Historic and Contemporary Opelousas Territory
In my research for this chapter, I collected baseline data about the original Opelousas Territory (see Map l.l). 1 The early history of the Opelousas Territory is concerned with several Parishes, including Acadia, Evangeline, and St. Landry, that are the focus of my research. Prior to 1840, these parishes were all combined as one and known as Imperial St. Landry Parish. Later Imperial St. Landry was divided and became Calcasieu and St. Landry. Today, Imperial St. Landry (also known as the original Opelousas Territory) consists of eight parishes (see Map 1.2). These parishes are: (1) St. Landry, which has always been considered the mother parish of this region and the seat of the Opelousas territory; (2) Allen parish, the home of the Koasati American Indians, established in 1912; (3) Evangeline, once the home of a Choctaw settlement established in 1910 (Gahn 1941); (4) Calcasieu, founded in 1840; (5) Cameron, founded in 1870; (6) Acadia, founded in 1886; and (7) Beauregard, and (8) Jefferson Davis, both founded in 1912.
These data reveal the demographics of the parishes, then and now, including an overview of the cultural groups of the area, religious institutions in the area, health conditions, economic conditions, and historical and cultural aspects of the community. Since this study is not a detailed account of the history of Louisiana’s cultural groups, only a preliminary overview is offered. It is hoped that this preliminary overview will offer some insight into the effects contact, cross-cultural racial and social mixing, and cultural adaptations had on the enslaved African.
Map 1.1Louisiana Parish Map, 1812
The first recorded settlement in this region occurred in 1712. The Opelousas and the Atakapa regions 2 are part of what is known today as the southwest Louisiana area. Opelousas, originally called Oque-lousas, began as a trading post around 1716 (Thistlethwaite 1970). A few years later it became a military post. It is the third oldest community in the state. The large garrison that was built, in what is now present day City of Opelousas, indicates that this was an important place for the early French (Colliard 1921).
In the Opelousas region, like most of the southwest region, moss draped oak and cypress trees are plentiful. One folktale by the Atakapa American Indians tells how moss came to be in this region. It is said that there was once an Indian princess who was not allowed to see a brave that she loved because he was of another tribe. Her father felt their union would disgrace the tribe of the Princess. The princess continued to see the brave against her father’s wishes. One day her father hid in the swamp land where the young lovers would meet. When they arrived at their meeting place, the father stabbed the brave to death. The princess was so hurt she took the knife from her father and stabbed herself to death. The Great Spirit was saddened by this act and hung the hair of the princess and the brave in an Oak tree. Years later their hair became gray and began to spread from branch to branch, and then from tree to tree. This was to be an eternal reminder of this forbidden love between the princess and the brave (Felsher 1981),
This folk tale epitomizes the old and interesting history of the Opelousas Territory. The region boasts a history that was very economically profitable in early times. One of its towns, Washington, also once known as Negroville, 3 was the major shipping port for Louisiana during the steamboat era and well into the nineteenth century (Colliard 1921; Wenger 1974). Washington was also the site of slave auctions. The city of Opelousas, another town in the area, was the state capitol from 1862–1863. It was (and it remains so today) primarily a commercial center for agricultural ventures. The city of Opelousas was established in 1740 by French traders, and it remained an important trade and military center until 1763 (DeVille 1973).
The Louisiana colony had three rulers: French, Spanish, and American. The French who were the founders, ruled from 1682 to 1769. In 1769 Louisiana was ceded to Spain at the signing of the Treaty of Parish. It remained under the Government of Spain until 1802 when it again became the property of France, and then in 1803 Louisiana was sold to the United States of America.
NATIVE AMERICANS—PAST AND PRESENT
The historic Native American ethnic groups of the original Opelousas region were the Opelousas and Atakapas (see Map 1.3). Very little is known about these two ethnic groups. Linguistically the Atakapa and the Opelousa are related. The Atakapas language is similar structurally and lexically to that of the Tunica and Chitimacha, other Native Americans in Louisiana (Swanton
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1919) (See Map 1.4). All of these ethnic groups are language isolates, however. The same diseases, liquor consumption, wars, etc., that affected other North American Native American populations are said to be the maladies which contributed to the demise of the Atakapa and Opelousa.
In general, historic Native Americans in Louisiana were mound builders. Unexplored and explored mounds survive as remnants of Louisiana’s historic Native American ethnic groups. Mounds can be found on private property as well as at archeological sites. 4 These mounds were used by the aboriginal to conduct religious ceremonies. Sacred temples were sometimes built on them, and in some cases they served as burial grounds (Kniffen 1987, 259).
The powerful aboriginal Natchez were found in north central Louisiana. They became extinct around 1733 after the French and Natchez war. Those that survived the war and were able to escape French capture merged with the Creek in upper Louisiana and Mississippi. Others that were less fortunate were sold into slavery in Haiti.
