A new exhibit will be a ‘baby step’ on long road to New Orleans civil rights museum
A new $2 million permanent exhibit opening next month at the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center will be the first concrete result from a decades-long push to build a civil-rights museum in New Orleans, according to officials and activists who have been leading the effort.
The 5,000-square-foot space will be located at the upriver entrance to the convention center, near the plaque that commemorates the building’s namesake, Dutch Morial, a leading civil-rights activist himself who became the city’s first Black mayor in 1977.
While the installation will be a relatively modest beginning compared to the $40- to $50-million museum that has been dreamed about since the late 1990s, “this will be the best $2 million museum you ever saw,” said Lt. Governor Billy Nungesser, whose office oversees the state’s museums and tourism efforts.
The space, which was designed by the local firm Salomon Group, will feature multimedia presentations covering a handful of key civil-rights initiatives, including the Bogalusa-to-Baton Rouge march organized by A.Z. Young and Robert Hicks in 1967 to highlight violence against African Americans.
Other themes, which will be narrated by the recognizable voices of actors Wendell Pierce and Lynn Whitfield, will cover the effort to desegregate schools, the role that Dooky Chase’s Restaurant played during the movement, and the Southern University student sit-ins in 1960.
The “wow factor,” officials said, will be provided by a “dream cube,” which will allow visitors to step inside and interact with figures like Ruby Bridges, who through the magic of artificial intelligence will be able to answer questions about her role in desegregating schools in New Orleans.
Though the new “micro museum” is a step forward, Louisiana has lagged behind neighboring states in establishing a formal permanent museum to commemorate the movement.
Memphis has had the National Civil Rights Museum — formerly the Lorraine Motel, site of Dr. Martin Luther King’s assassination — since 1991. That facility had a $28 million renovation in 2014 and has a $40 million endowment to fund staff, special events and the like. It is a major tourist attraction in the city and draws tens of thousands of visitors each year.
Alabama has the Civil Rights Institute in Birmingham, as well as both the Civil Rights Memorial Center and the Rosa Parks Museum in Montgomery. Atlanta has the Center for Civil and Human Rights, and Jackson, Mississippi has the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum.
Diana Bajoie, who was the first African American woman elected to the Louisiana Senate, secured a promise of funds in the state’s capital budget for the museum project in the late 1990s when Mike Foster was governor. However, Bajoie said, despite several efforts over the years, it has never been possible to find the right site and get the project off the ground.
“It’s been a long haul,” she said via phone. “But I think this is a good first step.”
Nungesser, who was elected in 2016, started the Louisiana Civil Rights Trail two years ago, with the aim of organizing and commemorating the state’s civil rights landmarks, such as the Little Union Baptist Church in Shreveport and St. Michael’s Residence Hall at Xavier University, a gathering place for Freedom Riders.
But that effort lacked a focal point. Neither it nor the new space fulfills the need for museum-level curation and preservation of documents and other materials, said Bajoie.
“A true museum takes a lot of planning and it takes resources for people to run it,” she said. “I’ve visited a number of major civil-rights museums and they are major tourist attractions for cities like Mobile. It’s a big draw, not just for African Americans, but for lots of folks interested in history.”
Long way to go
Glenda McKinley, whose firm GMc & Co. has been working for the state on the civil-rights project for the past decade and curated content for the new “inaugural experience” museum at the convention center, said there is still a ways to go.
“In a perfect world, the (Civil Rights) Trail would have come after the museum,” McKinley said. “The inaugural museum anchors the story of the Trail and is not just limited to the modern civil-rights movement but brings in stories that happened during Reconstruction, the legacy stories,” she added.
“A civil-rights museum is long overdue, but this is a baby step” toward the full dream, said Don Hubbard, who was a leader of the New Orleans chapter of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) and co-founded the Southern Organization for Unified Leadership, better known as SOUL, a crucial early Black political organization.
Hubbard said that it is a glaring omission that New Orleans has no civil-rights museum, given its role in the broader movement.
“It is important to remember that this is not a Black history museum we’re talking about, it’s a civil-rights museum,” said Hubbard. “There were a lot of people whose contribution should be honored.”
Hubbard, who turns 84 in October, said that when he organized the march on City Hall in New Orleans 60 years ago there were kids from Tulane and Loyola universities who made up the 10,000 marchers.
“The Freedom Rider kids came from all over the country and my dear friend James Chaney who was assassinated [in Mississippi with Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner], I delivered the car they were riding in to them,” he said. “So, it should be a museum that tells what actually happened and where we’re going.”
Hubbard is a member of the convention center’s oversight board. The board has set aside space to build a full-scale civil rights museum as part of the multi-billion-dollar River District neighborhood being constructed on publicly owned land in partnership with a private consortium led by local developer Louis Lauricella.
Indeed, building a new civil-rights museum was a condition of that public-private project, though the convention center’s management has made it clear that the space will not remain available indefinitely.
Nungesser said he wants to restructure the Louisiana Civil Rights Museum Advisory Board to bring in people with fresh ideas about the museum and how to raise money to get it done.
Hitherto, there hasn’t been any formal effort to raise money for the civil-rights museum in the way there was, for example, for the various phases of the National WWII Museum, said Bajoie, who was a long-time member of that museum’s board of trustees.
Public and private funds
“That’s how that museum was funded: a lot of private donations and then the state and federal money follows,” she said. “But it takes work. I think it can happen. There is a lot of interest in the visitors it could attract.”
Walt Leger, head of New Orleans & Co., the city’s main tourism marketing agency, noted that the inaugural civil-rights museum is located in an area with heavy visitor traffic.
“Honoring the heroes of the civil-rights movement at the center for now, and in the future at a permanent site, would be an incredible addition to the cultural richness of our city,” he said.