To step across the doorway at Le Musee de F.P.C. on Esplanade Avenue is to step back in time. Studded with antiques and anecdotes, Le Musee — housed in a historic, 1859 Greek Revival home — chronicles the free people of color (F.P.C.) who helped shape New Orleans’ distinctive, cherished culture.
The historical museum gives reverence and historical context to people of color. With a collection of documents, paintings, and other art pieces, it aids in preserving the history of the “free people of color,” the term used to describe those who gained freedom prior to the Civil War. In French, that’s “gens de couleur libres,” a phrase you’d hear in New Orleans as early as 1722. Across New Orleans and south Louisiana, there were 18,000 free people of color who owned and paid taxes on property.
Each room, filled with documents, paintings, sonnets, statues and various forms of art, spoke its own story. These pieces started off as individual collectors’ items; later, the space matured into a house museum.
At the core of Le Musee is its founder, Beverly McKenna. I spoke with McKenna to find out more about Le Musee — we chatted in a secluded spot upstairs overlooking tree-lined Esplanade Avenue. She spoke with passion and appreciation without ever taking away the primary focus: free people of color.
For McKenna, black history isn’t a month-long homage, but a celebration of contributions 365 days a year. She urges families, teachers, children, and those of any age with a love for storytelling and sharing to visit, reflect, and exchange ideas. Here, a few highlights with McKenna and the educational dialogue she gave in celebration of black history.
On Le Musee’s early roots:
“We didn’t start this with a museum in mind. This is the result of me of a private collection started by me and my husband. So, we started collecting when we were younger, newlyweds. We just started purchasing casually but never with the idea of a museum in mind. We just thought it was important for blacks to own, invest, collect and then share materials and objects and wealth to others. It just went from one thing to another. Our collection grew, and it became a passion.”
On the birth of Le Musee:
“After returning from [Hurricane Katrina in 2005] to learn that all of the items were intact, we took it as a sign that we were supposed to now share the collection to public, tourists, to the people of New Orleans. You know, history passes, and generations change; people lose knowledge or lose connection with their past and their ancestral contributions. So, we happened to own this house, an 1859 vintage Greek Revival Residence. We owned but it was in a sad state of disrepair. After Katrina, a light bulb went off to put the collection here. It’s said to be the only institution of its kind in the country. It’s a house museum dedicated to telling the story of the free people of color—exclusively.”
On how the collection continues to build:
“During our travels, going to auctions then as you start collecting, you build a name in the field whether you deal with antiques, or whatever it may be. There is a circle of people [who] will bring things to you because they say to them, ‘This belongs here.’”
McKenna also unveiled how important it is to tell a story originating from the West Coast of Africa in the Senegambia region. Those enslaved and brought to the United States left prints here in New Orleans fighting for rights and freedom.
Le Musee offers group tours starting at $15 ($10 for seniors) with special group rate prices available. Tours start promptly at 1 p.m. Sunday through Wednesday by appointment only. Food and beverages are also able to be prearranged for attendees.