Note: This will be periodically updated.
During the past three years, we have featured dozens of stories about the enduring legacies of slavery and Jim Crow in Louisiana.
Today, as the nation grapples with a long overdue reckoning on the issues of systemic and institutional racism, we offer this compendium in an effort to contribute to the discourse and to shed additional light on the pervasive and pernicious impact that America’s “original sin” continues to have on the lives of Louisianians.
In 1719, a year after Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne de Bienville officially founded the City of New Orleans, the first two ships carrying captive Africans arrived in Louisiana. Bienville had petitioned King Louis XIV to authorize the importation of enslaved Africans more than twenty years prior. Before the ships arrived, a total of only ten Africans lived in the region; and while the numbers are difficult to know precisely, by the end of the 18th century, Louisiana was home to thousands and thousands of enslaved Africans, the overwhelming majority of whom were forced to participate in a system that considered human beings as chattel.
Nearly every aspect of Louisiana culture has either been indelibly altered or entirely defined by the horrors of slavery and the trauma imprinted in its aftermath—the stories we tell, the food we cook, the songs we sing, the music we play, the homes we build, the government we elect.
Consider the following: 155 years since the end of the Civil War, Louisiana has never elected an African American to a statewide office, an astonishing embarrassment for a state with a population that is 32.4% black, second only to Mississippi. (A black man named P.B.S. Pinchback briefly served as governor during Reconstruction, but he was appointed, not elected). Until only two years ago, Louisiana was the world’s prison capital, and even more recently, it had allowed nonunanimous jury convictions for serious capital offenses, meaning that it was possible for a criminal defendant to be sent away for life even if two members of their jury believed they were not guilty.
Today, there continues to be enormous racial disparities in educational outcomes, access to health care, employment opportunities, and incarceration rates, and we already know that the negative effects of climate change disproportionally harm communities of color.
At the same time, Louisiana is still littered with obsequious tributes to Confederate leaders. State government continues to be controlled almost entirely by conservative white men, and in the majority Republican legislature, there is, far too often, a cavalier dismissal for the concerns of the working poor and the marginalized.
These are the issues that I have been writing for my entire career, and before we get to the “compendium” part of this compendium, I hope you won’t mind indulging me for a minute. There’s a story I want to tell.
Fourteen years ago, when I launched my first online publication, CenLamar (which focused almost exclusively on the politics and the political shenanigans of my hometown, Alexandria, Louisiana), I quickly earned the ire of a man named Greg Aymond (not to be confused with the New Orleans Archbishop of the same name).
A semi-retired conservative attorney who practiced law out of his brother’s plumbing business, Aymond was the town’s other well-known “blogger.” He also happened to have once been a prominent member of the local chapter of the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, the hate group David Duke founded in 1975.
His former association with the klan—Commander of Den 40, Giant of the Province of Rapides— was not much of a secret.
When a serial rapist terrorized the neighborhoods near Downtown Alexandria in the late spring and early summer of 1979, Aymond threatened to corral a dozen or so of his fellow klansmen to go out on “patrol” to find the suspect (who, incidentally, was a black teenager). The police chief publicly excoriated his vigilante justice fantasy, and Aymond relented.
Later that year, he was arrested at City Hall, in full costume, for disturbing the peace after getting into an altercation with a member of a rival klan group.
By the time he began writing online, Duke’s KKK had dissolved back into irrelevance, but the racist beliefs that constituted its organizing principles hadn’t gone anywhere.
Although Aymond later claimed that his association with the klan was merely a mistake he’d made in his youth (he was 23 years old and a recent college graduate when he joined Duke’s organization), he remained a virulent racist throughout his life. Arguably, he was even more pernicious because by the time he turned 30, he had armed himself with a law degree, which he used to pester, intimidate, and bully anyone he perceived as a political adversary.
In the wake of the Jena Six protests, he struck up a friendship with Richard Barrett, head of the Nationalist Movement, a Mississippi-based hate group, and ended up representing Barrett in court, a fact that would be noted in national coverage and an association that would later humiliate Aymond (not because Barrett was a racist, mind you, but that’s a whole other story).
For me, though, the most troubling thing about Greg Aymond wasn’t his unrestrained hate; it was the ways in which others in the community—news reporters, prominent business owners, and public officials—provided him with a kind of respectability. After graduating law school (and somehow satisfying the Bar Association’s fitness and character requirements), he went into private practice with Phillip Terrell, who now serves as Rapides Parish District Attorney, and he earned a steady paycheck, courtesy of the government, as the attorney for a local levee board.
Frankly, I was astonished by how many people took this man seriously. On his blog, he employed racist epithets against African American community leaders. I distinctly remember an article he published under the headline, “The N***a Street Thugs of Alexandria.” It created a bit of a controversy for about a week, but it didn’t dissuade the local news media or some of his peers in the local bar association to shun him.
When he died in 2012, it was front-page news. A local attorney, Thomas Davenport, praised him to a Town Talk reporter as being “passionate about exposing wrongdoing and wrongdoers,” though not before prefacing his comments by claiming he and Aymond “weren’t exceptionally close.” They spoke on the phone, he said, only “once or twice a week.” Oh, just once or twice a week? That’s all?