In the late 1600s other Native American groups began to migrate to southwest Louisiana. Those who migrated to Louisiana were the Choctaw, Chitimacha, Alabama, and the Koasati. Although the cultural history of the Louisiana aboriginal Indians is scarce, that of the migratory groups is well documented. 5
The Opelousa were a very friendly, non-warlike people, and it is said that they welcomed the French, who originally came to the region to establish trade. Opelousa means “black head” or “black skull” (Brackenridge 1962). The most commonly accepted term is “black foot” or “black leg” (Colliard 1921, 14; Fontenot 1970).
The first record of the Opelousas territory appeared in approximately the late 1690s. The present day city of Opelousas was once inhabited by the Opelousa Native Americans. Full blood Opelousas were last seen in this area around the 1930s. Some African Americans claim Opelousa heritage, and it is also believed that some surviving Opelousa might have mixed with the Bayou Chicot Choctaws. Bayou Chicot is a small town located in Evangeline Parish that was once part of the Opelousas Territory. They also have been identified as Alabamas and are said to be cousins to the Creek (Davis 1806, 97). Their housing was a round tepee-like structure. 6
The Atakapa, the other aboriginal group of the southwest region, were larger in number than the Opelousa, and they were believed to be man-eaters. This claim to be cannibals and as nomadic is widely debated. Some scholars (Post 1962; Kniffen 1987) believe that cannibalism and nomadic habits were exaggerated. In any case they were friendly with the Opelousas. In 1592, Cabeza de Vaca, one of the early explorers of Louisiana described the Atakapa as tall, well-formed, and brown skinned (Butler 1970). In 1698 there were 3,500 Atakapas in southwest Louisiana, by 1908 there were only nine known survivors (Post 1962). There is an African-American woman in a nearby parish who is part Atakapa. 7
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The Atakapa villages were found near rivers—the Vermillion and Calcasieu. Their diet consisted of native fruits like persimmons, hickory nuts, and berries. They mainly survived by fishing, hunting, and raising cattle. Agriculture was not a means of subsistence. The Atakapa owned a considerable amount of cattle, enough so that it was necessary to register their brands (Post 1962). Because of their habitat and location, the Atakapa were of little threat to the French. They were not an asset either, and they were not as friendly with the French as the Opelousa were. The contemporary Native Americans who settled the southwest region are the Chitimacha, Choctaw, Alabama, and Koasati.
The Chitimacha, also a language-isolate group, came and settled in the southwest region along Bayou Teche and the Mississippi River in approximately the early 1700s. They were a people who believed in adorning their bodies. Men and women wore jewelry, including bracelets, finger rings, and earrings (Taylor 1979). Their main occupation was originally fishing and they relied on crops of corn and sweet potatoes.
The early Chitimacha settlement built their homes in a row on bayou banks and covered them with palmetto leaves. The palmetto plant was also widely used by other Louisiana Native Americans. It was used in much the same fashion by African Americans, especially those with Native American heritage, who say that some of their early homes had roofs made of palmetto plants. The palmetto root was used for medicinal purposes. The present Chitimacha are known for their beautiful baskets, and most are employed in the nearby oil industry outside of Lafayette.
Koasati (Coushattas) belong to the Muskogean language group (Gatschet 1884). The first Koasatis to settle in Louisiana came from Georgia and Alabama around the late 1700s; in the early 1800s more Coushattas moved from Alabama to Texas and Louisiana. Oral and written records indicate that the Koasatis lived in the present day City of Opelousas in the late 1790s. 8 By the 1850s, after several moves, the Coushattas settled in Allen Parish just west of St. Landry; they still are located there.
Today the Koasatis, a warm people, are struggling to maintain their cultural traditions. While many of the older Koasatis speak only Koasati, the younger generations are usually bilingual—they speak English and Koasati. Some of the Koasatis also speak French, because French is a common language for many older residents of this southwest region. Parts of the Koasati settlement are surrounded by the local working class African-American community. Other parts are surrounded by woods and the business district of the town of Elton. Some of the oral history data that I was able to obtain about the Koasati was given to me by local African Americans. The Koasatis and the African Americans have been known to intermarry. These mixed blooded African Americans/Koasatis can be found in Evangeline, St. Landry, and Allen Parishes. African Americans and Koasatis also socialize together, conduct business transactions between them, and some members of the African-American community regularly visit the local Koasati church.
According to some Koasati members, they continually struggle to preserve and promote language and cultural pride among the younger generation. This is not an easy task given the influences of television, radio, and peer pressure from the outside, and pressures from insiders who reject tradition and favor western ways. This is one reason why worship services are conducted in Koasati. In addition, the tradition of making pine straw needle baskets is continued, as well as some traditional forms of dance and foods.
The Alabamas originally occupied the northern and western areas in present day St. Landry Parish and parts of present day Evangeline Parish in the late 1700s. Many African-American persons in southwest Louisiana say they have Choctaw and Alabama heritage.
The Choctaws are now found in the northern portions of Louisiana, but in the 1700s they occupied several areas in St. Landry parish around Bayou Chicot.
Louisiana was an infant colony of France. The first and largest group of immigrants who came to the Louisiana colony were men who came directly from France in the early 1700s. French women began to arrive in the colony in significant numbers in the 1720s. The first settlers came as a result of France’s efforts to settle the new frontier. They were inspired by land grants offered by the French and Spanish governments. These settlers were upper middle-class Frenchmen who sought opportunities to increase their wealth.
