Sometimes in my travels, I learn a little more about a place than meets the eye. The small town of New Iberia is one of those places. It is one of Louisiana’s oldest and most historic. Straddling both sides of the beloved Bayou Teche, it is the center of the state’s sugar cane production. Locals are friendly and affectionately call their town “Da Berry.” Visitors come to tour the elegant plantation house called Shadows on the Teche, New Iberia’s charming downtown, and the jungle garden on Avery Island.
Of course, there is more to New Iberia than nice parks and swamp tours and historic buildings. But you won’t learn about some of it if you rely on information from New Iberia’s city government, books about New Iberia, or New Iberia’s four museums.
Specifically, the black population of New Iberia — 40% of the town’s residents with a long history in the town — seems to have been almost completely written out of the town’s past and present.
Here is a little of what I learned when I visited in October — with the caveat that these are the observations of an outsider who only spent a short amount of time in the community. As one resident reminded me, it’s complicated.
The City’s website on “City Demographics,” provides no information about city demographics although it does provide information about nursing homes and major employers;
The City’s website on the town’s history only refers to slavery by explaining that after its elimination, “the plantation system was completely disrupted.” It refers to Jim Crow laws as “the man who came to dinner and stayed” and announces that after “this (black) minority” spent “time on the cross” it was finally “entitled to America’s bounty”;
The city’s website describing visitor attractions dedicates a page to James Lee Burke, a local white author whose mystery stories are sometimes set in New Iberia. It does not refer to Natalie Baszile, a black Louisiana author whose book, “Queen Sugar”, takes place in New Iberia and has been adapted by Oprah Winfrey in an award-winning television drama series;
The city’s museum, the Bayou Teche, does not mention slavery, the Civil Rights movement, Jim Crow laws or the people who cut down all that sugar cane for 150 years. The museum has an exhibit dedicated to white James Lee Burke but no reference to black Natalie Baszile. The only acknowledgement of black history or accomplishments in New Iberia is presented in a few photos of musicians (the museum recently did sponsor an exhibit about slavery). The other museums in town honor science, Native Americans and Tabasco sauce;
The history book, “New Iberia: Essays on the Town and Its People” — which I heard referred to several times as “the local bible”–does not analyze the town’s history on subjects of slavery, Civil Rights or Jim Crow in its 507 pages. There is a the 24-page chapter called “An Historical Overview of Afro-Americans in New Iberia” that describes black schools, churches and festivals as “highlights of the black experience in New Iberia.” The book was published in 1986 by the University of Louisiana and is still available for sale there.
In this context, it’s not surprising that the town is divided by railroad tracks. Or that the community on the side of the tracks that is mostly black and poor doesn’t seem to be getting its fair share of government services.
For example in just the past two years:
The City stopped sponsoring sports and wellness programs in West End. All such services are located in a white neighborhood at City Park, over the railroad tracks, through downtown and across the bayou from West End;
The City shut down the West End’s kids summer camp so residents there had to sponsor their own camp; the city retained the kids summer camp in the white neighborhood of City Park;
The City shut down the West End’s only neighborhood library; the closest library requires West End children to walk across a busy street and railroad tracks along a right of way that one resident referred to as “snake-infested”;
The City plowed over the West End’s swimming pool, which had been used by local residents for generations; after failing to maintain the pool for years, the city justified its action by saying repairs would be too expensive. The City still maintains the pool in City Park;
The City proposed to close the veteran’s center in the West End, which, according to residents, had not been adequately maintained for years because funds allocated to it were spent on other things. West End residents successfully opposed the building’s demolition but, so far, it is still a mess.
The West End has gotten more than its share of some government services, namely, the oversight of local law enforcement, which many residents and the FBI suspect have systematically violated West End residents’ rights. Seven of its deputies are currently serving prison sentences for torturing people in the Parish jail. (Full disclosure: one of the non-implicated deputies cited me for speeding and he was polite and professional). In a recent public meeting, well-intentioned public officials responded to resident complaints about continuing police hostility by suggesting residents call an anonymous phone number to report crime instead of calling the police. https://www.usnews.com/news/best-states/louisiana/articles/2017-03-28/7-ex-sheriffs-deputies-sentenced-to-prison-in-beatings-case
There is some good news maybe. West End is working to build stronger community and a few of its members are active in local government. It’s too early to tell how effective this effort will be but people from both sides of town are working together.
