Reinventing History

Grand Isle, Jefferson Parish, Louisiana
Photo: John Messina, Wikipedia

Strangers visiting Grand Isle in the late 1960s would not have met any African Americans in permanent residence. For many years the United Parcel Service (UPS) deliveryman was the only African American anyone was likely to see there on a regular basis. But he lived “up the bayou,” as the islanders say, somewhere between Golden Meadow and Houma. Most week- days he drove southeast to Grand Isle – the dead end of Louisiana Highway 1, the only continuous piece of land on the 35-mile stretch of bayou, marsh, and prairie from Golden Meadow to the Gulf of Mexico. On rare occasions the UPS man could be seen waiting beside his truck on one of the island’s tree-lined lanes for some old islander, who did not want a black man even entering the yard, to saunter out for a package. Some of those old-timers perhaps descended – and not too distantly – from free people of color or slaves.

— From “He Didn’t Have No Cross”: Tombs and Graves as Racial Boundary Tactics on a Louisiana Barrier Island”, Keith M. Yanner and Steven J. Ybarrola, The Oral History Review (Summer – Autumn, 2003)

I have been trying to write a post about the Lousiana Manilamen, in particular, Lafcadio Hearn’s 1883 article on Saint Malo. It’s been going nowhere. But — while researching their history I came across a fascinating paper, the one quoted above. It tells the story of how the Grand Isle population went from a long history of being markedly multiracial, to a conception of itself as entirely white. The narrative is drawn out from the memories of Grand Isle natives with respect to the rumored existence of a indigent cemetery for African-Americans and Asians. One of the researchers has close ties to the island, having grown up there as a native.

In the 1860’s, according to the paper, roughly a quarter of the residents of Grand Isle were slaves or free persons of color. I’m sure there was segregation, but from contemporary writing, the boundaries seemed pliable. Lafcadio Hearn wrote in 1884: “children in multitude! – children of many races, and of many tints – ranging from ivorine to glossy bronze, through half the shades of Broca’s pattern-colors; – for there is a strange blending of tribes and peoples here.” Other writers of the time also noted the relatively friendly relationships between the black, white and “colored” — the last category including persons of mixed race.

And yet, as the twentieth century progressed, the community became white. This is due, probably, to some combination of residents of color emigrating from the island, and other residents of color who could “pass” eventually denying the non-white aspects of their identity. By the 2000 census, 96% of the Grand Isle population identified themselves as white. As the authors say, “Older narrators tend to view the Asians, African Americans, and Creoles from Grand Isle’s distant past as few and them, not us. They were never from here.” But they also note some local gossip, as various natives dispute the lineages of other natives: “she says she’s white, but she’s really black”. It reminds me of some of the gossip I hear among my family members, about who has Spanish ancestry, or who’s really part Chinese. The authors also note a strong aversion many natives have to talk about their grandparents or great-grandparents.

Photo from Yanner & Ybarrola, 2003

The symbol of this transformation is the oral legend of the now-vanished indigent graveyard. Whites (and those who could pass) were interred above ground in the Catholic cemetery (above ground being the preferred mode, given the geology of South Lousiana); others were buried in the cemetery — the “indigent cemetery”. The cemetery no longer exists, although some of the older residents claim to remember it, and there are property records of a “Sicilian Cemetery” in the area where the residents claim the indigent cemetery was. It was called “Sicilian” apparently because the land was set aside by one Ernest Santini (or Santiny) in 1888, “mainly as a cemetery for the inhabitants of Grand Isle”. Inhabitants — not indigents or strangers, although presumably it was intended for inhabitants of color. There is a Thomasina Santini in the records of Grand Isle who was identified as a free person of color — the family history says that Thomasina comes from Corsica. One might suppose that Ernest Santini’s mixed-race heritage might lead him to set aside decent burial grounds for his fellow islanders of color.

The oral history implies that only strangers were ever buried in the cemetery, except one African-American named Jim, “whose mother was a slave”, and who had no family on the island. The memories of when this “Jim” was buried are contradictory, ranging from sometime in the 1920s to sometime in the 1940s. No one else remembered any specific African-Americans buried there — based on informants’ memories, all African-Americans are named “Jim”, with no surname, and they are big.

The other story about the cemetery is that it was used to bury illegal aliens, Filipinos who were smuggled in to work the shrimp drying platforms. The Filipino fishing communities of Louisiana are the oldest known Filipino settlements in the United States. Filipino workers played a significant role in the Barataria Bay shrimping industry. Naturally any existing immigrant settlement will attract other immigrants (legal or otherwise) from the same country.

If a ship smuggling illegal workers was intercepted by the Coast Guard, the story goes, the smugglers would put the men in whiskey or water barrels and throw them overboard, in the hope they would float to shore alive. If not — well, they ended up in the Sicilian Cemetery.


MM: What it was, they had Manila Village up there in Barataria Bay, and they’d take the shrimps and pile them out there and dry ’em because they didn’t have refrigeration. And the reason for this is that there’s no flies in the bay. In other words a fly can’t get too far from land, so it was cleaner out there. They didn’t have problems with flies and maggots and stuff like that. And they dried in the sun. And then the Filipinos that lived out there, you know, they were more or less slaves you know…
BY: Cheap labor.
MM: Yeah, cheap labor… And so they’d bring these people in and they’d dance the shrimp they called it. They’d spread ’em out on a big platform and then they’d get in there and shuffle around, knock the hulls off and they called that dancing the shrimp.

— Two informants reminiscing about the shrimp drying platforms

Why would the island community collectively forget its multiracial heritage? In the 1930s, a bridge from the mainland was build, and the oil industry developed in the region (Grand Island is near the mouth of Barataria Bay, site of the devastating 2010 oil spill. Interestingly, none of the Grand Isle history sites I found on a casual search —  including Wikipedia’s — mention this). With the bridge and the new industry, new people, strangers, came to the region. These newcomers, at least those of influence, were overwhelmingly white and English-speaking. English became the prestige language in the region, at the expense of French, Creole, Spanish and Tagalog. Likewise, the prestige gap between Anglos and people of color widened. This would encourage the old-time residents to de-emphasize any non-Anglo aspects of their heritage — at least, those who were able to do so.

There were other interesting, but ancillary, details in the paper. A casual mention of “treaters”: locals who knew medicinal plants and healing prayers, and tended to the others in the community, in the absence of professional medical services. Not unlike the Visayan mananambal.

There was one aside I liked in particular: the observation that the researchers might have accidentally invented (or at least propagated) some of the oral narrative that they collected, specifically the notion that Sicilians were buried in the indigent cemetery. The community at large wasn’t aware of the property records that named Santini’s cemetery lot “the Sicilian cemetery”, but the researchers were. They (or at least one of them) were also part of the community, and in the process of interviewing informants, many of whom were family — well, word gets around. One has to wonder how often that happens in oral history research.

The paper is called ‘”He Didn’t Have No Cross”: Tombs and Graves as Racial Boundary Tactics on a Louisiana Barrier Island’ and was published in the Oral History Review (Vol 30, No 2). It is available through JSTOR. You will need access to JSTOR through a research or educational institution; many public libraries (San Francisco Public Library, and New York Public Library, to name two) also have JSTOR subscriptions.

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