[Yesterday I posted many excellent links about the 4th anniversary of the NOLA post-Katrina levee breaches. I am following that up today with a post from my old blog, written in February of 2005—prior to Hurricane Katrina. I apologize that several of the links are no longer functional. If I locate more updated links with the same information, I will make further edits. Coming up tomorrow—Please see my separate post with updates about further drama with one of my Father-cousins.]
As drafts of this entry were sitting around my blog entries list, I wondered: “What is this entry about? What is its point?” Is it about making a personal, family connection to Black History? Is it about African Americans and our place in the history of organized religion? Our place in the American Catholic church? Is it about Louisiana and Blacks? Louisiana and Catholicism? Louisiana and race? (Some) Blacks’ denial of race?
In the interest of not spending any more time than necessary on a simple blog post, I’m gonna call it a day and say “The point of this blog is…all of the above. And more.” Hence, the title: “Gumbo.” Defined on this site, gumbo is a word derived from various Bantu dialects in southern and central Africa. It’s a soup-like dish with hundreds of variations, most famously a Louisiana specialty. It is spicy. It is a bunch of ingredients mixed up together. Its making is a long day-long affair, not to be undertaken by the microwave set.
Gumbo is what I think of when I think of my late maternal grandmother—who, in her day, threw famous gumbo dinner parties—and when I think of her native Louisiana.
To me, Louisiana is the closest thing we’ve got in this country to having a separate country-within-a-country. Forget about Texas being a nation onto itself. Or California. Louisiana is the true American nation-state. It has an extremely complex history–including a complex racial/ethnic history.
A huge part of Louisiana history and culture is its Catholicism. And my family history is very tied up in that. My grandmother Rhona’s mother had a female first cousin, and this first cousin had a son, Harold Perry. I grew up hearing stories of this distant cousin. At the time I was more interested in (and somewhat concerned about) the fact that this maternal relative had the same last name as my paternal side of the family than I was interested in his place in history.
But here, I will rectify that childhood lapse of interest—just in time to observe the anniversary of my late grandmother’s birth.
And along the way, just a taste of the complicated gumbo that is race and religion and skin tone and freedom and slavery and history…
According to the Diocese of Louisiana : “Beginning in 1966 with the appointment of Bishop Harold R. Perry as auxiliary bishop of New Orleans, the diocese was honored with the selection of several native sons to be bishops. Bishop Perry, a native of Sacred Heart Parish, Lake Charles, was the first 20th century black bishop appointed in the U.S.” There is a boys’ middle school named after my distant cousin, the Bishop Perry Middle School. [Sadly, the BPMS was one of the casualties of the Katrina Levee Breaches. See stories here and here. ~PPR_Scribe, 9/1/09]
I don’t know what it is about the men on my maternal grandmother’s side of the family and the priesthood: I have two other famous Father-cousins (who are also brothers to each other): the Rev. Verlin LeDoux, U. S. Air Force Chaplain, and the Rev. Jerome LeDoux, a national columnist and evangelist. The latter Father LeDoux delivered the eulogy at my grandmother’s funeral, and he is the only one of the Father-cousins I have met. (See this site for more.)
Interestingly, the LeDoux family traces their history way-way back. I should make clear: The White LeDoux family traces their history way-way back. As I was exploring the ‘Net, I found this from one LeDoux descendant:
“I ran across a historical article in the Lake Charles American Press regarding Louis Verlin LeDoux. He was to be ordained as a priest at the Sacred Heart Church in Lake Charles according to the article that was originally printed Dec 23, 1952. According to the article he was/is black. This article stirred my memory from childhood.
Also, I remember my grandmother telling me about the black LeDoux family in the Sulphur area and my aunt remembers calling a black lady “Grandmaw LeDoux”. I think this family ran a cafe. My aunt remembers going to the cafe to visit them.
Our particular clan is considered white and I don’t know anyone living in our family that can remember anything more about this black family line or where they trace their roots. So, I am curious as to whether anyone has any knowledge of this or if this line still continues or do they consider themselves Creole/Black/French, etc…”
Eventually a LeDoux of color contacted these other LeDoux. They had several exchanges of electronic correspondence, but I don’t know if the two sides ever met up in person.
Likely another distant relative, and yet another Father-cousin, is Bishop Curtis Guillory. (My grandmother’s maiden name was Guillory.) On this site I read of his meeting with Pope John Paul II–and here’s a photo:
And here I learned that “in the run-up to the Olympic Games in Atlanta, Bishop Curtis Guillory of Texas becomes the first Catholic prelate to carry the Olympic torch.”
There is much more on the Creole culture of Louisiana at this site: http://www.frenchcreoles.com/. There, Guillory is listed as one of the common surnames of free people of color in the state. I felt a little guilty about seeing this: My grandmother used to always insist that her ancestors were not slaves—at least not in this country…that two brother-forebears escaped from bondage in the Caribbean on a stolen boat and set up shop as free men in Louisiana… I always dismissed this story as an example of a complicated (and, unfortunately, common) denial of painful history and rejection of African past. But now, well, who knows? Maybe it is true. —And yet, any “truth” of my grandmother’s origins does not erase those complicated feelings—feelings all tied up with skin tone, hair texture, and facial features…
On that same site is info on other famous Creoles, including Creoles of color—although that distinction “of color” is not so clear cut in LA, more so, even, than in the rest of the nation. Included in this list are Fats Domino, Jelly Roll Morton, Jean Baptiste Du Sable, Greg and Bryant Gumbel.
Also included is a major name in Black American History, Homer Plessy:
“A light-skinned Creole, Homer Plessy was arrested and jailed in 1892 for sitting in a Louisiana railroad car designated for white people only. Plessy had violated the 1890 state law that called for racially segregated facilities. Plessy went to court, claiming the law violated the 13th and 14th amendments, but Judge Ferguson found him guilty anyhow.
By 1896 the case had gone all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, who also found Plessy guilty by an 8-1 majority. The resulting doctrine of ‘separate but equal’ institutionalized segregation in the United States until overturned in 1954 by the case of Brown v. Board of Education.”
A previous draft of this post ended there. And that seemed strange. However, I think it’s as good enough of a place to end things. Knowing what I know—both from personal experience, from contemporary observations, and from some knowledge of history—I wonder about who Mr. Plessy really was. And by this, I do not mean to ask was he “more” “black” or “white.” I mean to say: Who was he fighting for in this legal case? What did he hope to gain? Who did he think would gain with him? Who did he want to gain with him?
But also: Who do we see when we retell the story of this case every year during February? (And, do the visions differ depending on the “we.”) What is this really a story of?
I’m sure the answers, if we dared to explore them in depth, would be a complex, spicy gumbo. No matter how complex, though, there’s probably some simple key, some basic core–something like what my grandmother used to say in explanation of her gumbo-cooking proces: “It’s all in the roux…”