African America Historic Sites, Opelousas, Louisiana
Digging into Louisiana genealogy led to me to understand an interesting history of Opelousas, the third oldest city in Louisiana following Natchitoches and New Orleans.
The “poste” was established by the French colony’s government in 1720 for the French coureurs de bois or trappers who visited the area to trade with the Opelousas tribe and other Native Americans. Later, French soldiers arrived to work at the Poste des Opelousas, and many were accompanied by slaves. Over time, many of these enslaved people were set free, and the gens de couleur libres, or free people of color, joined others arriving from New Orleans to form a unique Creole society.
“A group in Opelousas’ population, which has maintained its individuality, is the ‘free people of color’,” wrote Winston De Ville in “Opelousas: The History of a French and Spanish Military Post in America, 1716-1803.” “Unlike the gens de couleur of New Orleans, many of whom had migrated from the West Indies, these people of Opelousas were ex-slaves set free by grateful masters or mulattoes descended from mixed marriages and declared free by a white father. Also, a former slave often purchased a relative and gave him his freedom.”
As the Louisiana colony developed, it became more common for mistresses and their “mulatto” children to be freed, “resulting in the dramatic growth of Louisiana’s free black population in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries,” according to “Creoles of Color in the Bayou Country” by Carl A. Brasseaux, Keith P. Fontenot and Claude F. Oubre.
In the 1763 Opelousas Census, for instance, there were 82 free people of color. By 1860, 18,467 were listed as free people of color.
Naturally, the Opelousas area is home to many historic African American sites, including towns such as Leonville and Palmetto that were established by free people of color.
A few places to visit when the tourism sites open once again:
Begin with Le Vieux Village Historical Park, a collection of historic buildings at the east entrance to Opelousas that includes the Opelousas Tourist Information Center. Here you’ll find the former St. Joseph’s Methodist Church of Palmetto, built in 1948, and the circa-1800 home of Marie Francois Venus, a free woman of color. Venus’s house, one of the oldest structures of its kind in the Lower Mississippi Valley, was originally located in the neighboring community of Grand Prairie. The Venus house offers a great example of bouissage, walls insulated with Spanish moss and mud.
While perusing Le Vieux Village, check out the zydeco music exhibit at the tourism center. Zydeco music reigns supreme in Opelousas, a musical genre born in southwest Louisiana by French Creole musicians. If you visit on a weekend, be sure to tune in to KRVS-Radio Acadie, which broadcasts special zydeco programing such as “Zydeco Stomp” with Herman Fuselier, executive director of the St. Landry Parish Tourist Commission.
Make your way downtown to the Old Federal Building at the corner of Landry and Court streets across from the courthouse. This impressive building in the heart of town was once home to Manon Baldwin, a free woman of color and prominent Opelousas businesswoman, according to the authors of “Creoles of Color in the Bayou Country.”
“In addition to serving as her residence, the property was also a boardinghouse, restaurant and tavern,” the authors write. “Her proximity to the courthouse square, her relationship as provider of goods and services to lawyers, judges, jailers, prisoners, and the general public who frequented the courthouse, as well as her experience with the workings of the legal system during her alliance with Baldwin (an Opelousas laywer), apparently became her source of power and security during the remainder of her life.”
The Creole Heritage Folklife Center at 1113 W. Vine St. in Opelousas is the creation of folklorist Rebecca Henry, the daughter of sharecroppers who grew up in Leonville. The Center showcases the traditions and history of Louisiana’s African-American community and is part of the Louisiana African-American Heritage Trail.
Historic churches in Opelousas include the Holy Ghost Catholic Church at 788 North Union St., the largest Catholic congregation of African Americans in the United States, and the 1891 Mt. Olive Baptist Church at 227 West Church St., once site of the Seventh District Baptist School for African Americans.
Interested in other African American sites in Louisiana? Louisiana tourism now has an African American Heritage Trail and you can view sites throughout the state here.
Back to that genealogy quest. Archival records of the parish date back to the early 1800s and Catholic Church records even further. I perused St. Landry courthouse documents at both the St. Landry Courthouse, another historical landmark built in 1939, and the Louisiana State Archives in Baton Rouge. Researchers can also contact the Imperial St. Landry Genealogical and Historical Society or the Opelousas-Eunice Public Library.