Shortly thereafter, the importation of Africans to be sold as slave laborers began; The Spanish arrived as rulers in the mid 1700s. Later, around 1760, the Cajuns came. French migration from Haiti also had an influence on Louisiana’s culture. It started in the late 1700s and continued until the early 1800s. Other European groups also came to Louisiana, but their cultural influence and numbers were not as great.
Early African-American communities in this region played a major role in the development of the area culturally and economically. In Grand Prairie, Leonville, Plaisance, and Palmetto, for example, we have old land gentried African-American families. These are some of the oldest farm settlements and four of the oldest Black farm communities dating back to the 1700s (Myers 1987; Fontenot 1988).
Settlement in the Opelousas Territory began in 1717, when John Law, a Scotsman, was granted a charter that stipulated he bring 1,500 settlers and 3,000 enslaved Africans to the land granted him (Thistlethwaite 1970, 33). The original settlers of the Opelousas territory were cattle grazers who owned from 1,000 to 3,000 heads of cattle. Later, less emphasis was placed on cattle raising, and early settlers began to farm the very fertile land. The early land claimants included whites as well as Free Persons of Color. Both ethnic groups had to meet the ordinance requirements—slave and stock ownership—in order to claim land (Oubre 1973).
Acquiring land grants was also a means utilized by white fathers to emancipate their mulatto sons. These fathers sent their sons to the Opelousas frontier to start cattle farms, and in return for their services the sons received freedom and stock. The French acquired land in other ways also. Some land was purchased from the Atakapa Indians, some was obtained by order of survey issued by the governor, and by occupation, later confirmed by the government (Griffin 1959).
In 1769 about one hundred families lived in Opelousas. By 1776 there were 139 families. The population began to increase due to the Spanish Land Grant Policy, which stated that a person was eligible to claim the forty acre land grant if he or she owned a substantial number of cattle and livestock and owned at least two slaves (enslaved Africans). This policy was only partly responsible for the increased number of residents in the parish. Additionally, the increased population was due to the migration of French military persons to St. Landry from Alabama and France and the arrival of other Anglo-Americans from other American colonies. By the end of the 1700s, Louisiana was pretty well established; then came the sale in 1803.
The Haitian revolution of 1803, in which Toussaint I’Ouverture, an African, led a group of Voodoo worshipers in the overthrow of French rule in Haiti, was one of the key reasons France sold the Louisiana territory to the United States. This sale price of $15,000,000 for about one million square miles of land, averaged four cents a square mile (Chidsey 1972; LaFargue 1940). Louisiana remained the territory of the United States until it became a state in 1812.
When Louisiana changed hands to the English Americans, a great deal of resentment existed among Louisiana French residents toward the new owners (Robertson 1969). The new American government was not welcome. Those unfavorable attitudes existed in the Opelousas territory, as well as in the New Orleans area. Elisha Bowman, an early Methodist minister, had this to say about the people in the Opelousas region, “I find the people very much dissatisfied with the American government and we have a constant talk of war …three-fourths of the people hope they will get this country again…. Three-fourths of the inhabitants of this country, I suppose, are French” (Fontenot 1970, 29).
The Americanization of Louisiana was a slow process; France had left her mark on Louisiana. Even today Louisiana’s culture has a strong French influence; French language and customs prevail, including a judicial system based on the Napoleon Code instead of the English common Law, and a French form of government. The immigration of Black French persons into Louisiana after the Haitian revolution also contributed to the maintenance of French Caribbean and African cultural traditions (Hunt 1988). This migration continued until the early 1800s and is one reason Louisiana has been referred to as a Caribbean Island.
The Americans were aware of the resistant attitudes of Louisiana’s residents of French ancestry. In an effort to make the transition from a French to an American government a harmonious one, they allowed certain aspects of the cultural traditions to remain, such as the legal system. By 1804 however, English was introduced as the official language in legislative matters (Newton 1929). The use of English as an official language became an issue in rural southwest Louisiana again in the late 1950s. Today, there is a continuous concerted effort on the part of many contemporary cultural revivalists to reintroduce French in the schools and community.
The period of Spanish rule in Louisiana, 1763 to 1803, is one aspect of Louisiana history that is often ignored. There are however many contributions made by the Spanish to the history of Louisiana. For example, traces of Spanish heritage can be found in architecture, foods, and surnames like Donatto, Martinez, Perez, etc. Cuba was the Spanish administrative seat governing Louisiana, so most of the early Spanish people who settled in Louisiana came from there (Morazan 1983).
Another group, known as Cajuns—descendants from Canada who were the victims of expulsion—settled in the eastern and southern portion of the south-west area (Dormon 1983). Most came to Louisiana, via Haiti, around 1760. Unlike the early French settlers of the area, Cajuns’ early life in the southwest region was one of poverty and isolation. Very few owned slaves, and interaction with Africans was limited. They were granted subsistence and permitted to settle in the old Atakapa region by Denis-Nicolas Foucault, then Commissaire-Oronnateur of Louisiana, because the Cajuns were impoverished and needed charity (Brasseaux 1975). The original Cajun settlers and their descendants mainly occupy the present parishes of St. Mary, St.Martin, Lafayette, Iberia, and Vermillion.
