The sky settled down into an early May gradient of twilight colors over the statue of Confederate General Alfred Mouton, his arms crossed over his white stone chest. Across the street, crammed standing-room-only inside of The Hive’s black box theatre space, more than 50 people hushed as Dr. Rick Swanson took the stage.
Swanson unfurled tables and charts, photos and timelines, documenting a century’s worth of struggle for black civil rights in Lafayette Parish. Several slides were dedicated to the slave patrols of the early 19th century, participation in which was compulsory — “Like jury duty,” he said — for all adult white men living in this area.
These brutal militias were tasked with doling out 15 lashes to any escaped slaves they managed to apprehend, a punishment capable of killing by infection or blood loss. The patrols constituted the first police forces in the region.
Mouton himself owned 120 slaves and was tasked with overseeing these slave patrols which, according to Swanson, meant he was functionally in charge of the “systematic torture” of black people in our parish.
Swanson’s one-hour lecture, the first in a series of facilitated educational events called “Conversation Starters,” was the fruit of exhaustive research: hundreds of hours spent combing through interviews and government archives and yellowed 19th-century newspapers.
A group of concerned locals organized the series to promote education, dialogue and understanding around racial justice. Indeed, throughout the presentation, the sense of connection among those in attendance steadily grew. Spontaneous applause burst at the mention of the recent removal of the memorial obelisk in New Orleans, erected to honor to efforts of the Crescent City White League to topple the Reconstruction-era integrated government.
And when the house lights came up, it didn’t take long for hands to raise.
“Myself and four other blacks were the first to integrate [Mt. Carmel],” said Barbara Landor, the anger in her voice carefully controlled. “Fifty-two years, and no proms. No ring ceremonies. No dances. Nothing.”
Landor went on to graduate from Xavier University in New Orleans, but made it clear that were it up to her alma mater, she would not have, “because Mt. Carmel’s principal declared me ineligible to go to college.”
A white woman seated beside me, now 71, shared how she’d attempted in her youth to help integrate a local bar, only to be blocked at the door by the “entire UL football team.”
The audience conducted itself like one large, attentive organism, composed of a startlingly wide range of ages, from 19 to 75. The mood was charged, tense without being hostile, uncomfortable in a healthy, electric way.
After the program ended, most people lingered, introduced themselves, swapped impressions and contact information, made plans to attend the next event in the series, a free public showing of the documentary 13th, about race and the carceral state, scheduled for June 7 at The Hive.
“Lots of information, hard facts,” said Denise Gobert, a black woman, as we filed out the door. “Now let’s see if they do something about it in their day-to-day life.”
Outside, beneath the navy sky, the statue of General Mouton loomed as the crowd trickled out of the theatre, its voices coloring the quiet night air all around him.