Look, it would be one thing if this man had truly disavowed the racist beliefs he had held in his twenties. People can change, and we should afford kids who get caught up in hate groups an opportunity for rehabilitation and redemption, especially if the worst crime they ever had committed was related to yelling at another klansmen. But like many others who were (bafflingly) swept into the cult of personality around David Ernest Duke, Aymond never really disavowed his core racist beliefs; they merely had a falling out with Duke.
I mention all of this for a reason. None of this is ancient history. Much of it occurred only a decade ago. And David Duke, as a political force, may have finally been relegated to the dustbin. But the truth is that the messengers may have changed, but the message hasn’t.
This report appeared in the March 10, 1992 edition of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution:
If you’re having trouble reading the highlighted passage, let me transcribe it for you:
But Louisianians who voted for Mr. Duke for governor say it will be a lot easier to cast ballots for Mr. Buchanan for president.
“Duke won’t get the vote; Pat will. Pat represents much of the same positions,” said Clay Higgins, 30, an Army military policy officer attending a Buchanan rally in Baton Rouge last week.
“Regardless of the fact that David’s a homeboy and all that, the boy’s a Nazi, and that’s a real problem,” said Mr. Higgins who, nevertheless voted for Mr. Duke in the governor’s race.
Clay Higgins, the 30-year-old fellow who said “David’s a homeboy” and supported him for governor but not for president because “the boy’s a Nazi,” is currently representing Louisiana’s Third Congressional District in our nation’s Capitol.
The first “big story” of my career was when I uncovered that U.S. Rep. Steve Scalise, then the powerful House Majority Whip, had once attended a white supremacist organization’s annual conference, back when he was a member of the Louisiana state legislature. Years later, I reported another “big story,” sharing a pair of videos in which U.S. Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith of Mississippi spoke nostalgically about “public hangings” and flippantly discussed the benefits of voter suppression on college campuses.
There were other stories: The district attorney who invited and paid a known anti-Muslim extremist to conduct a training seminar for local law enforcement in Rapides Parish (I mentioned him by name earlier. Bonus points if you remember); a klan-sponsored mailer that surfaced in Sabine Parish during the 2012 presidential election; a white Caddo Parish Sheriff’s racially-offensive portrait of Shreveport’s first black mayor, and, of course, the removal of the white supremacist lawn ornaments (i.e. monuments) in my adopted hometown of New Orleans.
This is not to suggest that I am an expert on these subjects, insofar as a white man can ever be an expert in a discourse that is heavily informed by the experiential. Although, as someone who has lived with a physical disability for my entire life, I know a thing or two about what it’s like to confront discrimination, I also know that my experience is not even remotely comparable to those who experience discrimination due to the color of their skin.
If anything, at least in my opinion, my focus on these issues is a reflection of how they continue to inform nearly every aspect of Louisiana politics, government, and culture.
You cannot claim to chronicle life in Louisiana without writing about race and racism. To paraphrase my friend James Carville, it’d be like hosting a fire safety convention and refusing to talk about water.
In the aftermath of the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis and the powerful reckoning his death has inspired, we have noticed a fairly substantial increase in the readership of some of the Bayou Brief‘s previous reports, stories, and commentary on the legacy and the reality of systemic racism in Louisiana.
I thought it would be helpful to readers if I provided a compendium of what I consider to be the “best of” these stories, along with some additional commentary about why each story continues to be important and relevant. Importantly, many of these stories were not written by me, though I am proud to have had the honor of publishing them.
So, without further delay:
The Beginning of Hell
by Lamar White, Jr.
As the United States prepared to enter WWII, more than 500,000 men temporarily relocated to rural Central Louisiana to participate in the nation’s largest-ever training exercise, the Louisiana Maneuvers.
However, according to multiple eyewitnesses, several black trainees stationed at Camp Claiborne never left Louisiana, allegedly gunned down in the streets of Downtown Alexandria by the military police. The federal government acted quickly to conceal the massacre from the public, colluding with local reporters to construct an elaborate denial that eventually unraveled.
More than 70 years later, the names of the young men killed in the so-called “Lee Street Riots” have never been disclosed, and the government has still yet to provide the full story.
The History and Enduring Legacy of Bloody Caddo
by Jennifer Hill
As exemplified in the current debate over a courthouse monument, the failure to confront Shreveport’s brutal past still haunts the final capital city of the Confederacy to acknowledge defeat.
The Other General
by Lamar White, Jr.
By the end of his life, George Mason Graham was hailed as the “father of LSU,” but today, his pivotal role in establishing what became Louisiana’s flagship university is largely forgotten.
Graham—the scion of two of America’s most prominent families—spent much of his career toiling away in obscurity at his plantation home outside of Alexandria, Louisiana, but an unlikely friendship with an out-of-work military man named William Tecumseh Sherman resulted in the establishment of a new military academy in Pineville.
However, the two men took different sides in the Civil War, and Graham’s incendiary racism cost him his fortune, his health, and eventually his reputation.
In Louisiana, Confederate Monuments Have No Place In Front of a Courthouse. Remove All of Them. Now.
Riots or Massacre? The Ghosts of Colfax
Echoes of ’91: A Campaign Season Littered with David Duke’s Baggage.
by Lamar White, Jr.
In 1991, David Duke lost in a landslide against Edwin Edwards in Louisiana’s most consequential gubernatorial election in a century. Back then, Duke publicly presented himself as a moderate conservative in an attempt to distance himself from his toxic, racist past. Last year, two GOP candidates seemed to be rummaging through Duke’s baggage to see what fits.