Sarah Breedlove was born two days before Christmas, almost two years after the end of the Civil War on Burney, a cotton plantation near Delta in Madison Parish. She was the fifth child of two former slaves, Owen and Minerva. Of all their progeny, Sarah was the first to be freeborn. When Sarah turned 7, her mother died. When Sarah was almost 8, her father followed his wife to the grave.
The orphaned girl began a new life with her sister Louvinia and her abusive brother-in-law in Vicksburg, Miss., earning her keep by picking cotton and other miscellaneous menial jobs. Finding life intolerable due to the combination of her brother-in-law’s cruelty and the heavy workload she was forced to endure, she married Moses McWilliams at the age of 14 and four years later gave birth to daughter A’Leila. In the meantime, Sarah’s brothers had relocated to St. Louis and established themselves as successful barbers; when her husband, Moses, died two years later, Sarah and her young daughter joined them.
Working to support her daughter as a washwoman who earned less than $2 a day, she nevertheless made certain A’Leila was enrolled in public school while Sarah attended night school to educate herself. After crossing paths with C.J. Walker, who worked in advertising, she married him. She also acquired a diseased scalp condition; her life would change forever.
By the time the 1890s had rolled around, Sarah Walker’s scalp condition caused her to lose much of her hair. By 1905, through experimentation with home remedies and commercial products, she developed her own unique line of cosmetic hair care products and grooming system for black women. Walker’s system promoted healthier hair and scalps through more frequent shampooing, massage and her special healing ointment. Replacing the traditional practice among black women of straightening hair by ironing it, Sarah concocted a revolutionary straightening system that used a hair softener aided by a straightening comb. Her cosmetics and hair straightening method soared to success in St. Louis; she expanded to Denver, where she and C.J. were married. C.J.’s public relations acumen helped expose Sarah’s work to widespread attention, and he insisted she use the moniker, “Madam C.J. Walker” as her business handle, although they divorced six years later. During their marriage, the two traveled extensively throughout the South and Southeast, giving demonstrations on the “Walker Method” which involved her own formula for pomade, brushing and the use of heated combs. While she was building her hair care empire, Madame Walker work tirelessly to promote black self-help and pride, becoming a major contributor to the NAACP and the black YMCA.
As her profits grew, she opened a factory and beauty school in Pittsburgh, eventually moving to Indianapolis.
By 1910, the Madame C.J. Walker Manufacturing Company was a huge success. The Indianapolis location not only manufactured cosmetics, but also began training sales beauticians. Named the “Walker Agents,” their fame spread throughout the black communities of the United States promoting Walker’s own credo of “cleanliness and loveliness” as a step in promoting the advancement of African-Americans.
She was a tireless supporter of charities and educational causes. Madame Walker made one of the largest contributions to the cause of purchasing the home of Frederick Douglass to save it as a historical site. After her divorce from C.J., she traveled throughout Latin American and the Caribbean to promote her business and teach hair care methods. When she transplanted herself to Harlem, N.Y., she founded philanthropies that supported educational scholarships, donations to a home for the elderly and was a huge supporter of the National Conference on Lynching. She died at her New York estate home at the age of 51 from hypertension.
This daughter of former Louisiana slaves is credited with being the first black woman to become a self-made millionaire. The Hermione House Museum in Tallulah has a special exhibit that honors her accomplishments.
Hermione House Museum, 315 Mulberry St., Tallulah, (318) 574-0082.
Cultural Riches in Robeline
The Adai Indian Culture Center lies in close proximity to Toledo Bend Lake Country in Robeline on a historic site and offers a fascinating glimpse into the heritage of the remarkable tribe, the role they played in settling of both Texas and Louisiana and its peaceful co-existence with European settlers. Located on the grounds are their historical dwellings, tepees and St. Anne’s Catholic Church as a visual history lesson to guide you through their story. Discovered artifacts revealed the Caddo tribe has been in North America since at least 800 A.D.
The 18th-century activities that occurred in the area of present-day Robeline were an irritation that forced the French to produce the pearl that is Natchitoches.
When the Spanish settlers from the Canary Islands arrived in Cane River country during the early 18th-century, the establishment of missions caused the French enough chagrin to respond in kind and found the first town in Louisiana known as Natchitoches.
The Spanish, upon arrival, also met the Adai, a Native American offshoot of the Caddo tribe. As far back as the early 1500s, the writings of Spanish explorer Cabeza de Vaca chronicled the first European encounters with the Adai. The name “Caddo” is derived from a French abbreviation of “Kadohadacho,” which means “real chief.” The Adai get their name from a derivative of the Caddo word, “hadai,” for the brushwood that covered the land. The tribe’s own oral history also recounts tales of peaceful trading with explorers Iberville and Joutel in the 17th century.
