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From Gumbo to Jazz: Iberia's African American Heritage

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By: Celine Alis

The history of African Americans in Iberia Parish (formerly part of the Attakapas district) dates back to the 18th century and there are several initiatives in the area to uncover and teach that heritage.

Read below about African Americans' contributions to Iberia Parish, visit historical locations of significance, and support local Black-owned businesses.

Iberia African American Historical Society

The mission of the Iberia African American Historical Society (IAAHS) is to foster the appreciation, understanding, and teaching of the long, rich, and unique history of African Americans in Iberia Parish; and also, by example and through programs and activities, to encourage and promote research, preservation, and publication of historical materials.

  • IAAHS has begun to recover the histories of African Americans in Iberia Parish and has installed two official state markers in the New Iberia National Register Historic District. The first marker (Bouligny Plaza, 128 W. Main St.) honors Emma Wakefield-Paillet, M.D., a New Iberia native and the first African American woman to become a physician in Louisiana (1897). Located at 500 French St., the second marker commemorates the anniversary of the 1944 violent expulsion of all the Black doctors and NAACP leaders from the parish.
  • IAAHS started an African American literature book club and publishes a scholarly journal to communicate its findings. The inaugural issue includes articles introducing two women born into slavery and associated with the Weeks family who owned Shadows-on-the-Teche in New Iberia. The journal is available here and the Iberia Parish Library. A second issue will be published in fall 2021.
  • Phebe Hayes, PhD, IAAHS's founder and president, recently published a guest blog for us about the West African origins of gumbo.

Shadows-on-the-Teche’s new tour, signage and African American history programming

  • The Shadows-on-the-Teche plantation home placed new signage in the gardens, which provide visitors with additional information on the history of the landscape at Shadows, as well as both the enslaved peoples and the Weeks family.
  • A new tour will also be launched this year to tell a more inclusive history of the Shadows and the people who lived and worked on the Weeks family plantations, while also putting the Shadows and the region into a broader context both regionally and nationally.
  • Additionally, a Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities Rebirth Grant will fund a speaker series featuring four respected Louisiana historians who will present public programs on Reconstruction, Jim Crow, and Civil Rights history for southern Louisiana with a focus on Iberia Parish. IAAHS will co-sponsor the series.

The new tour, signage and programming are part of the larger re-envisioning and reinterpretation of the site, as they will provide visitors with a better tour experience that encourages additional time spent onsite and engaging with the history and story.

Bunk Johnson Jazz Trail

Bunk Johnson was a Jazz musician who lived in New Iberia and is credited for teaching Louis Armstrong and other Jazz legends.

  • Visitors can learn more about Bunk Johnson and his music at the Bayou Teche Museum and in the historical collection hosted at the Iberia Parish Library's Main branch, then visit his grave at St. Edward's Cemetery.
  • The Bunk Johnson Jazz Festival is also held annually in his honor and an interpretative kiosk in Bouligny Plaza commemorates his legacy.

Woman looking at paintings at Bayou Teche Museum

Bayou Teche Museum

  • The museum's music exhibit covers Teche area's musicians from Bunk Johnson to Clifton Chenier — the King of Zydeco, who lived in New Iberia and is buried in Loreauville — to Grammy nominated Accordionist Corey Ledet, and Beyonce Knowles — whose grandparents are natives of the area. Knowles' sister Solange produced much of her 2016 No. 1 Billboard Album in Iberia Parish.
  • From the moment visitors walk in the museum's door, they are immersed in an inclusive history of Iberia Parish. Their first experience is watching a short video while sitting in the segregated entrance to the Evangeline Theater next door to the museum. Behind them sits the separate ticket booth and the movie screen they watch sits atop the stairs that led to the balcony allocated to Black residents. From there the museum's timeline acknowledges the first enslaved people who came with French settlers and the story of Emma Wakefield-Paillet, Louisiana’s first black female physician.
  • The education exhibit tells the story of segregation in the Teche and the religion exhibit features the United Methodist, a traditionally Black church.
  • The Civil War exhibit addresses how Iberia, St. Martin and St. Mary Parishes were excluded from President Abraham Lincoln's 1863 Emancipation Proclamation.
  • The Atchafalaya National Heritage Area recently awarded the museum a $1,000 grant to include text panels documenting the impact of enslaved labor on the growth and expansion of the sugar industry. Additional African American exhibits are in the works for the museum's new Doc Voorhies wing, which is under construction.

"Our expansion plans into the wing next door will afford us myriad opportunities to tell multiple stories on a rotating basis, one of which will be the expulsion of Black Physicians from New Iberia, others will recognize the works of Black visual artists…. and the list grows," said Marcia Patout, museum executive director.

Da Berry Fresh Market Manager

A few Black-owned tourism businesses

Visitors wishing to support Black-owned businesses can shop at the following:

  • Da Berry Fresh Market in New Iberia's West End neighborhood combines a fresh produce market with a job training program. This project was created by the non-profit organization Envision da Berry to bring fresh affordable produce and to stimulate the local food economy in New Iberia. The market offers produce and CSAs from the Iberia Community Garden, books and local products from local entrepreneurs, and gives back to the community in nearly every aspect. 
  • FLY Fit Nutrition makes healthy meal replacement shakes and energizing teas. Their latest creations are a Mardi Gras shake and Mardi Gras tea. 
  • Bayou Lit Bikes offers daily bicycle rentals for riding and sightseeing, and glow-in-the-dark bicycle night tours in the National Register Historic District. Owner Ashley Cahee also owns a praline business, Ash the Pecan Candy Diva. 
  • Brenda’s Dine-In & Take-Out is a down-home authentic Louisiana soul food/Creole diner in New Iberia. Owner Brenda Placide, who learned how to cook at a young age from her mother, the late Gustavia Davis, is proud to say all her meals are "straight from Mama's kitchen." She has been in business since the late 1980s.
  • Anointed Soul Food offers dine in or take out homecooked soul food daily plate lunches, Sunday barbecue and on-and-off site catering. 
  • The Coffee House is a take-out spot in Jeanerette where the Grant family has been cooking homestyle lunch plates for almost 30 years. 

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