At Vermilionville, a reckoning with cultural exclusion

Photo by Travis Gauthier
Artifacts in Vermilionville's collection

D’Jalma Garnier isn’t used to having half the crowd walk out on him. A veteran musician who has toured the world with several prominent Cajun and Zydeco acts, he’s typically facing receptive audiences. But he remembers a group of Acadian tourists taking issue with his depictions of 18th century life on the prairies of Southwest Louisiana when he first began working at Vermilionville Living History Museum & Folklife Park 15 years ago. “All these older Acadians got up and left right away,” he says. “There’s at least 20 of them. They just wanted to hear Cajun history, and I’m not giving them Acadian history. 

“And,” he adds, “I’m sure they didn’t like my French.”

Specifically, Garnier was lecturing about how the population of what we now call Acadiana was 80 percent Black in some areas in the 18th century, a combination of native-born Creoles and a growing influx of skilled enslaved laborers primarily from the French and Spanish colonies of Senegal, Bight of Benin and the Congo region in Africa — and how that population made lasting cultural contributions to the region in food, music, agriculture and metalwork, among other trades. 

While the Creoles of Acadiana have long been part of Vermilionville’s mission statement, at the time, Black history had not been prominently displayed at the museum and slavery rarely discussed. Many guests came expecting a walk through of Cajun prairie life. In its telling, that history is often so focused on the redemptive Acadian resettlement in South Louisiana following their expulsion from Canada that it omits some of the dynamic social roles of other ethnic groups distinct to this region, as well as any honest discussion of historical racism and oppression.  

D’Jalma Garnier plays fiddle at Vermilionville during Creole Culture Day 2015 Photo courtesy The Acadiana Advocate

The efforts to clarify the historical record — especially when it comes to the misrepresentation and exclusion of some cultures — reflect a sentiment and conversation now being held at many educational institutions across the country. Over the years, Garnier and others have watched Vermilionville make strides in presenting a more comprehensive and accurate portrayal of the region’s history. Change at the museum, however, is a work in progress and finding consensus has often proved difficult, with underlying racial tensions fueling fear and mistrust.

That boiled to a head last month when Vermilionville staff (and the museum’s advisory Foundation board) clashed with its parent organization, the Bayou Vermilion District board of commissioners, over a proposed statement they prepared in support of the national protest movement against social injustice and police brutality in the wake of George Floyd’s death. Disagreement foamed over at a contentious board meeting on June 24. Fallout the following week resulted in four BVD commissioners tendering their resignation from the board, including President Robert Minyard. In their resignation statements, departing commissioners cited an organization drifting from its core mission and taxpayer obligations, while taking issue with what they viewed as an inappropriate political statement. 

Jennifer Farr, the only Black BVD commissioner, took personal offense to the board’s handling of the proposed statement, specifically in the way it shunned minority voices in the process, including her own. A swift retreat into an executive session blocked Farr, who attended remotely by Zoom, out of the meeting. “It made me feel terrible,” she told The Current at the time. “How do you surround yourself with people who think that? It’s not like everything was always easy for me. It’s not like I’ve never encountered it before. But, it’s the year 2020. Why are we still fighting this?”

Vermilionville, open to the public in 1990, is the flagship tourism project of the Bayou Vermilion District, which was established in 1984 to clean up and conserve the Vermilion River and public sites along its shores. In addition to the living history museum, Vermilionville houses a restaurant and cooking school, regularly hosts cultural events including concerts and weddings, and offers kayak rentals and educational summer camps. 

The recent turmoil isn’t the first sign of strained relations between Vermilionville and its parent organization. The BVD commission has frequently revisited its funding subsidy to Vermilionville. In 2006, following Hurricane Rita, the commission forced several budget cuts on the museum and BVD Executive Director Kerry Collins suggested closing Vermilionville in favor of a wetlands research park (at the time the museum had a separate executive director; the two positions were consolidated to one CEO in 2008). Around the same time, BVD and the city of Lafayette also entertained proposals to transfer ownership of Vermilionville to UL and another to merge it with the Acadiana Park Nature Station. 

The Bayou Vermilion District is funded largely through a property tax that generates about $2.1 million a year. Of that money, $325,000 went to Vermilionville last year to help support its overall operations (the museum’s own revenue covers the remainder of its $1.1 million budget). In 2016, Lafayette Parish voters renewed the 10-year millage, in addition to approving a $4 million, 20-year bond issue for district projects. The BVD millage will be back up for renewal in 2026.

 “I don’t see it as a conflict,” BVD CEO David Cheramie says of the dual missions of his organization. “The assumption was we would always have tourism. Vermilionville is the economic development that BVD was tasked with from the beginning.” 