Some people in our country have recently been referred to as “the forgotten.” Whenever I hear that, I am reminded that some people in our country could be called “the-barely-acknowledged-in-the-first-place.”
Thank you Kim for your courage and honesty. Sometimes we need to see ourselves as others from the outside see us. Some of us (Blacks and Whites) are taking steps to correct the omissions and distortions in the telling of our history. I can tell you that the Bayou Teche Museum and The Shadows-on-the-Teche both have plans to tell and promote the true and inclusive history of Iberia Parish. Through the newly formed Iberia African American Historical Society we will be erecting official Louisiana historic markers commemorating the achievements of African Americans of Iberia Parish. We are writing papers about our history for possible publication aimed at adults and children. We are organizing more community talks about local Black history aimed at educating all members of the community. We have a lot of work to do but many of us are working hard to see that the history of African Americans is included in the “official” story of New Iberia and Iberia Parish.
I am so glad you are taking on a leadership role in the community! And as you have said, the conversation needs to focus not on blaming but on mutual understanding with an eye to the future.
Love this, KIM.i don’t know why but your name, KIM, always pops up in caps! Great background – and haha you got a speeding ticket. Better frame that. xo – Laura
LAURA thanks. And I hope I don’t end up on the no-fly list.
Hi Kim , as a resident of “DA Berry” and also being of the ‘black community’ I would like to personally say thanks for this! Most of our people have no idea of how rich in the culture and background of all New Iberia is made of “we” as a community has been so caught up in naming the blame game that the whole town has become tainted! The younger generation has no clue that our town was a ” place to come back to “, meaning it was a time when you left and become something of yourself and you move back home and give back to the community and retired here! Most of us are all related and are cousins of cousins! Our life as beings has been so caught up in generational curses, strong holds, and trusting in the wrong kinds of people! Our (blacks) has failed us in culture, spirit, togetherness, but mainly our love and respect for those who came before us! Truth of the matter is, it is all about Respect! The focus is always going back and forth against one another, no support for each other and the lost of time and hurt when there are young kids who has no idea what our city was built on! I love New Iberia, I love my culture and I live in loving who I am as a black descendant of my African culture! But the main thing is how long must a struggle continues to go back and forth from one side of the street to the next! New Iberia is built on hurt from our descendants but we are Rich in spirit, culture and love and until the rest of the most catch up? The lack of knowledge will fall down on a few and the lost will continue to get brushed along the side! I truly knew all what you wrote and once again thanks for sharing, it’s all about love and who is going to stand for what is right! Thanks to all those that are truly fighting and a true change will come soon, Be blessed.. Kisha
Thank you for all of these insights.
Well said Kim. I am heartened to hear there are voices calling for a better tomorrow. I hope people listen.
Ms.Kim thank you for the commentary you wrote about the berry it is so very much true.Nobody seems to care anymore.My mom had a girl’s baseball team.My Dad coached a boy’s baseball team.Everyone almost would comeout and watch the games.There was no shooting,drug,hurting one another. We watched out for each other. Played in the Pasture, went to Block Dances on Hopkins.Played marbles always something to do.No killings we had a fight every so often. At the end of the fight we were still friends.These kids don’t know what they are missing. We as a community need to try and bring these things back.GOD BLESS DAD BERRY.
Thank you Mr. Alexander for your comments. Your note suggests great affection for the community. .
Great article kim
Of all the injustices you mention in your post, this is the one that I find mind-boggling! [In a recent public meeting, well-intentioned public officials responded to resident complaints about continuing police hostility by suggesting residents call an anonymous phone number to report crime instead of calling the police.] Sad to know that those stereotypical white, good-ole-boy sheriffs and police chiefs are still in charge in many small southern towns. This is the swamp the US Justice Dept should be draining!
The FBI has investigated the Sheriff’s office in the Parish — and courts have awarded more than $5 million (mas o menos — it’s hard to get the numbers in one place) in damages to dozens of victims of torture perpetrated by the Sheriff and his deputies. That’s a fortune in that small parish…and the sheriff continues to be elected, maybe because a huge number of black voters were removed from the rolls just a few days before the 2016 election. Oops, it was a mistake but if you somehow find out you were one of those removed, come on down to the County building to reregister within the next two days.