From the time the Spanish arrived, the lives of the Adai and the settlers would be forever intertwined. In 1716, the Caddo Adai were introduced to Christ by the Catholic Spanish when the mission of San Miguel de Los Adaes was founded. Less than 10 years later, the Spanish raised the Fort of Adayes, a palisaded structure that not only protected their mission but proclaimed to everyone that the mahogany-colored Red River belonged to Espana. It served as a crucial stronghold on the border between Spanish and French territories until 1763 when Louisiana was ceded to Spain. Additionally, it was a royal fort. For 50 years, the Presidio Espagnol de la Province de Tecas remained the Spanish capital of the Texas Province. Here the Adaesanos (the descendants of Spain) and the Caddo Adai co-existed and worshiped together in loyal harmony. In 1773, the fort was closed, the Spanish established a new capital at Bexar (present-day San Antonio) and the Adaesanos were ordered to relocate there. Some of the Caddo Adai migrated with them, but many returned home to join the stubborn Spaniards and their own families who refused to leave the area of the presidio. Relocating their church to the Shamrock area, the two cultures worshiped side by side until 1886 when once more the church was moved and renamed St. Joseph.
When St. Joseph’s Church was lost in a fire, a new church was built by the faithful in 1916. It was a beautiful little church built in a Gothic Revival style that’s rarely found in Cane River country. With its pitched roof, lancet windows and a two-stage belfry, it was called the Church of St. Anne. Since the parish was originally founded back in 1716, St. Anne’s remains the oldest Catholic church to be found in all of the Louisiana Purchase area.
Both the Caddo Adai and the Adaesanos still adore their God there together. Both cultures consider the church a symbol of their faith and resilience, a sacred tribute to their ancestors who would not give up on their home or their faith.
The Adai Indian Nation Cultural Center, 4460 Hwy. 485, Robeline, (318) 472-1007.
At the end of the Seven Years War in 1763, as part of the Treaty of Paris, the French government ceded La Louisiane to Spain, a vast spread of real estate that included all territory along the Mississippi River from New Orleans to St. Louis, and all western lands with rivers that spilled into the father of waters. It was a large area that needed to be populated to give the Spanish a strong foothold against the British, who held the Eastern Bank of the Mississippi called West Florida. The expelled Acadians from Nova Scotia were given passage to New Orleans on a fleet of Spanish ships granted by King Charles III of Spain.
By the time the American Revolution began in 1776, Louisiana’s Spanish governor was young Bernardo de Galvez, and although he was a Malagueno from the beautiful Andalusia region of Spain, he was as much a fire-breathing patriot of the American cause as any solider from the 13 colonies. Galvez hated the British. He smuggled supplies to the Americans fighting the War for Independence on the East Coast and regularly seized British ships found in Louisiana’s water. To achieve his dream of populating Luisiana, he brought colonists from his home of Malaga, an area founded by the Phoenicians in 770 BC, and ruled by Carthage, Rome and Islam during its 2,800 year long history. Settlers also came from the Canary Islands to Louisiana.
In June 1778, the brigantine San Josef left Malaga with the first wave of Malaguenos headed for Louisiana. On board were the families of Juan Garrido and Teresa Gomez (widow of Antonio Villatoro). For five months, this difficult voyage brought them to Cadiz, Puerto Rico, Havana and finally to New Orleans where they waited several months due to the arguments between Galvez and his second, Lieutenant Colonel Francisco Bouligny. Adding to the delay were preparations of supplies and equipment needed for the new settlement. Galvez and Bouligny bickered back and forth about choosing the actual location of the new Spanish settlement.
They finally reached an accord when both agreed that a site in the Attakapas district on Bayou Theis (Teche) would be ideal. On Jan. 26, 1779, 20 settlers in two large vessels departed New Orleans bearing the names of Romero; Gomez; de Aponte; Ortiz; de Porras; Segura. Leaving the Mississippi, the group traveled through the marshes of Bayou Plaquemines and stopped finally when they reached Bayou Teche. They christened their new home Nueva Iberia and planted barley, wheat, cotton and hemp, but years later would learn the land was far better for raising cattle than hemp.
Under the scarlet and gold flag of Spain, Galvez soon fought the American Revolution with his Spanish troops on Louisiana soil. He expelled the British from Fort Richmond (Baton Rouge) and drove them out of West Florida at Pensacola although a hurricane destroyed his original fleet. The routing of the British from Louisiana and West Florida territories helped to hasten the end of the war and the American victory.
Floods, epidemics and other mayhem caused the new settlement to be relocated several times, until it came to its present day location on Bayou Teche; when the Spanish arrived, the area was already populated with the Acadians. The two cultures dwelled together in much harmony.
The Segura family settled on a body of water that would later be christened Spanish Lake. Located deep in the heart of Cajun Country, the revered and celebrated Spanish cultural influence on the city of New Iberia stands harmoniously apart from the flavors of Acadiana, adding another rich layer to the diversity of Louisiana.
A Magnet For History
Each January once the holidays are over, I fall back to earth with a thud, but through the years I’ve found the only panacea to these post-holiday doldrums is hitting the River Road and driving someplace historical.