THE AFRICAN EXPERIENCE
Important dates for African Americans in this area are 1712, 1720, and 1724. The first ship of Africans arrived in Louisiana around 1712. By 1720, French land grantees began to settle the Opelousas frontier, bringing with them enslaved Africans. Some of the settlers included Louisiana’s first mixed bloods— mulattoes. 9
The early severe climatic conditions—humidity, heat, and mosquitos—still existant today, proved to be devastating to the early French and Spanish settlers. So, African slaves were brought to the area, and their labor was used to build the colony and work the sugarcane, cotton, and indigo fields. Early slave owners were both Black and White; most having fewer than twenty slaves, however.
The slaves came from many West African countries, as was the case in most of the Americas. Gwendolyn Midlo Hall and other scholars confirm that the first Africans to arrive in Louisiana came from Senegal, Gambia, and the Congo. 10 Many were Bambaras from the empire of Mali, West Africa (Taylor 1963). The summer of 1719 marked the arrival of five hundred Africans from Guinea. In the year 1721, slave ships brought Africans from Senegal, and some Africans are reported to have come from the Congo (Dart 1931b). However, by 1726, most Africans that were brought to Louisiana were Bambaras and Senegalese.
The Senegalese were favored by the French for their skill and expertise as farmers, and the French were especially interested in the Senegalese talents with growing rice. As a growing colony, Louisiana needed to establish an economic base. The French colonizers had hoped that the farming expertise of the Senegalese, combined with the commercialization of rice, indigo, and tobacco, would provide them with the labor and profits needed to establish an economic foundation. The French were also partial to the Senegalese because they did not rebel as frequently as the Bambara (also noted for their farming expertise), nor were the Senegalese as inclined to run away from the plantation as were the Gambians.
In some ways the exploitation of slave labor resulted in the artistic expression of the enslaved African and the creation of a class of major Black artisans in Louisiana. In New Orleans, evidence of black craftsmanship is visible in the French Quarter with its beautiful iron works found on balconies, gates, etc. (Christian 1972).
Another relic of early West African culture and craftsmanship is the African House built in 1750. This house is located in the southwest region and was built under the supervision of a Free Woman of Color, Marie Metoyer, who came from Ghana. It is called an African House because of its architectural design, which is similar to the design concept of West African houses.
Indeed, the first enslaved Africans became the early blacksmiths, carpenters, locksmiths, sculptors, masons, and bricklayers in Louisiana. Much of these same skills are highly respected occupations among the African-American working-class population today. In rural communities, such as the Opelousas region, African Americans boast about their ability or the ability of relatives to build family residences. Some of these family homes date back to the 1800s.
These early skills created a class all its own, separate and apart from the freed or the enslaved populations, although many persons in the free population possessed talent as carpenters, etc. These kinds of occupations created close working conditions between Blacks and Whites and often resulted in emancipation (Usner 1979).
The most important set of laws implemented during the colonial period, which would have a lasting influence on the traditions of Africans, were Le Codes Noir (The Black Codes). These laws were initially formulated for the French West Indies in 1685, and in 1724 modified for Louisiana (Allain 1980). They were severe regulations, or police policies (fifty-five of them), especially written for people of African descent and were responsible for the beginning of a police control of sorts, often cruel and barbarous. They restricted movement, controlled economic growth, and placed lowered economic value on property owned by persons of African descent.
The Codes have been described as paternalistic rather than designed to enforce slavery and racial prejudice (rules and guidelines for parents to follow when governing and disciplining their children). The Codes are said to reflect the French monarchy’s attitude toward order, unity, and the desire to make Louisiana more like the motherland, France (Allain 1980).
In reality these Codes were primarily concerned with (1) the enslaved African as property, and ways and means by which to protect that investment; (2) providing the complete and watchful control of Free People of Color; and (3) enforcing Catholicism as the main religion (which played a part in influencing present day syncretic folk medicine and religious traditions of Louisiana African Americans).
The most significant Articles, one and two, of the Codes introduced Catholicism into the West Indies and Louisiana in the mid 1720s. These Codes reflected absolute control and demanded religious unity believed to be necessary for civil peace. The first order of business was to convert enslaved Africans to Catholicism. African slaves were baptized in Christian ceremonies. Those that were baptized were in most cases eventually buried in Christian cemeteries.
