Central Louisiana boasts a rich culture and history. That history has been indelibly influenced by the contributions of countless African-American members of our community. In celebration of February as Black History Month, we reflect on some of the most influential African-American figures in our shared past, both distant and recent. The task of compiling this list in the amount of space allotted was daunting; indeed, entire volumes could be written about these folks and many more like them, and we still would barely have scratched the surface.
Arts & Humanities
Solomon Northup’s story of slavery in the Red River Valley is an important part of Black History in Central Louisiana even though he was a New York native who spent only twelve years in the area. His story is well known largely because of the late Dr. Sue Eakin, who devoted much of her career to reviving it for modern audiences.
Northup was a free African-American living in Saratoga, New York when he was kidnapped in 1841, sold at the New Orleans slave market, and kept as a slave in Rapides and Avoyelles parishes until he was freed in 1853. He published his story as the book Twelve Years A Slave in July of that year, and sold almost 30,000 copies within three years. Subsequent editions published in 1858, 1881 and 1890 pushed sales even higher before it went out of print for about eighty years.
During those eight decades, various writers and historians such as Harriet Beecher Stowe, U. B. Phillips, Kenneth Stampp, Stanley Elkins, and Joe Gray Taylor used Northup’s story to help document their studies of slavery. Publication in 1968 by LSU Press of an edition of Twelve Years A Slave prepared by historians Sue Eakin and Joseph Logsdon made Northup’s book widely available for modern audiences. Publication of this edition also led Eakin to identify and mark major locations connected to Northup’s experiences which were designated as the “Northup Trail”, and publicized in the booklet Northup Trail Through Central Louisiana. She also completed a musical entitled Northup, as well as Solomon Northup’s Twelve Years A Slave: 1841-1853, a children’s version of the story.
Recent editions of Northup’s book were published in 2012 and 2013. The 2012 version is part of the Penguin Classics series with an introduction by prominent African-American historian Ira Berlin. The 2013 volume edited by Randy DeCuir commemorates the 160th anniversary of Northup receiving his freedom at the Avoyelles Parish courthouse in Marksville.
Louisiana State University of Alexandria commemorates Northup’s story in two ways. The Edwin Epps House located on campus was built in 1852 and was originally owned by Northup’s final owner. It was donated to the University in August 1999, was reconstructed on campus using some original materials, and now houses a collection of folk art, collections honoring Solomon Northup and Sue Eakin, and an exhibit illustrating plantation history. LSUA’s second commemoration is one of the classrooms in the Multi-Purpose Academic Center often used for history classes which the campus requested that the LSU Board of Supervisors designate as the “Solomon Northup Lecture Hall” in October 2013.
Alexandria native Arna Wendell Bontemps was the son of a Creole bricklayer and school teacher. At age three, the family moved to Los Angeles where he would spend his formative years. Arna would go on to graduate from Pacific Union College in 1923. Following his graduation, Bontemps accepted a teaching position in Harlem in order to support his family. While teaching in Harlem, he would meet individuals who would have a profound influence on his life—James Weldon Johnson, W.E.B. Dubois, and Langston Hughes, with whom he would frequently collaborate. Bontemps would go on to be one of the country’s greatest Harlem Renaissance writers. His first book of fiction was God Sends Sunday (1931), the story of a black jockey by the name of Little Augie. He later published other books and short stories such as A Summer Tragedy (1932), You Can’t Pet a Possum (1934), and the popular children’s book, Popo and Fifina: Children of Haiti in collaboration with Langston Hughes. Bontemps received a master’s degree in library science from the University of Chicago in 1943 and was appointed a librarian at Fisk University, a position he would hold until his retirement in 1965. Bontemps died from a heart attack in 1973. His birth place home still remains in Alexandria and is the Arna Wendell Bontemps African American Museum and Cultural Arts Center.
