‘We weren’t wanted there, and the teachers made it known’ — Chris Williams

Chris Williams is a former councilman. He’s the CEO of SUNVESTKA and a lifelong resident of Lafayette. His 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

As a child growing up on St. Antoine Street, every time I crossed these railroad tracks going south, whether it was going Downtown to get groceries at Heymann’s Grocery or Greenwood Shoes, it was always a constant reminder that this was the ’70s. Whether it was women clutching their purses, doors being locked, or being followed in stores. The most specific thing, I think, was just the innate feeling of being racially identified and profiled, from a child to adulthood. And every time I cross these tracks, I remember just living through it. 

I went to five schools growing up because the school system was trying to figure out integration: St. Antoine Elementary was my first school and then I went to J Wallace James, SJ Montgomery, Lafayette Middle and then Lafayette High. Going to SJ Montgomery was an experience because we weren’t wanted there, and the teachers made it known. And being a fifth and sixth grader and not necessarily understanding that, I didn’t know where that anger came from, but I definitely felt it. When I was at SJ Montgomery, they said that those wanting to sign up for band, go to the butler buildings after school. So I informed my mom that was I going to be staying after school. In the band room, I was one of maybe three African Americans that stayed, and the comment that was made to me was, “Oh, you can’t be in the band, your lips are too thick.” So, you know, that just totally deflated me as a young man.

Growing up on St. Antoine Street for the past 57 years, race was always a conscious factor in Lafayette, particularly the Northside of Lafayette. And if you look at St. Antoine Street, it isn’t much different than when I grew up in 1970. A lot of the same families are still in these homes. The economic disparity that exists today is no different than it was in 1970. I can walk down this street and there are very few changes to this street from when I was 12 years old. I am 57 now. But although there has been very little change, I think there is a lot more hope that we can get to a better place as a community because of young people.

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