Memorials with soil surface Lafayette’s untold history of lynchings

Jars hold soil from the land in Lafayette where Rosemond Cormier and his daughter are said to have been lynched Photo by Ruth Foote

What we do know about Louis Sinclair is that he was lynched in March of 1896 in Carencro.

According to newspapers of the era, “the negro brute Sinclair,” as he is described in one account, was accused of attempting to assault a white farmer’s wife.

But there are those who believe that Sinclair, who maintained his innocence and was also referred to as Lewis Sinclair and Louis Senegal in history records, was a victim of his circumstances. He suffered the same fate as many of the 4,000-plus individuals who were lynched across this country. In Louisiana, the figure has been documented at 549 persons.

Reconciling the past with the present is the aim of the Equal Justice Initiative through its Legacy Museum and Center for Peace and Justice in Alabama, and through its historical marker projects nationwide. And it is also the aim of local Black and white residents who are responsible for making Lafayette a part of EJI’s big picture.

At 10 a.m. this Saturday, the Lafayette Parish Equal Justice Initiative Coalition will pay tribute to Sinclair during its second Soil Collection Ceremony. The first, held on a sunny morning in December 2019, honored Rosemond Cormier and his teenage daughter Rosalie, both lynched in 1899 in Lafayette.

The March 27 ceremony this week will be streamed live via Move the Mindset’s Facebook page. 

By newspaper accounts, Sinclair was considered guilty even though he never received his day in court. The New Orleans Picayune went as far saying: “While nothing definite is known, the wretch, beyond a doubt, has paid the penalty of his crime.”

Sinclair was awaiting identification at the Carencro jail when guards were distracted, and later found that “the prisoner had escaped,” according to the New Orleans Picayune. The same paper’s headlines note that Sinclair was probably taken away and lynched.

Sinclair was taken by force from the Carencro jail, according to the New Orleans Times-Democrat, which reports 500 men were responsible. Newspapers also report that there had been an earlier attempt to grab Sinclair from the parish jail in Lafayette (before he had been transferred to the Carencro jail), but it had been foiled by the sheriff. Sinclair was taken on the evening of March 23, and his body was discovered March 24.

“He was unlikely to be guilty,” says history professor Ian Beamish of UL Lafayette.

Beamish serves as the co-liaison of the local EJI coalition along with Move the Mindset President Fred Prejean. Prejean and Move the Mindset, a locally formed social justice advocacy organization, have also pressed the case to remove the statue of Confederate Gen. Alfred Mouton from its current perch in Downtown Lafayette.

For community activist Prejean, who was honored as the 2020 Lafayette Civic Cup recipient, there was no doubt in his mind that he wanted to form a local coalition after he first learned about the national nonprofit EJI and its founder, social activist and attorney Bryan Stevenson. Prejean was eager to begin the formal process for Lafayette to participate.

Prejean believes the only way to reconcile injustices of the past is to recognize and accept what has happened to African Americans. And that is not an easy thing to do. According to Beamish, many people “don’t want to confront the past” — especially its bad parts.

But the group is determined to get the stories of lynched victims told, and give a voice to the known six individuals from the Lafayette area, including Louis Sinclair and the Cormiers. More soil collection ceremonies are forthcoming in the year ahead.

According to Prejean, participating in the EJI process — from research onward — has been a mixture of both pain and pleasure. “Pain was to learn the facts of what actually transpired,” he says. “The pleasure was being able to document a part of history that was not known before.”

Setting the record straight is important, according to Beamish, a Canadian, because there is a large gap between the history of the United States and “the divergence of history that gets taught in high schools, elementary schools and beyond in public spaces.”

Beamish argues many white Americans do not want to challenge their concept of history, which negates the racist atrocities that have happened. “And anything that threatens that is not welcomed,” he says.

Yet racist elements from history continue to haunt the country and cause strife.

Once history is known and acknowledged, Prejean says, then the country can better understand the disparities that exist between the races and have been handed down generationally. They range from a lack of wealth to a lack of education, and also incorporate the reasons why Black people are not treated equally.

“Once Blacks were free, they walked off the plantation with nothing but the clothes on their back, and they had to establish a life with nothing,” Prejean says.

Soil Collection Ceremony
Coalition members participate in Lafayette’s first soil collection ceremony in 2019. Photo by Ruth Foote

A growing interest to redeem the past was evident Dec. 14, 2019, when the first Soil Collection Ceremony was held in Lafayette’s Thomas Park near the Broadmoor subdivision, the area where the Cormiers were understood to have been lynched. According to research, more than 200 bullets were put through the Cormiers’ small home. Rosemond Cormier tried to defend his family, and shot back, killing one of the estimated 30 white men gathered outside, according to newspaper accounts. Cormier’s wife fled and survived, but Cormier was captured and killed, his skull bashed in. According to The New York Times, their 15-year-old daughter’s throat was “cut ear to ear.”

When community residents gathered for this event two years ago, Black and white individuals — one by one — helped to fill the four large clear jars with symbolic dirt from the nearby neighborhood. The jars represented two sets, etched with the names of Rosemond and Rosalie Cormier. One father-daughter set remains here, and the other set was hand-delivered to Alabama to be placed in the EJI museum.

Madeleine Larue was among the Lafayette coalition members who traveled to Alabama to bring the jars to EJI’s Legacy Museum for posterity. “The group of us that toured had some wonderful discussions about the whole experience,” Larue recalls. “It was very enriching.”

Once the soil collection ceremonies have been completed, Prejean’s goal is to confirm a location for the historical markers representing the six Lafayette Parish victims, and to share the local coalition’s research findings on the victims.

“That’s going to be quite an affair to attend and learn a history that has never been taught by the school system to our knowledge,” Prejean says, “and has never been handed down through the generations.”

But for now, the soil collection ceremonies provide more than a reconciliation of the past.

“We’re giving them the funeral they didn’t get,” Larue says. “We’re celebrating a person’s life that gives them the dignity they deserved.”

Disclosure: Ruth Foote participated in the 2019 Soil Collection Ceremony and is a member of the local EJI coalition.