The Grand Jimmie
Like many good stories, this one starts in a barber shop. One day in the ‘60s, Elmo Ancelet and Ferdinand “Lolo” Broussard, were clipping hair on Jefferson Street in Lafayette. One of the regular customers was James Domengeaux, called Jimmie. Born in January 1907, Domengeaux, at that time, had already lived a life full of accomplishments: a politician who served the state in the Baton Rouge and in Washington, founder of a successful law firm, pillar of the community and even owner of crayfish ponds and former boxer. Instead of thinking of a well-deserved retirement that day in the barber’s chair, he dreamed of new battles. While Lolo was cutting his hair, Domengeaux announced to anyone within earshot that he was thinking about which of two directions he wanted to take next: to create a boxing club or to save French in Louisiana. The only reason I am able to write this article in French, and maybe even why you are able to read it, is because Jimmie made the right choice.
The year 2018 marks the 50th anniversary of the creation of the Council for the Development of French in Louisiana by an act of the Louisiana Legislature, the same assembly which in its beginnings legislated exclusively in French. First by a decree of the Superintendent of Education and then enshrined in the Constitution of 1921, French officially becomes persona non grata after a long and illustrious career among entrepreneurs, writers, lawyers, educators and ordinary Louisiana residents. In a forced Americanization effort, thousands of children were punished and humiliated for speaking the only language they knew. The traces of this shame were so strong and so deep that the stigma was passed on to the next generation who did not want to do anything to do with these old people things. For a long time though, since the Louisiana Purchase in fact, people have been writing the obituary of Louisiana French. But by the 1960s, if it had not yet died, most everyone thought that it was not long for this world, even among Francophones. That is to say everyone, except Domengeaux.
Even if he chose French instead of boxing, he did not abandon the fight. Faced with the difficulties he was experiencing in starting the programs, he went to see President Pompidou in Paris to challenge him. To set up the scene, it must be said that Pompidou, with an imposing build, was six feet tall, but, in spite of his nickname, the Grand Jimmie was much shorter. Fearlessly, Domengeaux approached the representative of the French Republic, their shoe tips almost touching, raised his head to look him straight in the eye, pressed his index finger into the solid chest of his interlocutor and said in the familiar “tu” voice: “Mister President, if you do not help us, French is lost in Louisiana.” The following year, a charter plane full of French citizens landed in Louisiana to become the first “CODOFIL” teachers and thus began the return of French to the Louisiana schools after so many years of almost total absence.
For the last 50 years, Québécois, Belgians, Swiss, Acadians, Francophone Africans from various countries and elsewhere have come to teach French in all its varieties. The exchange programs also sent hundreds of young people from Louisiana to work on language courses in these French-speaking countries, opening up new horizons, creating life-long friendships, forming dozens of couples between Louisiana and various Francophones. Out of these unions came children whom I call with great affection, because we had three of our own, “CODOFIL babies.”
Domengeaux died in 1988 but his legacy continues. The barber shop is no longer there, having burned down a long time ago. Instead, there is a beer garden, an ideal place to share friendship with a drink and a conversation in French as many young people do today. Thanks to this crucial decision, the publication of Louisiana French’s obituary must wait some more.