In the early 1700s the Black population begin to outnumber Whites. This was partly due to the increase of mixed-blood children of African, French, and Indian ancestry. Fear that freed Blacks and mulatto children would gain the sympathy of French allies developed. In an effort to curtail the growing population of free Blacks, one article of the Code stipulated that cohabitation between French men and women of African descent would no longer be tolerated and thus became illegal. The famous Code Noir, often ignored by Whites, dealt:
mainly with slaves, though it also restricted the privileges of free Negroes. It required Catholic instruction and baptism for all slaves; forbade marriage or concubinage of white or free born or manumitted Negroes with slaves; fixed the conditions by which slaves could marry; deprived slaves of the right to sue or be sued; forbade the shackling of slaves; declared Negroes movable property; stated the conditions under which they might be manumitted and regulated in great detail the manner in which slaves might be punished. (Griffin 1959, 30)
During the early years of the Code Noir, many French slaveholders were relaxed about following these regulations. Interracial marriages and cohabitation continued, manumission occurred, and public gatherings among enslaved and freed Africans were permitted between plantations and at the homes of free Blacks.
The lack of a sufficient number of White women in the colony made it difficult to restrict cohabitation between French men and African women. Insufficient numbers of available mates were also partly the reason for continued marriages between free persons and enslaved persons of color. Often marriages between freed and enslaved populations were for the purposes of liberty. Free Persons of Color were thus in a position to work out agreements with slave owners in which they would purchase the freedom of their spouse or relative, further increasing the number of freed persons.
The French are said to have been the most lenient of the slaveholders throughout the colonies of the Americas; this was due to Article 43 of the Code Noir, which specified that enslaved families with children under the age of fourteen should be kept together and not sold separately. Surprisingly this was faithfully enforced in many of the cases involving slave sales. Africans were encouraged to utilize their time off on Sundays to sell goods, or hire out, to bring in extra income for themselves and their families. One can see how it was possible for blacks in Louisiana, unlike other areas in the South, to purchase their freedom and the freedom of their loved ones.
By the year 1751 policies to control the slave population were strictly enforced, and Louisiana begin to move more toward a state where slaves were viewed as incorrigible. Runaways were on the increase. They fled to wooded areas and bayou country where they organized with other runaways and remained uncaptured. They survived by joining Native American settlements and by looting plantations on the Mississippi. Slaveholders became alarmingly concerned about the growing population of slaves who remained at large. The Codes in essence, changed the lifestyle of Blacks in Louisiana (Brasseaux 1980); they remained in effect until 1806 when they were revised by the Territory of Orleans.
A totalitarian form of government ruled until 1845 when a Jacksonian democratic process begin in this area. Prior to 1845, voting privileges were extended to only landed gentry White males twenty-one and over who owned fifty acres of land or more. In 1845 a new constitution went into effect and the common man (white men), twenty-one and over, was enfranchised to vote. Local officials were now elected by popular vote, whereas before officials were appointed by the Governor or state legislation. Blacks and women however were still ineligible to vote. Immediately after the Civil War persons of African descent were allowed to vote, and some were elected state legislators, until 1989. Nonetheless, in 1898 a Louisiana constitutional law known as the “Grandfather Clause” was instituted that would alter voting privileges of Blacks. Article 197 (Grandfather Clause) of the constitution mandated that Black residents could not vote because their grandfathers did not vote.
When it comes to the vote, Blacks have always been a political pawn in this rural area. One White interviewee stated that a local Free Man of Color was convinced to sell his political position to a White in the late 1800s causing disruption in the Black community. 11 Between 1830 and 1860 Free People of Color (FPC) were allowed to vote in certain elections, if it meant the FPC’s vote would help a White candidate win an election. This issue of buying votes from Blacks who were recognized leaders in the Black community created much deception and division among Blacks.
There were continued attempts and scare tactics by St. Landry Parish Whites to force Blacks into acquiescence. White hate groups tried to introduce a state ordinance that would reduce the Free People of Color population to a status of semi-slavery. If the Colored free person was convicted of a crime, for example, instead of having the same sentencing as any other White free person, he or she was to be sold back into slavery for life. The selling of liquor to the enslaved African population by a Free Person of Color was also to be forbidden—it was to be considered an act to incite rioting and the punishment was also to be re-enslavement. Fortunately, these legislative attempts never succeeded (Sterkx 1972).
The general attitude toward the emancipation of the Negro in 1865 was a bitter one. The race riot in St. Landry parish of that same year illustrates this. One account states that although the Whites of St. Landry condoned the defeat of slavery, they didn’t want ex-slaves to rule them (Dupre 1970). The general attitude of vigilante Whites then became one of malice, and a deliberate plan was devised to oppress Blacks to assure subserviency. Their plan included the hanging of many early Black political leaders involved with issues centered around emancipation (DeLatte 1976).
During the colonial period, the political structure of the Opelousas region, and other parts of the Louisiana territory, was a military (Commandants) form of government. Orders were received from at various times the Governor General of Paris, the Viceroy of Cuba, and the King of Spain. Civil official appointments by the Governor began in 1805. Between 1807 and 1819 the parishes were formed. Thus began the “Anglo-American” jurisprudence form of government, placed on top of a French political system and attitude already in existence.
The involvement of African Americans in the political process in Louisiana gradually decreased during the middle and late 1800s. African Americans, including some Native Americans, were allowed to vote from the end of the Civil War until 1896. They did not vote again until the early 1950s (Fontenot 1970).
