First, education and then, reconciliation

March 16, 12:20 pm

Dr. Phebe Hayes, a native and lifelong resident of Iberia Parish, is the founder of the Iberia African American Historical Society, whose mission is to research, preserve, commemorate and teach the full, inclusive history of African Americans of Iberia Parish.

Photo by Travis Gauthier

by Phebe Hayes

In 2017, four years after retiring from the University of Louisiana at Lafayette as a Professor and Dean of the College of General Studies, I founded The Iberia African American Historical Society (IAAHS). I realized that the experiences and contributions of Blacks in Iberia Parish have been intentionally marginalized or excluded from the official record of the history of the Parish. I reached this conclusion after browsing books found in the Iberia Parish Library’s genealogy and history collection. 

One book I came across celebrated the great doctors of Iberia Parish from the 19th century to the mid-20th century.  All the names in the book were white and male even though at least one Black physician, Dr. George W. Diggs, Sr., was practicing in New Iberia at the time the book was published. In fact, Dr. Diggs practiced medicine in New Iberia for over 50 years. I’ve since conducted my own research of the Black doctors of Iberia Parish.  So far, I’ve found 21 Black doctors, including three dentists and four women physicians.

As a young child growing up in New Iberia, like most Blacks of my generation, I heard stories of the four Black doctors who were violently expelled from New Iberia in 1944 because they dared use their status and education to support Black men of the community who demanded a welding school. At the time the only welding school in the community was for whites only.  The Black men saw such training as an opportunity to earn better salaries and to lift their families up to the middle class. 

The oil and gas industry had long been open to white men in Louisiana, but Black men were denied access because jobs in that industry were considered “white men’s jobs.” Jobs as field hands or yard men, making extremely low wages, were considered jobs for “Black men.” 

A few short months later, with the passage of the new GI Bill, this issue would prove to be crucial for veterans returning from World War II. In theory, that bill provided GIs and their families access to the middle class by providing housing and education assistance (including vocational training). White veterans could use the bill to access higher paying jobs which enabled them to purchase homes in new residential developments that often increased in value, thus allowing them to transfer wealth to their heirs. 

This generational wealth was a phenomenon seen mostly in residential developments that were reserved for white families only. On the other hand, Black families were less likely to transfer wealth to the next generation because their homes were more likely to located in low-lying areas prone to flooding. The families often saw the value of their homes decrease because of the flooding, poor infrastructure (e.g., substandard streets, inferior drainage pipes) and followed later by — poverty and crime.  

Racial reconciliation requires removing the roadblocks our nation put in front of African Americans.

Unfortunately, the schools have generally done a poor job of teaching the true history of our country, inclusive of African Americans and other communities of color. Sometimes this is due to teachers themselves not being grounded in this history or being uncomfortable teaching it. 

One day in a neighborhood coffee shop conversation with two acquaintances, one suggested that slavery, the Reconstruction and Jim Crow terrorism “probably should not be taught in schools because the history is so painful and ugly that it would teach children to hate White people.”  At that moment I suddenly understood why the history of my people and other people of color is marginalized or absent in the telling of U.S. history: It makes some people uncomfortable.  

But does that justify the deletion of the experiences and contributions of my people from the history of a country they built literally with their blood, sweat and tears? Millions of Africans died under the brutal slavery system and the violent periods that followed (i.e., Reconstruction, Jim Crow). Is one group’s discomfort justification for silencing those voices and stories? And is it justification for miseducating our children? 

Generations of Americans have grown up in a country that has never been honest about its true history.  It’s no wonder that so many of our countrymen fail to see racial reconciliation and healing as an imperative. It is impossible to work towards reconciliation and healing, if we have never been taught/learned the historical wrongs committed against Americans by other Americans.

Reconciliation is the goal I had uppermost in mind when I founded the Iberia African American Historical Society in 2017. Since schools seem to continue to follow a “Lost Cause” approach to teaching history, I saw a need to educate my community about its own true and inclusive history, based on evidence found in archives, courthouses, churches, online sources, collections from private families and more.

The need is more evident than ever. Recently, in a conversation with a fellow Iberian, I was shocked when she expressed her pride that “….New Iberia didn’t experience any lynchings and racial violence like other communities.” My response was: “Of course there were lynchings and violence in Iberia. We were a Jim Crow state. How else do you think they enforced those godless Jim Crow laws and codes, if it were not for lynchings, beatings, intimidation and threats?” 

The problem here is that initially this individual would have seen no need for our country or community to express remorse for crimes against African Americans for slavery and a hundred years of Jim Crow terrorism because she was ignorant of that history. 

Among other things, IAAHS offers free educational programming to the public through small and large group gatherings.  We commemorate the history of African Americans of Iberia through state historical markers; and we prepare manuscripts for publication about that history, etc.  In addition, we have developed strong partnerships with the University of Louisiana at Lafayette’s Guilbeau Center for Public History and The National Trust for Historic Preservation, as we work to develop the Iberia African American Historical Society Center for Research & Learning housed at The Shadows Visitors Center in New Iberia. I argue that historical societies such as ours have a role to play in helping the public continue to learn that true and inclusive history I spoke of at the start of this essay.  I argue further that it is our responsibility as citizens to continue to educate ourselves after high school graduation. This means that we should continue to read and educate ourselves (e.g., subscribe to podcasts, attend public talks, etc.)  about our country’s history.

South African President Nelson Mandela, Bishop Desmond Tutu and their countrymen showed the world that forgiveness and reconciliation could heal a nation’s wounds despite years of violent apartheid rule in South Africa.  Instead of seeking revenge against the oppressors, the new South African government led by President Mandela established the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (chaired by Bishop Tutu) that focused on uncovering the truth about human and civil rights violations against Black South Africans committed by South African police and military. Families were able to finally learn the fate of their loved ones who had been victims of the South African police and military. Through this commission, with its emphasis on truth rather than prosecution, South Africa was able to avoid further chaos and trauma. 

The theme of this essay series is Reconciliation. A prerequisite to Reconciliation is an understanding of the true and full history of the United States. Unfortunately, sometimes that history is painful to learn but it is nevertheless our history and we must acknowledge it. By failing to acknowledge our transgressions as a nation, we run the risk of repeating the worst of our history.

I think the United States can be as courageous as South Africa in confronting its past. Only in this way can there be healing, forgiveness, and reconciliation. Only then will we achieve the greatness we aspire to. By learning our true and complete history, we understand the role of reconciliation in the healing of a country.

First, education and then, reconciliation.