by Carrie Mardorf
Across the nation we as a people are addressing the ongoing struggle of racism, inequality, and the injustices that members of the Black community live with every day. Even as we celebrated Juneteenth last week, recent events centered on racial injustice were at the forefront of our minds. Many of us have realized the increased need to listen to, rely on, and support each other to build a more inclusive environment within our communities. At the National Park Service, our commitment to our mission to preserve and share a truly inclusive story of America is more critical and important than ever.
National parks tell the stories, even the difficult ones, of powerful places, important people, and pivotal moments that helped define America. Our mission at Cane River Creole National Historical Park, headquartered in Natchitoches, is to accurately and fairly tell this shared story related to plantation life, including enslavement. These are stories of struggle, inspiration, celebration, and pain. That has been our mission at Oakland Plantation and Magnolia Plantation for 25 years, and we are honored to be able to continue that mission into the future in a new location.
Several months ago, Natchitoches newspapers featured a story about how the National Park Service will be moving into the former Texas and Pacific Railway Depot on Trudeau Street and the Eagle Distributing building on Sixth Street. It’s true. We are. And the first phase will be happening in the next few months. A team of National Park Service staff, City employees including Mayor Lee Posey, and designers have been working diligently to make all the pieces come together.
Phase 1 of the move will take place this fall and will focus on moving Cane River Creole National Historical Park’s museum collection into the former Eagle building. The structure will be converted into the park’s new curation facility with 10,000 square feet of storage, new climate control, fire suppression, and staff offices. The park manages an extensive museum collection of nearly 500,000 three-dimensional objects and archival items related to the history of Oakland and Magnolia Plantations. Much of the collection includes vernacular, one-of-a-kind handmade tools and decorative items made and used by enslaved workers, Native Americans, Creoles, and others who lived and worked along Cane River. This nationally significant material culture represents the enslaved, sharecroppers, tenant farmers, and day laborers, all of African American descent, and is a key portion of the collection. The former Eagle building finally gives these objects the home they deserve and provides us the proper facility in which to care for them in perpetuity.
Phase 2 will involve moving the park administrative offices into the Texas and Pacific Railway Depot at a later date. This historic building is particularly significant to Natchitoches, not only as a train depot, but also as one of the last physical vestiges of segregation and the Jim Crow era within the State of Louisiana.
Over the next year, we will be reaching out to the community, particularly the African American community and our new neighbors, to get input on the building’s history, its stories, and how to share them within the context of Natchitoches Parish. We fully realize that these are the community’s stories to tell. Not ours. And it’s something that we do not take lightly. Particularly in light of current events, the National Park Service and the City are working together to preserve this history and tell the stories of African American heritage within our new space. We want to tell those narratives of overcoming hardship from slavery to abolition, from segregation to civil rights—all within the context of Black history, no matter how difficult they may be so that future generations can learn from those stories.
In addition to administrative offices, current plans for the depot include an interpretative center and combination theater and community room space. The interpretive center will be centered around the community’s stories, ties to the surrounding plantations, and exhibits and objects from the park museum collection. The combination theater and community room will be available to the public to rent out for meetings or special events.
While we work toward moving into our new home, I invite and encourage all of you to visit Oakland Plantation in Natchez and Magnolia Plantation in Derry. Both historic sites are free and open to the public from 9:00 AM to 3:30 PM daily and are a short 20 to 30-minute drive south of Natchitoches. Although COVID-19 has hampered the park’s operations and ability to give guided tours for the time being, visitors can walk the grounds and take a self-guided tour – either via cell phone or paper map.
Uncomfortable histories are difficult to confront. We all continue to grapple with these histories within our own community and nation, and Cane River Creole National Historical Park is committed to sharing these stories. All stories. From the Quarters to the back of the Big House. Lesser-known stories. Regardless of race or skin color.
Oakland Plantation is located at 4386 Highway 494 in Natchez, LA. Magnolia Plantation is located at 5549 Highway 119 in Derry, LA. For directions, go to https://www.nps.gov/cari/planyourvisit/directions.htm.
Carrie Mardorf, Superintendent of Cane River Creole National Historical Park, can be reached at Carrie_Mardorf@nps.gov or 318-352-0383, x 100.
PHOTO: The former Eagle Distributing building on Sixth Street will become the museum collections storage facility for the park. The building will house 500,000 artifacts from Oakland and Magnolia Plantations in museum quality conditions. NPS photo.
PHOTO: Cane River Creole National Historical Park preserves all history and stories related to Oakland and Magnolia Plantations. The park has strived to accurately and fairly depict life on the plantations, particularly the experience of African Americans from the late 1700s to the 1970s. Image courtesy of Dr. Ambrose Hertzog collection.