Dozens of volunteers take a 'day on' for MLK Day

Halen Doughty
Darryl Hambrick teaches volunteers about the struggles black students used to face getting an education.

Crowds of volunteers gathered at the River Road African American Museum in Donaldsonville on Martin Luther King Jr. Day. The event touted a "day on, not a day off" slogan and welcomed over 50 volunteers who worked in the Freedom Garden as well as the museum itself.

It was not just a day of work, but rather one of learning about and celebrating heritage. Museum ambassador and co-founder Darryl Hambrick taught volunteers about the rich history in Donaldsonville, as well as some of the notable African Americans to come out of the community. Many locals made incredible contributions to the civil rights movement, but you won't see their names in a history book.

Hambrick spoke about the accomplishments of Pierre Landry, the first black mayor in the country who was elected to office in Donaldsonville. He spoke about Leonard Julian, who invented the first sugarcane planting machine. Of course, Martin Luther King Junior's work was also mentioned, as well as the sit-ins and bus boycotts that took place locally. He said it's important for everyone to understand where we came from and how we got to where we are today.

"We are here today because of Martin Luther King and his vision of what the world would look like today," said Hambrick.

Volunteers worked in the Freedom Garden, which is home to many plants that are native to Africa but widely used in Louisiana. Okra, eggplant, and black-eyed peas all came with the slaves from Africa. Museum ambassador Melanie Victorian said the slaves also brought with them an incredible knowledge of agriculture, as well as advanced skills in building and construction. She noted that many of the plantation homes built by slaves are still standing today, which is a testament to how they were constructed.

Victorian went on to say that African Americans are able to enjoy the freedoms they have today because former-slaves fought so hard to create a better life for future generations. Because of that heritage, she said, today's generation is tasked with upholding that legacy.

"You came from greatness," Victorian told the crowd of young volunteers, "and don't let anybody tell you any different."

Education was a big topic of discussion, as volunteers toured the Rosenwald school, which was moved from Convent, La. to Donaldsonville in 2001. Hambrick said education begins in modest buildings like the one sitting just blocks from the museum. The schoolhouse was a sacred place of learning for many people who had been denied an education for too long.

"People would lose their lives over education," said Hambrick. "That's why education is important."

Outside of the school sits the first sugarcane planting machine, which was invented by a D'ville native who unfortunately never got credit after the patent was altered and stolen. Across the street are an assortment of "shotgun homes," named for their layout which enabled residents to shoot a shotgun from the backdoor out through the front door. Hambrick spoke of the history of these small homes, many of which housed entire families in just a few rooms.

Volunteers came from all over to work and learn at the museum. Volunteers from Phi Sigma Omega Chapter of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority Inc. were in attendance. Donaldsonville Councilman Rev. Charles Brown made an appearance at the event, bringing with him the youth group from Emmanuel Baptist Church. Chief Deputy Bobby Webre of the Ascension Parish Sheriff's Office also stopped by to learn about the history in D'ville. The Delta Sigma Theta sorority joined in, and Teen Miss Donaldsonville Kam Brean Verner came to learn and lend a hand in the garden as well.

"I've learned that a lot more than what I thought came out of Donaldsonville, such as the first black mayor started here," said Verner.

Verner added that it feels good to give back to the community and learn about her heritage and the history of her community. Students from the Donaldsonville High School Beta Club and the African American studies class came to volunteer, as well as representatives from the Louisiana Creole Heritage Center in Natchitoches. Hambrick said it was a record turnout for the annual event.

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