The Independent

Q&A: Dr. Rick Swanson

by Walter Pierce

The UL Lafayette poli-sci professor has been presenting a compelling history of black civil rights in Lafayette Parish from the late 18th century to late 20th century. His findings are unsettling.

The head of UL Lafayette's Political Science Department has been presenting a compelling history of black civil rights in Lafayette Parish (embedded below) from the late 18th century to late 20th century including (but not limited to) the antebellum era, the Civil War, Reconstruction, Jim Crow and the modern Civil Rights Movement. His findings are unsettling yet vital to understanding the racial dynamic in Lafayette today. The IND “spoke” to Swanson via email about his research.

IND: What prompted you to undertake this research?

Swanson: I’ve studied and taught about civil rights history at the national and regional level for many years. My wife Anne is friends with Skyra Rideaux, and they’re both in Leadership Lafayette. Every year Leadership Lafayette has a “Foundation Day” where they cover area history. Skyra asked them if they could include black history, and they agreed. Skyra knew about my expertise through her friendship with Anne, and so Skyra asked if I could give the presentation. I agreed, and spent almost every spare waking minute (and many nights skipping some sleep) for the past few months pouring through local archives, online digital archives, local libraries, etc. learning about black history in Lafayette Parish.

IND: Tell us about your sources, primary, secondary etc.

Swanson: There have only been a few historical works written about Lafayette Parish in particular, and only a couple relatively recent ones talk much about the civil rights history of African-Americans in Lafayette Parish. From my knowledge of regional civil rights, I knew there were many details yet to be discovered, so I began by searching through the archives at City Hall and at the local courthouse, the Louisiana Room archival collections at UL-Lafayette’s library, and even the Louisiana State Archives in Baton Rouge.

There are also many historical records that are now digitally available online (at least in part), such as Freedmen’s Bureau records, U.S. census data, Civil War correspondence, election data, and searchable full-text newspapers through the Library of Congress website “Chronicling America.” I’m still in the researching and data-collection stage in this regard.

I’ve also used many secondary sources that discuss Southern civil rights overall, or Louisiana civil rights history, to provide a “big picture” context for Lafayette Parish. I also use these nationally- or regionally focused secondary sources when they mention Lafayette Parish in particular, but most don’t mention Lafayette Parish at all, or might mention it in only a brief paragraph, or sometimes only a sentence or two, or even just a passing mention in a list within a sentence. By far the two best books I’ve come across that focus specifically on Lafayette Parish history are books by Carl Brasseaux and Michael Martin.

IND: What are your take-aways from the research?

Swanson: There are many significant take-aways from research. What surprised me most from my research was just how bad — in both breadth and depth — the violence and oppression was here in Lafayette Parish during slavery, the Civil War, Reconstruction, and Segregation. I’ve often heard and sometimes read a narrative that Lafayette Parish was different than the rest of the South, and was largely spared racial violence and oppression throughout its history, or that there were substantially less racial violence and oppression compared to the rest of Louisiana or the South. My research indicates that Lafayette Parish was not one of the best, but rather one of the worst, at some points in its history in these regards.

Dr. Rick Swanson
Photo by Robin May

The lingering effects of this oppression are also noticeable, such as continuing de facto residential and school segregation, and also the poor economy (and resulting poor tax revenues) of the state and region compared to the rest of the United States.

The final message of my presentation, though, is cause for optimism. We’ve come so far — we’ve made such progress — that it shows that much more progress is achievable if we continue to work together as a community towards ever more racial unity and justice. In a very real sense, the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s finally did much of the job that the first Reconstruction failed at, making it the Second Reconstruction; but the need for, and work of, the Second Reconstruction is still ongoing.