A lifelong resident of rural Central Louisiana, Clementine Hunter was born on a cotton plantation near Cloutierville, and later moved to Melrose Plantation along Cane River. The plantation owners also used some of the buildings as an artists’ colony, welcoming writers and painters. Using discarded tubes of oil paint and found objects, with encouragement from the artists-in-residence, Hunter began painting in her fifties, creating over 4,000 paintings of memories of plantation life. Her candid scenes in vibrant colors captured rare glimpses of social, material, and cultural perspectives of African-American community in the South. Her work is included in prominent museums, galleries, and private collections. She was awarded an Honorary Doctorate of Fine Arts by Northwestern State University in Natchitoches, and was the first African-American artist granted a solo show at the New Orleans Museum of Art.
Morris Taft Thomas, a native of New Orleans, is one of Louisiana’s foremost visual artists and authors. Thomas received BA and MEd degrees from Southern University. His love for sculpturing was influenced by such mentors as Frank Hayden, Dr. Jack Jordan, and John Tarrell Scott. Thomas has taught art at Jones Street Junior High School, now Arthur F. Smith Middle Magnet School, Bolton High School, and Louisiana State University of Alexandria (LSUA). A very talented artist, Thomas was the recipient of the 2008 Professional Artist of the Year, Governor’s Art Award, the 2010 Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc., Humanitarian and Visual Artist Award at the national and international levels, the 2002 Appreciation Award for designing the Rapides Parish Jury Flag and Letter Logo, and the Civic Oscar Award for noteworthy contributions to the community and state. Thomas’ commissions include the following: a Metal Mask for President Nelson Mandela (2000), an ornament for White House Christmas Tree (2001), a Mahogany Crucifix for Christus St. Frances Cabrini Hospital (2010), a Metal Sculpture for B. B. King (2009), Metal Sculpture for City of Alexandria Police Headquarters (2005), Metal Sculpture “Egrets Nest” for the Alexandria Museum of Art (2009), and numerous other works across our community and country. Thomas continues to visualize the world through paintings, sculptures, and the written word, as only he can do.
Many African-Americans from Central Louisiana have contributed greatly to the education of our citizens. Notable educations include Professor David F. Iles, educator and former principal of Peabody Magnet High School. Prof. Iles, as he was affectionately known, was deeply concerned about the education of young African-American men and women. He knew that education would be their key to future prosperity. He was a great motivator, always letting his students know that all things were possible if they only would stay the course. The fruits of his labor can now be seen all over the United States, as his students have gone on to excel as educators, doctors, lawyers, engineers, athletes, religious leaders and other professionals. Other leaders that contributed greatly to the education of African-Americans in Central Louisiana were Mrs. Elnora Hall, noted educator at Boyce Rosenwald School; Walter Hadnot, for whom Walter Hadnot Elementary School is named; Arthur F. Smith, noted educator and former Assistant Superintendent of Administration, the second highest position in the system, for whom Arthur Smith Middle Magnet School is named; J.B. Lafargue, who, along with his wife, founded what has now become Peabody Magnet High School, and who would later have a school in Alexandria named in his honor; Carter C. Raymond, a New Orleans native, for whom Carter C. Raymond in Lecompte is named; and Millie Y. Kelso, for whom Kelso Elementary was named. Other noted African-American educators of Central Louisiana, past and present, include Charles V.C. Davis, Claude Davis, Alma Redwine, Charles Fontenot, Julius Patrick, and Levator Boyd. Before retiring in 1998, Boyd served as Instructional Resources Center Coordinator, Director of Vocational Education, Assistant Superintendent for Administration, and Interim Superintendent of the Rapides Parish School System. To this date, Boyd strives to encourage students to be all that they can be.
