St. Landry’s Law

St. Landry Parish has always been an outlier: Part-swamp, part-prairie, it is an ancient swath of Louisiana that was first inhabited by indigenous Americans—namely, the forebears of the Chitimacha and Atakapas tribes and later the Opelousa Nation— more than 11,000 years before Europeans “discovered” it in 1690 and a generation before Bienville claimed New Orleans for the French.

Prior to the Civil War, it claimed more free persons of color—numbering over 1,000—than anywhere except the Crescent City. It’s located in the heart of what would one day be known as “Cajun Country,” the region of Louisiana that attracted exiled immigrants from Acadie in French Canada.

Officially, St. Landry Parish and its seat, the Town of Opelousas, were founded at the beginning of the 19th century, but this was just a formality; people had always been living there, regardless of what one chose to call the place and despite the land grants that France and then Spain doled out.

Opelousas’s most famous resident was Jim Bowie, the fabled frontiersman whose death at the Battle of the Alamo secured his status as a Texan hero. The town showcases their connection to Bowie, who moved there with his family as a teenager, in a permanent exhibit inside of its tourist information center; at one point, there had been a standalone Bowie Museum as well. Bowie had actually lived longer in Rapides Parish than in Opelousas and had first become famous after being gravely wounded in the Vidalia Sandbar Fight in 1827 (during which he killed the Sheriff of Rapides Parish, Norris Wright).

But perhaps the most significant aspect of Opelousas occurred three years after the Civil War, when it was the location of a horrific massacre. White vigilantes, primarily members of the Seymour Knights, murdered between 200-300 Black residents and nearly three dozen whites, most of whom were believed to be sympathizers. The violence erupted as a consequence of competing claims of voter fraud committed by the newly-enfranchised Black population.

“On the first night, only one small group of armed African-Americans assembled to deal with the report they’d heard about (Emerson) Bentley,” explains Lorraine Boissoneault in a 2018 article for Smithsonian Magazine. Bentley was a white publisher who had been instrumental in registering Black voters. There were false reports that he had been murdered.

“They were met by an armed group of white men, mounted on horses, outside Opelousas,” Boissoneault writes. “Of those men, 29 were taken to the local prison, and 27 of them were summarily executed. The bloodshed continued for two weeks, with African-American families killed in their homes, shot in public, and chased down by vigilante groups. C.E. Durand, the other editor of the St. Landry Progress, was murdered in the early days of the massacre and his body displayed outside the Opelousas drug store. By the end of the two weeks, estimates of the number killed were around 250 people, the vast majority of them African-American.”

A place that had once been a rare land of opportunity for freed people of color living in antebellum Louisiana was forever scarred by the brutality following a war that was supposed to have secured emancipation.

Until recently, the event had been typically referred to as “the Opelousas Riots;” news coverage at the time focused on the deaths of a small handful of white vigilantes and not the hundreds of Blacks.

A cartoon that appeared in the New York Tribune in the aftermath of the Opelousas Massacre.

But, as I said earlier, the history of St. Landry Parish is peculiar, and largely because of the tenacity and bravery of a small group of local Black lawyers and the influence of one man, it would remain a political outlier for much of the 20th century. And believe it or not, it would reopen the doors of opportunity that had been shut during Reconstruction far sooner than almost anywhere else in the state.

In 1940, Sheriff Daly Joseph “Cat” Doucet had been thrown out of office after being accused of corruption, only to be brought back a dozen years later for another four consecutive terms. Doucet had famously tolerated the brothels that spanned along the highway to Baton Rouge. As the story goes, he was nicknamed “Cat” because of those “cathouses.” He also didn’t have any issue with the slot machines that Carlos Marcello and Frank Costello had shipped in from New York.

People in St. Landry Parish enjoyed gambling, thank you very much, and they didn’t care much for Protestant moralizers like State Police Superintendent Frank Grevemberg. Today, one of the parish’s biggest destinations is Evangeline Downs, the massive racetrack and casino complex that hightailed it out of Lafayette Parish, where it’d been since 1966, in 2005, a few years after voters there decided to ban video poker.

Doucet was also the first public official in the state of Louisiana to truly work at knocking down the Jim Crow laws that had prevented Black citizens from exercising their right to vote.

In his masterwork on the civil rights movement in Louisiana, Race & Democracy: The Civil Rights Struggle in Louisiana, 1915-1972, historian Adam Fairclough devotes considerable attention to the battles that were fought in St. Landry Parish, particularly during the late 1940s. Fairclough’s book is arguably the most illuminating and comprehensive account ever written of that struggle, and it is important to note, as he does, that Cat Doucet’s political resurrection was built on the work done by courageous Black lawyers like the late Alexandria attorney Louis Berry. I recommend buying the book and reading the whole story. For our purposes, though, I want to call attention to this particular passage about the legendary lawman:

Prior to Doucet’s victory in 1952, not a single Black citizen of St. Landry Parish was registered to vote. “By 1956, the number of black voters exceeded thirteen thousand, more than 80% of the black voting age population and about 40% of the total electorate,” Fairclough writes. “These levels were among the highest, if not the highest, in Louisiana. White opposition to black voting had collapsed.”

Nowadays, the area’s largely working-class electorate is still around 40% Black, yet the parish is divvied up in three different Congressional districts, all of which are held by Republicans. Opelousas, a town of around 16,000, 77% of whom are Black, is effectively split in two; one half of the town is inside District 4, which is represented by Mike Johnson of Bossier City, and the other half belongs to District 5, currently held by Ralph Abraham of Richland Parish. Drive 10 minutes south, and you’re in District 3.

It is impossible to avoid the historical legacy of slavery and the causes of the Opelousas Massacre, particularly when considering the cynical way in which Black voters have been drawn out of competing for congressional representation. It’s also worth keeping in mind as we return to the story of the white man who catapulted his way into Congress after finding fame playing the role of the “bad cop” (that is, the “tough on crime” character) on television.

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