David Cheramie in front of timeline of Black civil rights in Lafayette Parish Photo by Travis Gauthier

In addition to the BVD commission, Vermilionville is supported by an advisory board, the Vermilionville Living History Museum Foundation, a nonprofit that facilitates grant funding and accreditations. VLHMF board President Michael Martin says the Foundation board has long recognized a need to raise awareness of the Creole, African American and indigenous histories of Acadiana. The UL history professor recalls this mission spearheaded in part by noted Lafayette civil rights activists Joe Dennis and Pat Rickles, both of whom were active on the foundation board when he first joined in 2007. 

“These were people who not only recognized it as a problem,” Martin says, “these were people who actually fought against [racial injustices] external to Vermilionville. Although they are no longer on the board, that recognition has never gone away.”

Another torchbearer of the cause is current foundation board member Phebe Hayes. Hayes, a retired UL professor of communicative disorders, has made history her second calling. She grew up collecting oral histories from her New Iberia community — a passion she realized into the Iberia African American Historical Society, incorporated in 2017. 

Hayes was prepared to step away from Vermilionville following last month’s combative BVD board meeting, but has since changed her mind, in part because of her confidence in the foundation board and its ability to be a positive influence. “The people I serve with, they understand,” she says. “They understand the importance of true diversity and not just tokenism, and I think efforts are going to be made to reflect that truth. The people whose stories are being told need to be at the table, and that includes Native Americans and people of African descent.” 

Hayes was instrumental in Vermilionville adopting the addition of “peoples of African descent” to its mission statement in 2019. She takes issue with the blanket use of the term Creole — an often confused classification with varying definitions — to cover all African ancestors of the era. “How can you tell the story or teach the history of a region when you minimize the story of the Africans, or when you talk about us you refer to us as Creoles or free people of color, which purposefully distorts the truth to me.” 

A portrait of Phebe Hayes originally featured in Conversation Starters’ “Voices of Race in Portrait” Photo by Lynn Musumeche

Both Hayes and Martin have been inspired by the staff at Vermilionville, who they say have taken to heart the museum’s mission to more equitably represent the history of all cultures in the region. This month, Vermilionville got official word of its accreditation with the American Alliance of Museums, becoming the first organization in Lafayette Parish to earn the honorable distinction and one of just 22 in the state. 

Vermilionville Curator Anne Mahoney, who oversaw the three-year accreditation process for the museum, notes that the extensive self-examination forced staff to review many of its internal operations and relationships, from job descriptions and stakeholder surveys, to its funding, operations and long-term goals. One key development born out of the process was an updated Strategic Plan and Memorandum of Understanding between Vermilionville, the BVD commission and the VLHMF board. The museum also hopes to update its website to solicit more regular feedback for public accountability. 

 Mahoney says that when she first joined Vermilionville in 2015, Acadian culture still represented about 80 percent of the information presented at the museum — a focus she and other staff have been working to correct. “We set the intention to make sure that when you go into the village you come out knowing as much about our other cultures as the Acadians,” she says. Those efforts included working with UL political science professor and historian Rick Swanson in 2018 to develop a Lafayette Parish Black Civil Rights Timeline, now on display in the village’s introductory house, Maison des Cultures. In 2015, the museum opened its Native American Common Grounds (a project spearheaded by former Museum Operations Coordinator Jolie Johnson), with an open-air palmetto roof structure that began hosting the museum’s annual Native American Culture Day, as well as an evolving residency program and workshops inviting Louisiana tribes to engage with park visitors. 

On July 22, the BVD commission, at a meeting held with its remaining five members, again took up consideration of Vermilionville’s statement on racial justice — this time ratifying it with unanimous approval. The commission also approved a statement — directed to the respecting appointing authorities for its current board vacancies — requesting they consider diversity as a goal of the makeup of the commission.

Commissioner Farr acknowledges a challenging road ahead in initiating new members, in addition to confronting the harsh economic impacts of coronavirus (revenue is down approximately 50 percent since the pandemic; 47 employees have been furloughed).

 “It was very disheartening to have that actually happen,” she says of the recent upheaval, “but I’m encouraged for the future. You see all the possibilities. You see how we can make this right; we just have to do the right things in order to get it there. It’s not gonna happen overnight. It’s not gonna be easy. But it is something we’re all focused and working toward. Now we have a board — even though it’s a limited board — that’s all on the same page.”  

Inside Vermilionville’s 19th century modeled school house, where vintage cast iron desks face a sprawling American Flag and blackboard, D’Jalma Garner, fiddle in hand, doesn’t let outside politics interfere with his interactions with guests. Currently on furlough from the museum, Garnier is a master fiddler who studied under the legendary Black Creole and Lala-style musician Canray Fontenot. His unique lessons and historical tangents range from musical examples of how Hank Williams lifted his famous song “Jambalaya” from the Cajun tune “Grand Texas,” to stories of distinguished St. Landry Parish free man of color and plantation owner Martin Donato. 

“I always avoided board meetings,” he says. “I could only produce change through my sole efforts, one person at a time. I listened to as many Black people as possible for their perception to bring this to Vermilionville. Some very young Black school children almost made me cry from their appreciation and hugs.”