One hundred years ago, Louisiana’s Superintendent of Education was T. H Harris, a position he held for 32 years from 1908 to 1940. His name is best known in Acadiana as that of the technical school campus in Opelousas and, before the creation of TOPS, for the eponymous university scholarship. Mr. Harris was from Claiborne Parish in the far north of the state on the Arkansas border. In his long career as an educator, he filled several positions across Louisiana. He studied at the Normal School in Natchitoches, now Northwestern State University, and taught in Winnsboro, Lake Charles, Opelousas and Baton Rouge. During his time in office, several programs for the improvement of education were set up: teacher tenure, certification standards and employee retirement. He also created technical schools and a shared financing system for education between the parishes and the state. Louisiana politicians continue to tweak the bases of the current education system that were formulated at that time. But an act that passed in 1916 under Harris that is not necessarily associated with him had the adverse consequences we have been trying to correct for almost fifty years.
Harris issued an order in 1915 which decreed that English would be the only language permitted in Louisiana schools. The following year, the Compulsory Attendance Act forced families throughout the state to send their children to school under penalty of fine or even imprisonment. As many of them lived in extreme poverty, therefore not having the means to pay the penalties, they had no choice but to put their children in school for the first time in their life. Thousands of Louisiana children found themselves in a classroom where they did not understand what the teacher, often Francophone herself, was saying in English, instead of being in the cotton fields or on fishing boats where they served as useful labor to their parents. One can hardly argue nowadays that these little ones were better off at work than learning the alphabet, but we can affirm that the transition could have happened less abruptly. The Compulsory Attendance Act also authorized corporal punishment against children. The testimonies of children forced to kneel on rice or corn have been widely documented, as well as other humiliations, such as soiling oneself for not knowing how to ask permission to go to the restroom in English. The most common and best known punishment was probably writing a hundred times what the poet Jean Arceneaux called "those damned lines": "I will not speak French on the school ground."
This practice was especially pernicious when one considers that at the time, students had to provide their own paper. Many children had to use the white wrapping loaves of French bread came in because their parents did not have the means to buy other paper. After having written the hundred lines, they had no paper to do their lessons. A double punishment: once for being poor and a second for speaking French.
Superintendent Harris strove for the advancement of education according to the standards of his time; one cannot doubt his sincerity. America at the turn of the last century was undergoing tremendous changes through both the industrialization of the economy and the diversification of its population. Many times in public speeches and personal correspondence, Teddy Roosevelt repeated the idea that America had room for only one language, the English language, and the melting pot was to produce loyal American citizens and not “dwellers in a polyglot boarding house”. It is with this state of mind our country jumped feet first into the twentieth century.
Today, the issue of immigration and assimilation is still relevant and raises many passions. However, for a hundred years, our experience in Louisiana shows clearly that our country is strong enough to support a wide variety of people who are part of the American nation and give lagniappe to everyone.