Family Life

Black History in Louisiana: Part I

By Joy Holden


As we celebrate Black History month, we want to honor the many men and women who have accomplished great things, stood up for positive change, and pioneered the way for others in our city and state. We also want to encourage you to go explore and visit these landmarks of change.

“There is no State in the Union, hardly any spot of like size on the globe, where the man of color has lived so intensely, made so much progress, been of such historical importance and yet about whom so comparatively little is known. His history is like the Mardi Gras of the city of New Orleans, beautiful and mysterious and wonderful, but with a serious thought underlying it all. May it be better known to the world someday.” –Alice Dunbar-Nelson, Poet

Places To Visit

Chalmette Battlefield
Amid Andrew Jackson’s motley crue of defenders were the First and Second Battalions of Free Men of Color, which played an important role in the Battle of New Orleans in 1814-15. Louisiana was the first state in the Union to commission a military officer of African descent, and an act passed by the Louisiana legislature in 1812 was the first in the nation to authorize a black volunteer militia with its black line officers.

St. Augustine’s Catholic Church
St. Augustine’s in New Orleans’ Faubourg Tremé neighborhood was built in 1841 for a mixed congregation of Free People of Color, white Creoles, and slaves. Free People of Color composed approximately half of the congregation. The church is unique for having one of the most integrated congregations in the country at the time of its opening. You can still go to a worship service in this historical church.

Port Hudson Battlefield
On May 27, 1863 the Louisiana Native Guard, one of the first all-black regiments to fight in the Union army, finally faced the Confederate enemy in the field. The charge of the Native Guard on this day at Port Hudson, Louisiana, was the first such use of African American troops by the Union army.

Xavier University
Xavier University, established in 1914 in New Orleans, stands alone as the first and only African American Catholic university in North America.

McKinley High School Alumni Center
In 1927, the modern brick McKinley High School was constructed in Baton Rouge for African American students, the first of its kind in the parish. Although the original high school burned down in 1998, the alumni center that stands in its place was rebuilt to honor and memorialize the prominent school as well as provide a place for the community to gather.

Lincoln Theater
The black-owned movie theater, built in 1950, was an entertainment mecca in a time of segregation, as well as home to many pivotal events for the African American community, and a center for other black-owned businesses in Baton Rouge. Though closed for many years and in disrepair, the theater is on the national registry and can still be visited today.

Mt. Zion Baptist Church
In June of 1953, Reverend T.J. Jemison, pastor of Mt. Zion, initiated the Baton Rouge Bus Boycott, the precursor to the famous Montgomery Bus Boycott that would follow in 1955. Under segregation, black riders were restricted to sitting in the back of the bus, despite being the majority of bus patrons. Jemison and others presented a recommendation for Ordinance 222 that was ignored. From the pews at Mt. Zion, Jemison organized the free ride system that allowed African Americans to navigate around the city without using the bus. Two weeks later, the two groups reached a compromise and set a precedent for peaceful transportation protest. Although the original structure is no longer there, you can still visit Mt. Zion today to learn about the history of the influential church, its members, and pastor.

University of Louisiana at Lafayette
During the 1954-55 school year, Southwestern Louisiana Institute (the current University of Louisiana at Lafayette) became the first all-white institution of higher learning in the South to integrate. Louisiana’s primary and secondary schools would not become totally desegregated until 1970.

Kress Building
The current temporary downtown library branch was the site of the first lunch counter sit-in that occurred in Baton Rouge. On March 28, 1960, seven Southern University students sat at the all-white lunch counter and refused to leave when told to do so. They were arrested for disturbing the peace, but their actions inspired many others to do the same. In 1963, Baton Rouge leaders voted to desegregate several downtown lunch counters.

William Frantz Elementary School
On November 14, 1960, Ruby Bridges, a bold six-year-old girl, walked into the doors of William Frantz Elementary School in New Orleans to desegregate the school. You can still visit the school and walk through those same doors Ruby did 56 years ago.

New Orleans City Hall
On October 21, 1963, civil rights activist Rev. Avery Alexander led a group of protesters to the “white only” cafeteria at the New Orleans City Hall to sit-in and demand equal rights to eat at the same tables as his white peers.

Celebrate Black History All Year

The Louisiana citizens who came before us fought very hard socially, legally, and spiritually to desegregate many systems. Therefore it seems silly that we have to segregate our months into proper historical categories. I vote we integrate our months and recognize the historical contributions of Louisiana African Americans all year.

This does not mean we do away with February as Black History Month. It is necessary to help some people be deliberate and intentional in honoring African American accomplishments. Black History Month began with “Negro History Week,” a concerted effort by Carter G. Woodson, the second African American to graduate from Harvard, to get schools teaching African American history. Since 1976, every U.S. president has officially designated the month of February as Black History Month.

While this designation is a positive move, teaching Black History does not have to be relegated to one month a year. Parents, you can put on your history caps and teach your kids the many contributions of African Americans. And, you have a special gift! We are in Louisiana, where African American accomplishments abound.

Connect To Your Child’s Interests
Start with celebrating Louisianians who have done great things that relate to your child’s hobbies. If your child is interested in the arts, teach her about Clementine Hunter, a world-renowned folk artist who painted her life around Melrose Plantation. If your child loves sports, find YouTube clips of Doug Williams or Paul “Tank” Younger, both trailblazers in the NFL. If your child is spiritual, share about Henriette Delille and Juliette Gaudin, two Free Women of Color in 19th century New Orleans who started the second religious order for women of color in the United States and educated free and enslaved African American children. And if your child digs science, show them the brilliant Norbert Rillieux, one of the earliest chemical engineers who revolutionized sugar processing, or Madame C.J. Walker, the inventor of many hair products who cultivated a million dollar beauty industry. For a complete list of people to honor, click here.

Diversify Your Book Collection
When you go to the library, look for children’s books about pioneering African Americans. Extend your reach beyond Dr. King and include such heroes as Lonnie Johnson, George Moses Horton, Fannie Lou Hamer, Trombone Shorty, Langston Hughes, Effa Manley, Sojourner Truth, Bessie Coleman, and John Lewis. For a more complete list, click here.

See the Sights
Our state is rich with landmarks that are living history sites. Spend some time as a family on a road trip or even a walk downtown and use our “Places to Visit” as a guide. There’s something special about walking on the same grounds that held momentous occasions. No matter the month or the season, these destinations tell stories of brave men and women who stood up for what’s right.

Teaching our children the history of our nation, our state, and our city is critical when raising the next generation. Let’s teach the whole history all year. We may have to do a little research in order to include Black History throughout the year, but it will be worth it when our children have a rich, multidimensional understanding of historical contributions. ■

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