Prior to the 1960s voting eligibility for Blacks in Louisiana was determined based upon how much Blacks knew about the structure of government on the local, state, and national levels. “To prove they knew about current political events Blacks were required to pass a written test based on historical and contemporary, political and governmental issues.” 14 Neither Black nor White women were eligible to vote; however, they could own property and could lawfully maintain that property separate and apart from their husbands, if married.
The forms of government and/or leadership roles that exist in the cities of this tri-parish area today are similar to that of other cities. African Americans and women have made contributions in leadership roles. The mayor in Opelousas is an African American, and he serves as the first elected Black Mayor for the city; however, other Blacks in the region also hold this office. The Clerk of Court is another elected position in the city. The person in this position is responsible for maintaining court records and legal documents. Recently a woman was elected as clerk, another first for the area.
Each city in the parish has a City Council. Blacks hold some of these elected positions. The number of council members for each city depends on the parish district’s land area and number of inhabitants. This governing body is responsible for providing the city residents with all public services, for example, electricity, water, etc.
One of the surviving French forms of governing bodies is the Police Juror, first organized about 1811. Some members of this governing body are African Americans. Initially this was an elected-at-large position. Following several disputes about the election process, and a recent legal battle between White and African-American community members, elections for these positions are now based on vote by distribution. This is a very politically powerful governing body whose main responsibility is the construction, repair, and maintenance of drainage systems and parish roads. In an area where flooding is a constant concern, one can understand why a Police Juror is an important “political” figure in the community.
The parishes’ school boards consist of elected members representing the various political districts in each Parish. St. Landry has a Black school board president, another first for the parish.
The two dominant religious denominations are Catholic and Baptist. Most of the African Americans in the region are Baptist. However, the influence of Catholicism in Louisiana is central to the religious thinking of the people. Prior to the early 1800s, Catholicism in the Opelousas region, like most of Louisiana, was the only legalized religion. Persons were not required to attend worship services, but “public respect and acknowledgement of Catholicism as the only faith was expected” (Davis 1806, 55).
The first church in the area was the White St. Landry Catholic Church established in 1774 in Washington, Louisiana; the church later moved to Opelousas. It was not until the 1830s that churches of other denominations began to take root. The exception to this were the Baptist churches started by African Americans. Records show that Calvary Baptist and Canaan Baptist, both Black churches, were organized in the early 1800s; however, most Black Baptist churches blossomed in the mid 1860s and thereafter. The first White Baptist church was organized in late 1880. The first Black Catholic church in the Opelousas region was organized in 1920. Black Catholic churches in the other area were organized between the 1940s and 1950s.
In 1812 Calvary Baptist church in Bayou Chicot was the first Black Baptist church in Louisiana, and the first west of the Mississippi. It was established in the Opelousas territory, in what is now known as Evangeline parish, by a Free Person of Color, Joseph Willis. Beginning early in the 1800s, religious rebellion and community organizing via the African-American church began under the direction of leaders from Free Persons of Color communities like Joseph Willis (Fitts 1985).
Willis, from South Carolina, went to Louisiana for the purpose of ministering to the Opelousa Native Americans in 1804. He then began to minister to persons of African descent. The success Willis achieved in establishing an African-American Church at that time will perhaps never fully be understood. Many oral accounts relate stories of vigilante groups who destroyed church structures and made it difficult for Black persons who were attempting to start their own churches. 15 In any case this was a time of political turmoil in Louisiana. She was seeking statehood, and there was debate as to whether Louisiana should be admitted to the Union. Perhaps the confusion of statehood and the general feelings that Willis’ religious organizing efforts were not detrimental to the masses of the state helped paved the path for his success. Furthermore, church organizing was a pattern established in other states among Blacks in Protestant denominations.
According to oral history accounts, African Americans were “having church in each other’s homes, praying and praising God” long before the 1860s. 16 One female elder of the local African-American community said, “We were having church long before that. Our parents used to tell us how they had to hide and meet in houses to hold prayer meetings.” 17 What began as prayer meetings were in actuality formalized church worship. Perhaps this is the case for many early Black churches, although there are no formal records. Perhaps what started as efforts to conceal their church existence, has resulted in missing data and gaps in history about early African-American Christian worship styles and traditions. Early formal records were not maintained, and Blacks were very secretive about announcing worship meetings. As a result, many of the churches have a history older than what is documented.
Blacks attended local White Catholic churches until the early 1900s when Black Catholic churches began to flourish. When Blacks attended services at these churches they sat in the rear and in the “galleys” (balconies). Some even rented benches (designated by the church for those Blacks who could afford them) that were placed in the rear and reserved for a particular Black person or family. There is an old saying in the community that “all Blacks in Louisiana were born Catholic” (meaning they were all Catholics before they became any other Christian denomination). Many African Americans today maintain the graves of their early ancestors who are buried in White Catholic church cemeteries. 18 Even though Blacks could not participate in Catholic church worship services, or activities, they were encouraged by Whites to attend local White churches.