The church has always played a key role in the life of most African-Americans. The church was one of the key pillars in the movement toward equal rights for people of color. Noted religious leaders of Central Louisiana that had a great impact on the movement for equal rights, especially the right to vote, were Rev. Charles F. Smith, Sr., who pastored the Nazarene Missionary Baptist Church in Alexandria, and the Good Hope Missionary Baptist Church in Boyce; and Rev. W.A. White, who pastored the Rose of Sharon Baptist Church in Alexandria. These religious giants were not afraid to stand up for the right to vote and participate in the electorate, for people of color. Though sometimes threatened, they stood their ground along with many other ministers of their time such as Rev. P.M. Hall, Rev. Roosevelt Shorter, Rev. E. C. Curtis, Rev. G. C. Jacobs, Rev. Cullen Washington, Sr., Rev. C. L. Freeman, Rev. Lanny Young, Rev. James Pearce, Rev. W. L. Jackson, Rev. Dave Smith, Rev. Jerimiah Williams, Rev. J.J. Johnson, Rev. Joshua Thomas, and Rev. Howard Williams.
Law and Politics
Louis Berry, son of Frank Berry, Sr., a tailor and grocer in Alexandria, stands out as a giant among lawyers of his time. Berry opened doors that would never again be shut to African-Americans. In 1945, he became the first African-American admitted to practice law in Louisiana since A.P. Tureaud in 1927. Berry returned to his native Alexandria around 1950, and was introduced by Camille Gravel—a white criminal defense lawyer—to legal colleagues in Alexandria, a politically courageous act on Gravel’s part in then-segregated Central Louisiana and the south. Berry, for a time, would fill the role of the only African-American lawyer in Alexandria. Against all odds, Berry would work with black ministers in Alexandria to register people of color to vote. Berry would pave the way for African-Americans to assume roles in politics at all levels. His work would eventually open doors for individuals such as Julius Patrick to become Mayor of Boyce, Haywood B. Joiner, Sr., and Debbie Davis to become respected members of the city councils of Boyce and Lecompte. African-Americans that practice law or hold political office in Central Louisiana owe a debt of gratitude to Louis Berry. In 1996, two years before his death, Berry was inducted into the Louisiana Political Hall of Fame in Winnfield. Camille Gravel was inducted a year earlier in 1995.
Business & Industry
Ben Johnson was an entrepreneur and humanitarian who helped to build a community while he was building an empire. Beginning at five years old, in his hometown of Campti, Mr. Johnson worked to support himself and his family. “Me and my mother had a little business, she was making meat pies and I would sell them to people at the gin…I sold meat pies on the half with her,” he recalled. This first of many home-based businesses bred an entrepreneurial spirit in Mr. Johnson that carried throughout his lifetime. In 1932, at the height of the Great Depression, Mr. Johnson started Winnfield Funeral Home in Winnfield at the urging of several local businessmen who provided him with seed money of $2.75. He brought that business to Natchitoches, and, in subsequent years, opened several other businesses including Winnfield Life Insurance and Winnfield Casket Co. Mr. Johnson’s holdings represented one of the largest minority-owned enterprises in the state. As important as his business accomplishments were, Mr. Johnson’s commitment to his community is his legacy. He provided economic, educational, and social support through his many programs, including the Ben D. Johnson Educational Foundation, the North Street Boxing Club, and the Self-Help Shopping Center. Mr. Johnson also helped to fund and build churches throughout the city.
Ben Johnson was also a leader in the Civil Rights movement, taking up where his friend and mentor, Dr. E. A. Johnson, left off, although he doubted that he could take Dr. Johnson’s place. “People came to me after Dr. Johnson died. I say, ‘It ain’t no way. . . . I don’t have it. I can’t do a Dr. Johnson… Dr. Johnson’s dead now,’ and they wanted a leader. I said, ‘Well, if y’all can’t do no better, then I’ll accept, but you need somebody a little better than me’,” he recalled. He would go on to receive countless honors throughout a lifetime of service. He was named an honorary Louisiana state senator; he was awarded an honorary Doctor of Letters from Northwestern State University, where he established the Ben D. Johnson Endowed Professorship in Business; and he received the NAACP humanitarian services award. Lauded by U.S. President Bill Clinton and South African President Nelson Mandela, Mr. Johnson’s philanthropic activities made him a much-loved and respected leader in his own community. The two small words on Mr. Johnson’s memorial at the Jackson Square cemetery speak volumes about this beloved and benevolent man: “I tried.”
