Saving African House and Telling a Bigger Story
It is not often that you find a place that holds so many surprises, but that was definitely the case for African House at Melrose Plantation, located a few miles outside of Natchitoches, Louisiana.
The history of Melrose Plantation and African House is the multi-faceted cultural identity of the Cane River area and the story of the ways this unique culture has been preserved. The stories, structures, art work, craft processes, folkways and landscape reflect regional and cultural group identities. Groups represented by African House’s history include Cane River Creoles, African Americans, Caucasian Americans, women and artists.
One surprise is that in the early 1800s, Melrose Plantation was the residence of Louis Metoyer, a gens de coleur libre (free person of color) who was a slave-owner. Metoyer had African House constructed by his slaves in the 1820s, most likely for use as a food pantry and storage facility.
Another surprise is that African House is the setting for a series of murals by nationally-acclaimed folk artist Clementine Hunter (1886-1988). Hunter was a farmhand at Melrose Plantation who began painting in her 50s and created more than 4,000 paintings over four decades. Her depiction of plantation life in the early 20th century gained national fame, with scenes such as cotton picking, wash day, pecan gathering, Saturday nights, church scenes and her favorite flowers, zinnias.
Through designation of African House as a National Treasure, the National Trust had the opportunity to work with the Association for the Preservation of Historic Natchitoches (APHN) which owns the property, to restore the building. The National Trust’s HOPE Crew, working under the guidance of timber framing experts, rehabilitated the roof, and APHN led the effort to complete restoration of the building’s masonry. At the same time, the murals by Clementine Hunter were removed and conserved, returning to the fully restored African House with much celebration in 2016.
To share the stories of African House, Clementine Hunter’s folk art and other historic buildings at Melrose Plantation, the National Trust also worked with APHN to create three new interpretive signs and a walking tour app of the grounds and outbuildings.
With this work completed, visitors to Melrose Plantation can now enjoy a restored African House, the restored murals of Clementine Hunter and the rest of the buildings and grounds that make up this remarkable place.