The mandatory attendance of Blacks in White Catholic churches continued until the 1940s. Growing discontent mounted against Blacks who continued to frequent White churches. White church attenders complained that Blacks, who were very vocal with shouts and other charismatic forms of worship, were too noisy as worshipers. Gradually Blacks were discouraged from attending, and adequate facilities for Black Catholics were fully provided in the mid 1900s (May 1981).
COLOR AND CLASS AMONG AFRICAN AMERICANS
Like urban New Orleans, this rural southwest region has a complex class structure among African Americans. In this instance class is determined by land ownership, occupation, and color. What is significant about this class structure, in relation to this study, is that folk doctors cross all class lines; therefore, class distinctions, as well as family kindreds, among folk doctors often play an important role in determining the social class of his or her patients.
The upper and middle classes are usually persons who descend from a line of landowners and/or have FPC ancestry. Descendants of Free People of Color are divided into two classes—the upper and middle. This is followed by the occupational or working class, and then there is the lower class.
The height of importance of this Free People of Color class formation was between 1724 and about 1780. Although small in number, they were the founders and builders, for the most part, of this African-American culture base. They are responsible for establishing an economic base, a social stratification system, a class structure, and intra-group prejudices based on skin color. These factors left a lasting effect on race and class issues in Louisiana.
There are several Negroid racial mixtures in Louisiana that are relative to this region.
The offspring of a White parent and a Negro parent is a Mulatto (one half white and one half black). The offspring of a White parent and a Mulatto parent is a quarterone or quadroon (three quarters White and one quarter Black). The offspring of a White parent and a quarterone parent is an octoroon (seven eights White and one eight Black). The offspring of a Mulatto parent and a Negro parent is a griffe (one quarter White and three quarters Black). (Leonard and Oubre 1983, 75)
The most frequently used terms to describe someone with African ancestry in Colonial Opelousas territory were Negro, Mulatto, and Quarterone. From 1803 until the 1860s the terms Negro, Mulatto, and Free Person of Color became the terms found in most legal records. A Free Person of Color was any freed person with African blood, regardless of skin color or racial mixture.
There are two communities found among descendants of the Free People of Color social-class population. Persons from both communities are descendants of some of the first settlers (African, French/Spanish, and/or Native American). This FPC class laid the foundation for early African-American upper-class status in Louisiana. One community is composed of primarily light-skinned persons. Many times they go to extremes to assure that the skin color of family descendants remains light from generation to generation. Marriage to another person of a similar color hue appears to be more important for this group than economics (Jones 1950). For the most part this practice remains today.
Another community of persons of the Free People of Color social class population includes persons whose skin hue varies from very light to very dark skinned. Marrying someone of the same hue is not as important as marrying someone on the same economic level. Land ownership for this group (and for the first group) is important. Most land is inherited and has been a part of the family estate in some cases since the 1700s.
The middle class (including persons from mixed heritage) are persons whose lineage is from a group who worked and saved to purchase land. In some cases they were migrants from other states in the original American colonies. As one woman identified a fellow neighbor, “he is a pure American,” meaning he does not have French ancestry or is not from French territory. 20 Usually their land acquisition occurred after 1865.
Another class of African Americans (including, in some cases, those from mixed heritage) are those whose parentage are from the occupational or working class. In the rural areas these were people who were house servants or drivers (chauffeurs). Some were brick layers, carpenters, etc. They usually don’t own acres of land; instead they may own a home and lot. Their descendants still carry similar type of occupational status.
Some of the same occupations that were popular among early rural Africans are considered the more meaningful skilled trades for persons today. In 1850 the occupational class in rural Louisiana consisted of eighteen Black and 148 Mulatto carpenters, three Black and forty-four Mulatto masons, two Black and eleven Mulatto merchants, two Black and five Mulatto shoemakers, and seven Mulatto butchers. Among the middle and upper classes were one Black and two Mulatto teachers, and one each of Black and Mulatto doctors (Sterkx 1972, 224). Most college-educated persons are from the second sub-class of Free People of Color and from the middle class. The lower class in this region are persons whose roots stem from the field laborers during the plantation era, or whose ancestors were the tenant or sharecropper class. Their descendants, in most cases, still live as renters or tenant farmers.
HOMESTEAD AND LAND OWNERSHIP
Homesteaders in this community are the backbone of the class structure. After emancipation the value of the property of many Black landowners decreased. Names such as “Coon Town” were given to describe predominately Black sections of town in tax rolls and receipts so as to discourage the purchase of the property by Whites (Falanga 1989).
The same tactics used to rob Blacks of their land in the late 1800s and early 1900s are being used by the establishment today to acquire Black land and to discourage Black homesteads. Some of the tactics responsible for Black homesteaders losing their property were back taxes, foreclosure, discriminatory marketing practices, and unfair market value sales. 21
Despite the difficulties encountered by early Black homesteaders, much of Black land ownership flourished post-emancipation. Thus land gentried Blacks were born pre-emancipation. The desire to homestead was one thing, but the means by which to do so was another. Many post-emancipation freed Blacks had little or no tools, nor the provisions to maintain themselves and their families while they attempted to homestead. Hence in many cases, becoming a landowner was difficult if not impossible (Oubre 1970).