The Pentagon Barracks in East Baton Rouge Parish lie in close proximity to Huey P. Long’s Art Deco capitol skyscraper, but back in the early 1700s this space was a French military facility after Iberville discovered the area. By 1779, after Baton Rouge was ceded to the British 16 years earlier, it was the site of a humble dirt fort. Named Fort Richmond, Louisiana’s Spanish governor, Bernardo de Galvez, with Spanish troops, victoriously fought the only battle of the American Revolution that didn’t take place within the 13 colonies on the east coast of America. The Spanish renamed it Fort San Carlos. At the very same fort, 31 years later, the rebels of the West Florida Republic, raising their new flag of independence named the Bonnie Blue Flag were outraged that they had not been grafted into American citizenship, as had the rest of Louisiana. Vehemently opposed to remaining under Spanish rule, they conquered the old fort by sneaking through an old cow path and renamed it Fort Baton Rouge. Offering it to the United States as a petition to become part of the new Union, Federal troops occupied it later that year.
From 1813 to 1815, the fort was an assembly site for American troops who were headed for the Creek War and then the Battle of New Orleans. Due to the fact it was so close to New Orleans, and in the event of an attack supplies could be moved quickly south, it became an U.S. Army Ordnance depot. During the Mexican War of 1847, it was a vital supply source for troops.
A young Army engineer, Lt. James Gadsen, was responsible for its construction. Five oblong buildings placed in the shape of a pentagon were erected, four were barracks, one was a multi-purpose building poorly constructed and demolished the year it was built. Today, the Pentagon Barracks still bears its five-sided name, but actually only consists of the four original brick, columned buildings.
At the time of his election as president of the U.S., Zachary Taylor was post commander.
When Louisiana seceded from the Union in 1861, Governor Thomas Overton Moore sent state militia troops to overtake the fort that then supplied ordnance for the Confederate Army. Once again, the fort fell in 1862 when it was captured by Union troops who withheld it through the duration of the Civil War. Louisiana State University leased the land in 1884, but moved downriver in the 1920’s to make way for the new state capitol building.
The barracks now house the office of the Lieutenant Governor, state offices and also serve as apartments for some state officials.
I used to indulge in a Sunday morning tradition each week of luxuriating in bed with a cup of French Roast coffee reading the Sunday newspaper. This tradition started back in the 1980s but ended with the last decade, because truthfully I didn’t find the Sunday editions nearly as interesting or enjoyable as in years before – certainly not worthy companions to a good cup of coffee on a honey-colored morning. One such morning last November, I revived this tradition with The New Orleans Advocate and enjoyed the Sunday newspaper, as I hadn’t in years. Although the Times-Picayune publishes a Sunday edition, I once again pondered how the New York-based owners of the Times-Picayune deemed New Orleans wasn’t worthy of a printed daily. That, naturally, led to the question: What would Eliza Nicholson think of all of this?
Eliza Jane Poitevent Holbrook Nicholson was born in Gainesville, Miss., in the 1840s and was later reared by relatives in Hobolochitto, Miss., former Choctaw Indian territory. Moses Cook, quartermaster to Andrew Jackson when Old Hickory passed through on his way to fight the Battle of New Orleans, established this town, perched on a bluff over the Hobolochitto creek, as a post. From the beginning it was apparent Eliza was different.
There in Pearl River County, she lived as a fey little girl who communed with nature and who drew wildlife to her like bees to honey. She wandered dreamily through the countryside and wrote poetry, many of which were published is respected periodicals. When her work caught the eye of Colonel Alva Morris Holbrook, publisher of The Daily Picayune (New Orleans’ daily newspaper) not long after the Civil War, she accepted his offer to become its literary editor and married him in 1872. It was unheard of for women to write for a newspaper, much less be paid for it. She wrote under the pen name, Pearl Rivers to “protect” her family. Holbrook, considerably older, was divorced; his ex-wife later tried to attack the new Mrs. Holbrook with a gun and a bottle of rum.
Four years later, Holbrook died in bankruptcy. The Daily Picayune was mired in debt and lawsuits. Eliza’s family begged her to give it up, but her brilliant business manager, George Nicholson, offered his financial support. The consummate journalist who could not give up writing Eliza finally accepted his offer. Now helming the Picayune, in four years she transformed it from a dying daily to one of the leading papers in the country. In the meanwhile, Eliza and Nicholson fell in love and married.
The paper’s print expansion included hiring Dorothy Dix, a pioneer in women’s advice columns and introducing the jaunty “weather frog” in the 1890s. It became a paper that was family-oriented with more illustrations and a wider scope of topics to appeal to everyone. The paper fought corruption, was the voice of advocacy for good causes, supported railroad expansion and political reforms. A devoted lover of animals, Eliza wrote many editorials protesting dog fights and the abuse of horses. She can be considered one of the main reasons for the charter of the Louisiana State Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals was established in 1888.
In 1877, she helped found the Ladies New Orleans Pacific Railroad Aid Association that was a force in the completion of railway lines into New Orleans. She renamed her hometown of Hobolochitto to Picayune, Miss., after her newspaper.
George Nicholson died of influenza in 1896, and Eliza followed him 11 days later. Her legacy of providing New Orleans with reliable daily printed news lasted almost two centuries.