Sam McKay, a distinguished chemistry teacher and community leader, served in the US Army following his education, and after his discharge from active service, enrolled at Southern University in Baton Rouge and subsequently Tennessee State, where he received a BA in Chemistry. He received an MS in Chemistry from Tuskegee Institute in Alabama and a Masters+30 from Northwestern State University in Louisiana in addition to further graduate studies at various universities. Late in life, as his focus shifted to finance and housing, he attended specialized courses at the University of Oklahoma, Trinity University and Brigham Young. He served for many years as Commissioner and as Chair of the Commissions of Alexandria’s Housing Authority.
Music legends Little Walter, Lead Belly, and Buddy Guy all have historical ties to Central Louisiana: Little Walter learning to play the harmonica in Alexandria; Lead Belly’s song Red River and his incarceration (many believe unjust) in Angola; and Buddy Guy’s farm roots in Lettsworth.
Marion Walter Jacobs, aka Little Walter, was born near what is now Spring Bayou Road in Marksville. Little Walter revolutionized the Blues harmonica through amplification just by clasping a microphone to his piece as he played. He moved to Alexandria as a young boy and learned to play the harmonica on Lee Street, where a historical marker currently stands near the house in which he was raised at the corner of Lee and Warshauer Streets. Making his way to Chicago, he eventually became a member of Muddy Waters band, where he began recording his unique style of Blues. According to his 2008 Rock & Roll Hall of Fame induction, Little Walter “could make a harmonica moan and roar like a full horn section or produce an unearthly, haunting wail.” Little Walter made his first released recordings in 1947 and joined Muddy Waters’ band in 1948; by 1950, he was playing acoustic harmonica on Muddy Waters’ recordings. He later became a bandleader and, as such, his completed take of the first song attempted at his debut session, Juke. It became his first hit, spending eight weeks in the number-one position on the Billboard R&B chart. Juke is still the only harmonica instrumental ever to become a number-one hit on the Billboard R&B. Little Walter scored fourteen top-ten hits on the Billboard R&B charts between 1952 and 1958, including two number-one hits. His music and legacy live on in the form of the Little Walter Foundation, which is housed in Chicago and is represented by his daughter, Marion Diaz Reacco and other family members. His revolutionary style , virtuosity and musical innovations fundamentally altered many listeners’ expectations of blues harmonica. Louisiana senators Gallot, Kostelka, Long and Riser and Representatives Dixon and Harris sponsored a legislative resolution acknowledging the legacy of Little Walter in 2013 (SCR40). Today, the the annual Little Walter Music Fest is held annually in Downtown Alexandria in May.
Huddie Ledbetter, better known to the music world as “Lead Belly,” was born in Mooringsport near Shreveport. He was electrified by the guitar and mastered that instrument. He learned to play the accordion, mandolin and piano, and later became known as the king of the twelve-string guitar. “Stella,” as he affectionately called his guitar, became his ticket to life and his freedom. Lead Belly worked from Central Louisiana through east central Texas on farms and plantations in his early years, but music was in his blood. According to existing records at Shiloh Baptist Church, Lead Belly was one of the first musician’s to play the new church organ in 1918, when he was paid 25 cents for his efforts. He was not a mild man, and anger overcame him when provoked. He was sentenced to the state prison in Huntsville, Texas for a brawl that resulted in manslaughter. In prison in 1925, he wrote and sang a song during the Governor’s visit to the state prison:
If I had the Gov’ner
Where the Gov’ner has me,
I’d set the Gov’ner free.
