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.”