October 24, 2023

John Warner Smith: Building A More Inclusive Society at Shadows-on-the Teche

“History of Enslavement.”

When asked to describe Shadows-on-the-Teche in three words, Executive Director John Warner Smith is clear, capturing the essence of this historic site and its transformation into a place that acknowledges the full American story.

Unlike in years past, current visitors to The Shadows experience a new interpretive program, one that shares the histories of the Weeks family, while also elevating the stories of the people they enslaved like Charity Polk, an seamstress, or Louisa Bryant, the woman who was the general overseer of the main house.

This interpretation is the part of ongoing work by the National Trust for Historic Preservation and its 27 historic sites to reconsider, reexamine, and develop interpretive programs acknowledging the full experiences of all who lived, worked, and labored at these significant places.

In March 2023, Smith, the 2019-2021 Poet Laureate of Louisiana, became the executive director of The Shadows, bringing his knowledge and love of history and place with him to New Iberia. We asked Smith a few questions to get to know him and his vision for this National Trust Historic Site.

A group stands behind a ribbon as Executive Director John Warner Smith and Omar Eaton-Martinez, senor vice president of historic sites at the National Trust cut the ribbon for the sites grand reopening in 2023.

photo by: Grey/Shadows-on-the-Teche

The 2023 ribbon cutting for the reopening of Shadows-on-the-Teche with staff and community members. Executive Director John Warner Smith is in the center with Omar Eaton-Martinez, the vice president for historic sites at the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

What first inspired your love of history?

My passion for telling the "full history" of the United States, and specifically the South, stems largely from my personal experiences growing up in the Jim Crow and Civil Rights eras and being a witness to racial injustice.

I learned my first and most unforgettable lessons of American history in ninth grade, when I was one of five Black students who integrated a junior high school in my community. I was the darkest skinned of those students and caught the most hell. My first job after college was as an accountant for one of the largest utilities in the southeast. I quit after three months, because a co-worker used a racial epithet in the presence of the supervisor and me. No one apologized and the employee wasn’t disciplined.

Much of the poetry of my five collections reflects on those types of experiences and on Black history in general. I have also taught African American Literature at Southern University in Baton Rouge since 2011. To teach literature, I must teach the historical context of the period in which it was written. So, I travel 250 years of Black history, from slavery to the contemporary period.

In 2019, I started writing a history novella about a racially-charged murder trial that took place in Lafayette, Louisiana in 1922. It’s more like A Time to Kill legal thriller, but in writing the book, I delved deeply into the history of Reconstruction and the post-Reconstruction eras. Shortly after the book was published by UL Press, I discovered the job opening at The Shadows.

What is your earliest memory of experiencing a historic site?

I grew up in a low-income housing project in southeast Louisiana. In fact, the name of the complex was Dixie Homes. Historic sites were not exactly top of mind to my family. When I worked in Natchitoches, Louisiana, the oldest settlement of the Louisiana Purchase territory, I heard about the nearby Melrose Plantation. I had no interest in going there, although I did grow very fond of the folk art of Clementine Hunter and was fortunate to acquire some of her work. We lived in Natchitoches for only a year, but in that short period of time I learned a lot about the racial history of north Louisiana.

Completed installation of the African House murals

photo by: Molly Dickerson

Mural by Clementine Hunter at African House.

While working in Baton Rouge as a state official, I went inside the Old Governor’s Mansion and the Old State Capitol, but not as a tour visitor. I never had a strong interest in historic sites per se. What really attracted me to The Shadows job was the chance to tell the full history of the site and to help build a more just and inclusive society in the process.

When people visit The Shadows, what do you want them to see, do, and feel while they are there?

We want visitors to reflect on the past and to engage in conversation about what they see and hear on the tour. We want them to empathize with the trials and triumphs of the enslaved people who created the wealth for the Weeks family, as well as that of the Weeks family members themselves.

View of the studio room at The Shadows. There is an easel set up with a table with supplies to the right, and a rocking chair in the foreground.

photo by: Shadows-on-the-Teche

View of the Weeks Hall Studio room at The Shadows where guides interpret and share the story of William Weeks Hall.

A portrait of an enslaved woman named Charity. The image is sepia toned with the words "Wright & Garrison" and the location New Iberia, LA at the bottom of the plate.

photo by: Shadows-on-the-Teche

Charity, an enslaved seamstress at The Shadows, continued to live in the house during the Civil War when Union Troops occupied the first floor of The Shadows. Her story is now a part of the interpretation at the National Trust Historic Site.

What is your favorite part of your site?

I think the women are clearly the most interesting figures in the narrative. Mary Weeks is prominent in the storytelling, but I especially love hearing stories about Louisa and Charity, two extraordinarily strong and talented women.

My favorite part of the tour is the last room, where we explore the life of William Weeks Hall, including the famous people he befriended and the Black men who worked for him. Weeks Hall was the last member of the Weeks family to reside in the house, and he had the vision of preserving the property for future generations. He donated the property to the National Trust shortly before his death.

What project at the site is energizing you today?

In mid-September we launched a 12-member Advisory Council, half of whom are Black. They will work with us in re-visioning the Shadows and implementing strategies to strengthen our operations and programming. Planning is underway to build an orientation exhibit inside our Visitor Center. I am also very focused on seeking grants and marketing sponsorships to support and enhance our operations. I am excited about these projects.

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While her day job is the associate director of content at the National Trust for Historic Preservation, Priya spends other waking moments musing, writing, and learning about how the public engages and embraces history.

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