Towards a Common Goal: Iberia African American Historical Society Center for Research and Learning Opens at Shadows-on-the-Teche
After Phebe Hayes retired from her position as professor of communicative disorders and as dean of the College of General Studies at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, she immediately threw herself into a new research project. Hayes, a person whose mind is never idle, began volunteering in the genealogy section of her local library. She came across a book that listed the doctors of Iberia Parish from 1859 to 1959. “None of the doctors were Black. None of the doctors were women,” Hayes remembered.
And Hayes knew that wasn’t true, “at the time I knew of five Black doctors from Iberia Parish,” which is about 130 miles west of New Orleans. So, she started to do her own research, and quickly learned of 21 different Black doctors from the area, four of whom were women. One of those women, Emma Wakefield-Paillet, was the first woman of any race to earn her medical degree in Louisiana. There was a similar dearth of information regarding Black veterans from the area.
And with that, not only was Hayes’ next act born, but so, too, were the seeds sown for what would become the Iberia African American Historical Society (IAAHS) Center for Research and Learning at Shadows-on-the-Teche, a former sugar-cane plantation that has been a site of the National Trust for Historic Preservation since 1958. The Center is the culmination of a partnership between the National Trust and IAAHS, with a goal of working with descendants of the area on preserving their history.
Founding the Iberia African American Historical Society
It started with Hayes founding IAAHS in 2017; it became a nonprofit in 2018 and that same year erected its first historical marker (to Wakefield-Paillet). Hayes didn’t want to (always) be the person whom the newspaper called when they had a historical question. She wanted the society to help educate a group of community members to share with others. Hayes said, “I didn’t just want an office where things were stored, but a space where the public could go to view primary records.”
While Hayes’s background was in speech pathology and audiology, she is also a researcher and a scholar, so she was able to apply those skills to the genealogy research. She wanted to learn about successful citizens from across the community, like Wakefield-Paillet, who may have been forgotten, yes, but her goals were larger than that. She wanted to use history to explain why there are certain conditions that exist today. Why are there neighborhoods of poverty and wealth? “Those lines were drawn along racial lines. That’s mind blowing to me that people intended to impoverish almost half of the population,” said Hayes.
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“History has a way of informing us about our present conditions. And that’s what I wanted to communicate, because maybe we can be a little bit more compassionate with each other,” she continued.
Furthermore, Hayes wants to encourage people to write history based on the primary records that the historical society uncovered. Libraries, she notes, are sorely lacking in books that detail the contributions of Black residents and other underrepresented communities. IAAHS is also working with partners like Guilbeau Center for Public History to make these resources accessible to the public.
“Nothing that has been written prior has ever attempted to tell the true story of African Americans’ contributions to this community, nothing. So, this is the first step in developing this inclusive history that tries to take into account the experiences and achievements of the people I come from,” Hayes said.
To get the community writing, the records needed to be accessible. And, in this case, accessible meant digitized.
That’s where The Shadows and the National Trust came in. First, the National Trust offered IAAHS space to operate in The Shadows Visitors Center, which would allow community members a physical space where they could interact with and contribute to the resources IAAHS was developing. In September 2021 the National Trust received a grant from the Institute for Museum and Library Services to spend two years digitizing family photos and heirlooms and develop a web portal where local history, and primarily Black local history, could be accessed. By the end of 2021 the organization hired Jordan Richardson as digitization project coordinator, to implement the project, said Carrie Villar, former senior director for Museum Collections for the Trust.
“Part of this project is to acknowledge how undocumented the Black experience is and has been. This is an effort to correct and to repair that and to create a resource that can continue to grow and be added to,” Villar said. “This project, The Shadows and IAAHS are part of that effort.”
Richardson, an archivist and collections manager who grew up one parish over in Morgan City, was attracted to the work in New Iberia, which he saw as having a similar landscape, history, and people as the community where he grew up. He saw the potential in telling a fuller, more inclusive story through the digitization of physical manuscripts, obituary records, church records, family bibles, ledgers, and materials from former plantation owners.
In addition to digitizing, Richardson is helping those who own artifacts to preserve them, particularly in Louisiana’s hot and humid climate. His first year was primarily focused on setting up processes, and the second year has been focused on community outreach and bringing in outside speakers. On select days, members of the community bring their artifacts to IAAHS. On other days, Richardson goes out to help digitize bulky items that may be hard to move.
“I always regarded history as something really collaborative. You are supposed to have conversations about the different events and the different people who have shaped history,” Richardson said. “People have been waiting for a project like this to come along. They are really interested and can rattle off a list of things that they want to digitize or that they want to see us preserve.”
The partnership with The Shadows and the National Trust was the right fit, Hayes said, in part because, “we have a common goal [with the Trust] to tell the true story of New Iberia.”
Hayes, who grew up in a segregated educational environment until 10th grade, thinks it is crucial for historical sites like The Shadows, a former sugar cane plantation, not to solely tell the story of the silver the Weeks family owned, but to tell the stories of enslavement. “It’s not even Christian. I want people to start to think, how did [the Weeks family] get this? It wasn’t through the sweat of their brow. It was the sweat of other human beings.”
As for that retirement project? Hayes conceded she is “working harder now than I ever did. But I love it.”
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