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Kate Ellis

Kate Ellis was surprised to recognize many of the names on the tombs in the Iberia Parish cemetery. Photo: S. Smith

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Reporter's Notebook

Kate Ellis spent parts of 1994, 1995-96 interviewing older African Americans and whites about their memories of the Jim Crow years.

The small cemetery next to the Patout plantation hides from strangers. Surrounded by dense rows of sugarcane and the wooden shell of an old church, it's easy to miss from the road. Yet in the graveyard lie some of Iberia Parish's most prominent sugar planters: members of the white families whose fortunes were built with the labor of African Americans.

I spent the summer of 1994 in south Louisiana interviewing older African Americans about their memories of the Jim Crow years. With two fellow graduate students, I did field research for Duke University's Behind the Veil project. By mid-August I felt beaten down by the relentless pace of our work and the mounting collection of sad, bitter stories I heard. I was looking forward to going home when I happened upon the cemetery in Iberia Parish, a rural community two hours west of New Orleans.

As I meandered through the graveyard, I was surprised to find that I recognized many of the names on the weathered, white-stone tombs. I had heard these whites mentioned all summer by African Americans who had once worked in their fields and homes. Iberia Parish's black elders recounted numerous stories of hard living under Jim Crow, but the ornate tombs and mausoleums in the cemetery did not, of course, tell the same tale. These markers memorialized the achievements of a benevolent, pious, hard-working group of white people.

The contrast between the loving, reverential images of the white families captured in their epitaphs and the troubled memories of black people who worked for them was striking. How, I wondered, do the living descendents of these white planters remember segregation? Would they recognize the face of Jim Crow described by African Americans?

I returned to Iberia Parish a year later to search for answers. Over a nine-month period I interviewed dozens of older whites. They included retired salt miners, teachers, shopkeepers, lawyers and housewives.

Most whites were happy to share their views on race, despite my Yankee background. One man, in particular, seemed to welcome the opportunity to set the record straight with a northerner about the peaceful quality of race relations in the region, which he said dated back to slave times. On the other hand, one man I was friendly with remained reticent until I turned off my tape recorder. At that point he declared himself a racist and, with a note of apology, explained that he didn't want our differing views to come between us.

At the end of a year amidst the cane fields and swamplands of Louisiana, I had fallen in love with the region, and with many of the people I met. Still, I was troubled by the marked contrast between African American and white reflections on Jim Crow. Blacks wanted whites to account for Iberia Parish's history of racial injustice; whites preferred to forget it. How can they move toward racial harmony in the future, I wondered, with such differing views of the past? Jim Crow may be dead in Iberia Parish, but his ghost still roams the landscape.

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