“Where their stories stop, ours begin”: Historic Riverlands tours localize African American history

Published 12:20 am Wednesday, June 13, 2018

RESERVE — Historic Riverlands Christian Center in Reserve picks up where plantation tours leave off, documenting African Americans’ vast social, ethnic and religious contributions to the modern world.

Decades after slavery was abolished, Catholic African Americans in the River Parishes worshipped at segregated local churches, confined to the back rows of pews and barred from singing in the choir or serving as altar boys.

In 1937, a compassionate priest spearheaded construction of Our Lady of Grace Church for African American parishioners.

The building was donated to Pastor Steve and Rita Perrilloux in 1991.

Recognizing the historic significance of the church, the Perrilloux family moved the structure down the river to the former Cornland Plantation grounds and had it added to the National Registry of Historic Places.

Our Lady of Grace Church, the first in St. John Parish designated for Catholic African American
parishioners, sits on the grounds of the old Cornland Plantation in Reserve.

Guests come to 480 NW Third St./123 Redemption Way in Reserve to feel the spirit, hear the music and taste the cuisine of African American culture through two interactive tours.

Local business United Front Transportation Services is offering a traveling lunch tour to Historic Riverlands Christian Center and other tourist sites hourly from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday.

A $35 package covers a tour of Riverlands/Soul River, Whitney Plantation, St. Joseph Plantation or Evergreen Plantation, in addition to lunch at Belle Terre Country Club in LaPlace. Tickets are $10 for children ages 6 to 13, and children 5 and under are free. For more information, call 877-275-2989

According to Rita Perrilloux, guests choose between a  Catholic history tour documenting achievements of people of color and the Soul River tour, a 2017 addition that views African American history through a musical lens.

Pastor Steve Perrilloux holds a tour exhibit outside the church.

Soul River Musical Journey celebrates hopeful lyrics of old spiritual songs, mournful sounds of the blues, playful jazz and defiant funk tunes as landmarks in history, according to Rita.

Combination tours are available upon request, she said.

“Our hearts’ desire is to tell the story of the people of color after they left the plantation,” Perrilloux said. “Where their stories stop, ours begin.

“We impacted the music industry and every other facet of America, including inventions. We still have that legacy here in St. John, where our Parish president is a woman of color and our sheriff is a man of color. We salute the people who allowed us to have the life we live today.”

Rita hopes to increase traffic through St. John Parish field trips and expanded tourism initiatives.

Sharon Calcote recently visited Historic Riverlands to speak on behalf of the lieutenant governor’s Louisiana Byway Program, which could result in more promotional signage along Louisiana’s Great River Road.

Representatives from Hub Destination Marketing scouted Historic Riverlands last week to prepare a promotional video for New Orleans Plantation Country, run by the River Parishes Tourist Commission.

Executive Director Buddy Boe said Historic Riverlands is the first of many stories to be told through video.

“Historic Riverlands was chosen because everyone would have expected us to pick a plantation,” Boe said. “The history in that building is everything we represent and what represents us.”

United Front Transportation Services co-owner Dayna James said previous tour groups enjoyed Soul River’s interactive musical elements, and she believes all St. John residents should visit at least once.

“It’s something different from the plantations,” James said.

“It’s uplifting. You feel like you’re not even in St. John Parish, even though some of the classic music influences on the tour come from right here in LaPlace.”

Tours are scheduled by appointment. Call 985-210-6621 to schedule a time or request information on pricing.

Group rates are available. For more information, visit historicriverlands.com.