Integrating Lafayette’s segregated history

A statue of Confederate Gen. Alfred Mouton occupies a prominent spot in Downtown Lafayette. Photo by Allison DeHart

For more than two years, Rick Swanson has tried to integrate the history of a still segregated town. Decades after the end of Jim Crow, Lafayette, like a lot of cities in the Deep South, remains largely divided by income and race — historically black and impoverished neighborhoods to the northeast of the Evangeline Thruway, white affluence to its south. For Swanson, understanding the source of that divide begins with a complete comprehension of Lafayette’s history, told from interwoven black and white perspectives.

That history is nearly complete, he says. On Thursday, he’ll present the culmination of this dogged and emotionally trying work, Lafayette in Black and White: A Brief History of Lafayette Parish, 1770 – 1970.

“I’m trying to tell a big picture story,” he tells me. “I’ve reached a point where I’ve exhausted the data sources — it’s never really completely exhausted — but I have all the data that’s needed to tell the story.”

Data in this case are historical records — 20th century studies, decades of census data, slave narratives and other primary sources — that fill in what Swanson regards as a heretofore incomplete tale of how contemporary Lafayette came to be. Begun in part as an effort to slay the well-worn local myth that Acadiana did not have much slave ownership, Swanson’s research has rounded out the black experience at major inflection points in Lafayette history, like the arrival of the railroad or the mid-20th century oil boom, which are taught to locals as unalloyed boons.

Not necessarily so for thousands of black families, cut off from economic and educational opportunities, particularly at the dawn of Acadiana’s petroleum era. Wide disparities in educational attainment, a legacy of slavery and segregation, largely left the black community out of the region’s prosperity.

What Swanson found in his research makes intuitive sense: Better educated white workers were in a position to take the jobs cracked out of the oil economy that bloomed in the 1960s. A “tiny fraction” of black men of working age at the time had high school diplomas, according to Swanson; where 25% of Acadiana’s white population went to college, 3% of African Americans did. Not only did more whites get the new jobs, armed with degrees, they were more likely to climb company ladders and start their own businesses. The result was vastly diverging social experiences.

“It’s basically compound interest. It’s inequity built upon inequity built upon inequity. You just didn’t see the wealth accumulation in the black community to the same degree as you did whites. It left black communities generations behind,” he says.

Swanson says his sourcing corroborates the oral histories of black families and fleshes out what they knew all along — slavery and segregation were devastating on the local black community, as anywhere else. His work, though primarily an academic exercise, is intertwined with Move the Mindset, a civic education group originally founded to lobby for moving the statue of Confederate Gen. Alfred Mouton from its perch in Downtown Lafayette. Move the Mindset, which is hosting Swanson’s talk, has expanded its scope, seeking to impact Lafayette’s conventional attitudes toward its racial history, one very much influenced by the Lost Cause revisionism that proliferated in the South decades after Appomattox. White oral history in Lafayette minimizes or even erases the region’s participation in slavery, and joins the romanticization of the Civil War as a conflict fought over states rights, not to preserve slavery.

“Well thank goodness slavery didn’t happen around here,” Swanson recalls a white friend saying recently. That’s a commonly held notion. What Swanson found in the historical record is a brutal legacy of Acadiana slaveholders, perhaps no worse than other areas, but certainly no better.

Swanson’s research has unfolded in public over the last two years. He’s given frequent talks to growing, increasingly diverse crowds and is now a regular speaker in the Leadership Lafayette program. The message is starting to move.

The impact of that work, Swanson believes, is not strictly academic, however important it is to set the record straight. Understanding that social systems created the conditions of enduring disparities in wealth, education and quality of life, he says, is the first step in an arduous process of reconciliation and rebuilding. History matters, in other words, because the past is very much present if you choose to be aware of it.  

“Where is the economic development? Where are the new schools? Where are the hospitals located? Where are the libraries located? The current patterns, the focus of money are still near the patterns of the past,” he says. “I’m not saying people are doing this on purpose. … It doesn’t occur to them.”

Move the Mindset presents Lafayette in Black and White: A Brief History of Lafayette Parish, 1770 – 1970, at the Lafayette Public Library – Downtown Branch Thursday, May 9, at 6 p.m. The event is free, but seating is limited.