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August 27, 2014, 9:08 pm

Baton Rouge visit offers rich history

It’s a city so strong in its desire to survive that it outlived Hurricane Gustav to make a comeback that continues to welcome visitors.

And today, visitors to Baton Rouge, Louisiana’s state capital whose name literally means “red stick,” can still enjoy its old Southern beauty, Creole and Cajun cuisine, and all-around good time.

To begin with, the architecture reflects African-American and Caribbean styles, with large balconies and many doors. Its international heritage is also reflected as the locals often revert to variations of the French language in everyday conversations.

Today, Baton Rouge’s rich cultural tradition can be seen and heard in zydeco, blues and Cajun music. In fact, the famous Baton Rouge Blues Festival takes place annually and is something not to be missed.

And the city offers a rich look back into the history of African Americans. Visitors can tour slave cabins and plantations, Civil War battlefields and civil rights landmarks. The state capitol and the makeup of the legislature offer testimony to the success African Americans have had during their rich Louisiana history.

Astute visitors can view its ever-present representations of a slave era, as well as other points of interest, such as the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Statue in the downtown area. There’s also McKinley High School, which was the high school for African Americans in Baton Rouge and surrounding parishes before integration. Additionally, there’s Mt. Zion First Baptist Church, where nightly meetings were held by African-American citizens in support of the boycott of June 1953. By the way, that boycott was so successful that it served as a model for the Montgomery, Alabama, bus boycott of 1955.

Baton Rouge also acknowledges a number of its famous native sons. For example, there’s Joe Brown, lightweight champion of the world until he retired in 1970, and Cleo Fields, the youngest man ever to be elected to the U.S. Congress. Louisiana’s first African-American governor and many others.

Aside from its famous citizens, Baton Rouge boasts many cultural activities. Tourists might consider visiting the Southern University Museum of Art, which contains a collection of over 2,000 pieces of African and African-American art. Four galleries are dedicated to the display from major art-producing regions of Africa, including Mali, Nigeria, the Ivory Coast, Cameroon and the Congo.

Another popular point of interest is the River Road African-American Museum. An African-American Heritage Tour nearby includes a visit to a cemetery, a monument to the Black Civil War soldiers, and much more. The River Road African-American Museum is also the first Louisiana member of the National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom.

You might also decide to visit several of the plantation sites, most notably the Laura Plantation, a French–Creole style property built in 1805. Laura is notable because of its exceptional bricklaying work of West African slaves that can still be seen on the premises. American scholar Alcee Fortier first recorded the West African stories of Compare Lapin at Laura. These were later discovered by Joel Chandler Harris and are known today as the Br’er Rabbit stories.

Next, the Oak Alley Plantation, considered the “grande dame” of plantations because of its structure and design, should be seen. Oak Alley was built entirely by slave labor and exemplifies the skill and craftsmanship of the enslaved workers.

There’s also Magnolia Mound Plantation, circa 1791. Today, it emulates a working plantation. “Beyond the Big House” a tour detailing slave life on the plantation, is offered by special request and features a slave quarter house, a field where slaves raised crops, and much more.

Actually, although my visit was rather short, I was amazed at how much material there was for me to see and how much could be crammed into a relatively small amount of time. Needless to say, there’s something for everyone in this warm and welcoming town.

Mark Twain wrote about it. William Warfield sang about it. It’s been the subject of everything from paintings to political debates, but to thoroughly enjoy all it has to offer, Baton Rouge really is best experienced first-hand.