The Independent

Lafayette’s inconvenient truth

by Alyson Keenze

UL prof offers presentation on history of civil rights in Hub City — warts and all. Mostly warts, actually.

“Now I warn you—this content is pretty disturbing.” ‘Disturbing’ is a comparatively light word for what Dr. Rick Swanson, head of UL Lafayette's Political Science Department who also hold a juris doctorate, is about to present to an audience at The Hive (theater) on Jefferson Street Downtown: Lafayette’s racial history and how it affects the city today.

Drawing on the narratives of former slaves like Agatha Babino and Gordon [no last name], diving into Lafayette’s historical archives, the Library of Congress, UL-Lafayette’s Dupré Library’s archives and more, Swanson paints the dirty, unfortunate history of race in Louisiana. Starting in the 1700s and working his way to the late 20th century, Swanson makes his way through Louisiana’s particularly brutal racist history and gives special emphasis to Lafayette’s involvement — something rarely, if ever, taught in local schools. A video of the presentation of his research findings, titled “Black Civil Rights History in Lafayette Parish, 1800-1971” was recently posted to YouTube by AOC Community Media (and is embedded here.)

Swanson cuts through modern misconceptions and goes for the jugular of every racist uncle at Thanksgiving, and he provides ample source material to make his point.

Among his findings: Nearly a third of the population in Attakapas County — what later became the core of what we today call Acadiana, including Lafayette, Vermilion and Iberia parishes — was enslaved. Many of those slave-owning families bore familiar Acadian, now Cajun, names: Broussard, Martin, Mouton, Porche and De la Houssaye. By 1820, 47.3 percent of Attakapas County was enslaved. That number peaked at 50.8 percent in 1830, according to the U.S. Census.

The presentation winds up at the late 1970s, tracing a sordid path through Reconstruction, Jim Crow, segregation and the calcification of white supremacy in Lafayette Parish over a century, punctuated with the dedication in 1922 to slave-owning Confederate Gen. Alfred Mouton by the United Daughters of the Confederacy.

Dr. Rick Swanson
Photo by Robin May

This legacy of racism has manifested itself in Lafayette in many ways. A 2010 census showed that racial segregation between the north side of Lafayette versus the south side has not changed much since the 1950s. Perhaps the most shocking thing of all — something that still exists to this day, if on paper only — are Lafayette’s housing covenant restrictions. Often overlooked in fine print, these still exist in some modern housing contracts in some areas of Lafayette and stipulate that white homeowners cannot sell their house(s) to black buyers. For many these are but quaint relics of a gauzy past, but Lafayette’s neighborhoods, its churches and still many public schools — and especially its Mardi Gras krewes, the nexus of social, civic and commercial life in the city — remain segregated today.

Even the commonly seen and proudly displayed Acadian flag focuses on Louisiana’s French and Spanish backgrounds while ignoring the region’s heavy African influence.

The outlook, however, is optimistic, according to Swanson: “We can’t have racial unity without honesty,” he says during a Q&A that follows the presentation, smiling brightly and motioning with his hands. “Yes, I have some hope and inspiration,” he adds. “Now you have a better knowledge of history, which allows you to have better empathy. If you’re white, you have better empathy for the experience of blacks. These oral histories do survive in the black community, and if you’re black, understand that if whites aren’t aware of this, it’s not because they’re racist — it’s because they literally weren’t told [because] the Lost Cause movement was so successful.

“I have students come to me and say, ‘Yeah, I never learned any of this!’ . . . Now, you know, if you look around this audience, it’s about 50-50 black, white — some other races, too. This is great. What this group is could not have happened 150 years ago. It probably wouldn’t have even happened 60 years ago.”