I begs you Gov’ner,
Upon my soul,
If you won’t give me a pardon,
Won’t you give me a Parole?
Governor Pat Neff, who had promised at his election never to pardon a prisoner, set Huddie Ledbetter free. In 1930, typical in the Jim Crow south, he was sentenced to another prison term in the infamous Angola Farm prison plantation in Louisiana. Here, he was discovered by folklorists John and Alan Lomax, who were recording prison songs for the Library of Congress. He reprised the same song for Louisiana Governor O. K. Allen and was again pardoned. Shortly thereafter Lead Belly relocated to New York, where he forged a reputation on the folk circuit, making appearances, recording and doing radio work. In 1948 Lead Belly cut, with the aid of the newly invented long playing record, what would later become known as his Last Sessions, a definitive document of The Life and Music of the King of the Twelve-String Guitar. Lead Belly enjoyed national and brief European recognition. He wrote and/or popularized roughly 500 songs in the areas of field, ballad, square dance, prison, folk, nursery rhymes, and blues. After his death, the Weavers cover of Good Night, Irene went to #1 on the charts and sold a million copies; it was recorded also six months later by Pete Seeger. His music still has a great influence on some of the greatest artists including Eric Clapton (who covered Alberta as a tribute to Lead Belly), BB King, Bobbie Bland, The Beetles, The Rolling Stones, Little Richard, and others. Story has it that a Clapton type rock star visited his grave noting there was no head stone. Over 43 years later, his grave was dedicated at Shiloh Baptist Church, northwest of Shreveport. He was later honored with the issue of a Lead Belly postage stamp in 1998. Lead Belly was inducted In the Rock n Roll Hall of Fame in 1988.
According to George Guy (aka Buddy) in his autobiography When I left Home: My Story, “blacks weren’t part of history’ when he was the middle child of five with loving sharecropper parents growing up on a farm in Lettsworth, near Simmesport. That’s changed since Buddy Guy is Living Proof (his recent CD) that he is black history. His Central Louisiana roots are notable in his autobiography, which traces his humble beginnings on a plantation in Lettsworth to his family’s move to Baton Rouge, to his day job as a maintenance man at LSU, to his early gigs in and around Baton Rouge’s roadhouses and juke joints, to Chess Records and the Chicago scene’s blues, to his club in Chicago, Legends. His authentic blues club is still open today. His recordings from the 60’s to the present reflect his Louisiana imprinting and transformation. Eric Clapton said when Buddy was inducted in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2005 that was, “by far, without a doubt, the best guitar player alive.” However, Buddy, in his modesty, says he just takes what they taught him and he adds to it. The “they” are Willie Dixon, Lightnin’ Hopkins, Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters, Little Walter, Guitar Slim, Junior Wells, and John Lee hooker. That Jimi Hendrix was heavily influenced by Buddy is understated in his modest way. Notably, while performing for the President with BB King and others, Guy and King persuaded President Obama to sing a few lines of Sweet Home Chicago. The President paid tribute to Buddy Guy at the Kennedy Center Honors reception, noting, “Growing up as the son of a sharecropper in Louisiana, Buddy Guy made his first guitar out of wires from a window screen—that worked until his parents started wondering how all the mosquitoes were getting in. But Buddy was hooked, and a few years later, he bought a one-way ticket to Chicago to find his heroes—Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf. Pretty soon, he was broke, hungry and ready to head home. And then, one night outside a blues club, a man pulled up and handed Buddy a salami sandwich and said, ‘I’m Mud, and you ain’t goin’ nowhere’. And that was the start of something special.”
Johnie Varnado, Haywood Joiner, Jr., Dr. Greg Gormanous, Dr. Jerry Sanson, Tom David, Catherine Pears, the Alexandria Museum of Art, the Arna Bontemps African American History Museum, the Natchitoches Folk Life Festival, the Lead Belly Foundation and the Little Walter Foundation contributed to this article.