‘My mission is to uncover that hidden history’ — Phebe Hayes

Phebe Hayes is a former UL dean and professor. She founded the Iberia African American Historical Society. Her story was captured as part of Voices of Race in Portrait, an exhibition by Conversation Starters that explores the experience of race in Acadiana through interviews and portraiture.

Photo by Lynn Musumeche

After retirement, I started researching my family’s history. I discovered that I come from strong Africans. I’m so proud of my ancestors. They had to have much strength to survive slavery, reconstruction and Jim Crow. I don’t think I could have. Why should I be afraid of anyone given what my ancestors had to endure? I’ve traced my ancestry back to the Congo, Nigeria, and Mali. Several of my grandfathers fought in the Civil War as members of the Union Army and the Union Navy. Despite history books that called them contraband, I view my ancestral grandfathers as warriors and agents of their own freedom.

Historically people have tried to weaken the image of black men and women who came off those slave plantations. I want to share the stories of my ancestors with my community. My African ancestors were men and women forced to labor on area plantations and who provided immense wealth for the plantation owners. I also want to share what my people did after the war — that’s exciting to me.

Also, historically, many African Americans of this region accomplished great things after slavery. During this period of Reconstruction, some became politicians, and some became professionals like doctors and teachers. Thanks to Jim Crow-era policies, many of their accomplishments have been hidden or erased. My mission is to uncover that hidden history and teach it to the community.

Phebe’s story was facilitated by Anne Swanson and republished with permission. Voices of Race in Portrait is showing Feb. 8 – Feb. 29 at the Acadiana Center for the Arts.