggle and Success
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. Jones said the Rural African American Museum allows him to highlight St. Landry’s African American heritage in a way that makes history interesting and educational for young children and young adults.
“I’ve dedicated my life to our history and culture,” said the 77-year-old retired teacher and Vietnam War veteran.” The Rural African American Museum has given me the opportunity to educate and share our ancestors’ history with our local community. Seeing a young adult’s reaction to the museum and our ancestry reminds me why I want to keep this museum alive.”
Schneckenburger said the museum is an important teaching tool to help young people and adults alike learn and understand the differences that collectively keep the region strong. He added that supporting the museum also aligns with Hancock Whitney’s core values, the bank’s commemoration of Black History Month, and the company’s ongoing diversity, equity, and inclusion commitment to celebrate and help educate its associates and local communities on Black Americans’ contributions to a vibrant region.
“Mr. Jones’ collection gives us a tangible look at a century of African American life in St. Landry Parish and builds awareness of the history, community identities, and ways of life that have influenced culture and opportunity in Acadiana and the Gulf South for generations,” he said. “We are honored to join other local people and organizations in doing what we can to help Mr. Jones carry on his good work at the Rural African American Museum.”
A Caring Community
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. Jones said Hancock Whitney’s donation would allow him to maintain and expand the museum’s exhibits.
He also thanked Hancock Whitney Opelousas associates Denise Collins and Marshell Rosette for their roles in facilitating the bank’s donation. Collins and Rosette have been longtime advocates for the museum. In fact, even before the pandemic, Rosette created a Facebook story telling what the museum means to the St. Landry Parish community.
“I’ve been raised in this area. I’m proud Mr. Jones has dedicated his time to help us understand and appreciate the value of hard work from our ancestors,” said Rosette, a client solutions leader for Hancock Whitney in Opelousas. “Our younger generation is not familiar with the African American history that has been such a large influence in American history because it’s not been displayed the way Mr. Jones has done.”
Rosette said “textbooks can only teach so much,” but the museum brings about better awareness of African American history because students—and people of all ages—can actually see and touch objects in Jones’ museum.
“This museum is a way to bring our community together,” she said.
Jones reiterated that the museum is an important repository of history documenting the lives and tribulations of African Americans in Acadiana and helps the community focus on the future.
“If you know where you come from and you know where you are, you know where you want to go,” said Jones.
About Hancock Whitney
Since the late 1800s, Hancock Whitney has embodied core values of Honor & Integrity, Strength & Stability, Commitment to Service, Teamwork, and Personal Responsibility. Hancock Whitney offices and financial centers in Mississippi, Alabama, Florida, Louisiana, and Texas offer comprehensive financial products and services, including traditional and online banking; commercial and small business banking; private banking; trust and investment services; healthcare banking; certain insurance services; and mortgage services. The company also operates a loan production office in Nashville, Tennessee. BauerFinancial, Inc., the nation’s leading independent bank rating and analysis firm, consistently recommends Hancock Whitney as one of America’s most financially sound banks. More information is available at hancockwhitney.com.
Hancock Whitney Media Contact
Paul Maxwell, Senior Communications Officer