The struggle to maintain land, once acquired, remains a concern for Black homesteaders; as economic conditions worsen and large farmers monopolize the market, more and more Black homesteaders are pushed into bankruptcy and extinction. In 1920, there were 926,000 Black farmers who owned about 15 million acres of farm land. In 1969 there were only 87,000 Black farmers, with less than 6 million acres (Martin 1985).
1. For historical information pertaining to the Opelousas Territory, I relied on data from Parish archives and library research. Housed in the St. Landry Parish Court House are old worn records, often hand scripted and in old French. Many of the historical and contemporary data in this study focus on St. Landry Parish since numerous older settlements were in this Parish and most of the historical records of Acadia and Evangeline Parishes can be found in the St. Landry Parish repository. At the Parish archives I examined Parish lawsuits, early maps, conveyance, church, marriage, emancipation, succession, probate records, and plat books, for general information relating to the historical events of the area and the historical events which affected the lives of African Americans in the area. Several interviews with Clerk of Court officials were conducted to obtain information about early settlers of the Opelousas Territory. In addition, I interviewed elderly Black and White members of the community who offered some local oral history accounts related to social conditions and the relationship between African-Americans and Anglo-Americans in this region during the 1800s and early 1900s. Other interviews were conducted, in person and by telephone, with public health officials, Parish and Federal agricultural agents, secondary and post-secondary academicians, and other nonspecific community members. I compiled historical data from libraries at Louisiana State University (Baton Rouge); Tulane University (New Orleans); Louisiana State Library (Baton Rouge); University of Southwestern Louisiana (Lafayette); local community Public Libraries; Louisiana Land Grant Office (Baton Rouge); and Chamber of Commerce Offices and Parish Tourism Offices.
2. The original Atakapa region included the present day parishes of Lafayette, St. Martin, Vermillion, Iberia, and St. Mary.
3. Washington was once called Negroville because of the large number of African Americans who settled there.
4. A couple of community private property owners claim that some of these mounds exist on their property.
5. The following sources offer detailed accounts of these Native Americans. They are Bossu 1771; Bushnell 1909; Hudson 1975; Peterson 1975; and Swanton 1911, 1922, 1946.
6. A photo in the Souvenir Edition of the Daily World, June 12, 1970, shows this type of housing, believed to exist around 1720.
7. Interview with John Fox, October 1990, Lake Charles, Louisiana.
8. Folklore collection #109, University of Southwestern Louisiana, Folklore Archives Lafayette.
9. Important sources for early history of African Americans in Louisiana in general, and in the southwest region specifically, are Desdunes 1937, DeVille 1973, Kendall 1941, Marc de Villiers 1982, Rousseve 1937, and Sanders 1931.
10. A recent historical study of the African presence in Louisiana was done by Gwendolyn Midlo Hall, Africans in Colonial Louisiana (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1992). Congolese heritage is prevalent throughout the Americas (e.g., New Orleans, Haiti, and Brazil). Another area where Congo folk traditions survive is Panama. See Patricia Lund Drolet, “The Congo Ritual of Northeastern Panama: An Afro-American Expressive Structure of Cultural Adaptation” (Ph.D. diss., University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, 1980).
11. Interview with Mr. Francois Nuex, October 1988, Opelousas, Louisiana.
12. Because of its durability and adaptation to the humid weather, cypress wood is still cherished as a good wood for building homes.
13. Locals eat these grapes fresh, make preserve with them, or they make traditional muskedine wine.
14. Interview with Black community leader Mr. J.J.Ertip, July 25, 1989, Washington, Louisiana.
15. Interviews with Brothers John Talazo and Frederick Flowers, deacons of a local Baptist church, August 23, 1989, in Ville Plate and Opelousas Louisiana.
16. Interview with Sister Victoria Sauls, deaconess of a local Baptist church, August 9, 1989, Washington, Louisiana.
17. Interview with Sister Olster Domingue, October 13, 1989, Lebeau, Louisiana.
18. Interviews with local community members, Mr. Fudge Jos and Mrs. Mame Sammuels, Washington and Opelousas, Louisiana, October 13, 1988 and September 19, 1988, respectively.
19. Interview with Mr. Howard Morganza, November 1988, Opelousas Louisiana.
20. Interview conducted with Mrs. L.Tissey, February 29, 1990, Eunice, Louisiana.
21. Many oral history accounts cite instances where Black land owners lost their land because of illegal tax debts.
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Secret Doctors — : Ethnomedicine of African Americans
” Historic and Contemporary Opelousas Territory .” Secret Doctors : Ethnomedicine of African Americans. Westport, CT: Bergin and Garvey, 1994. The African American Experience. Greenwood Publishing Group. 23 Sep 2012.
Chicago Manual of Style
” Historic and Contemporary Opelousas Territory .” In Secret Doctors : Ethnomedicine of African Americans, Westport, CT: Bergin and Garvey, 1994. The African American Experience. Greenwood Publishing Group. http://testaae.greenwood.com/doc.aspx?fileID=H354&chapterID=H354-80&path=books/greenwood. (accessed September 23, 2012).