Changing Civil Liberties for People of Color

Federal troops were withdrawn from Louisiana in 1877, putting an end to the Reconstruction era. Almost immediately, white Democrats, many of them former Confederate leaders, regained control of the state legislature. New laws were passed to limit the rights African Americans had gained – referred to as “Jim Crow laws.” 

The most visible effect of the Jim Crow laws was the racial segregation of public areas. Although black workers still worked in the fields and in the homes of wealthier white citizens much as they did prior to the Civil War, they were restricted from mixing with whites in public.

The fight against racial segregation in public accommodations started with the 1877 court case Hall v. Decuir. Josephine Decuir, a plantation owner from Pointe Coupée Parish, was the wife of Antoine Dubuclet, a free man of color from Iberville Parish. When she was denied a seat in the white section of the steamboat Governor Allen, she filed suit against the boat owner, John C. Benson, for racial discrimination. Decuir won the case because there were no regulations for interstate commerce among states that prohibited her from sitting in the white cabin of the ship. The Eighth District Court of New Orleans fined John C. Benson $1000.00. This was the first Supreme Court case involving segregation on a common carrier. 

However, the scale was soon tipped in the opposite direction. The 1896 U.S. Supreme Court case Plessy vs. Ferguson ruled that racial segregation was legal as long as the facilities were equal for both races, leading to the phrase “separate but equal.” The ruling originally applied to segregated railcars for Black people, but was eventually expanded to almost all other public facilities, including buses, hotels, theatres, swimming pools and schools.

The racially-motivated Jim Crow laws, which were passed in the 1870’s, remained in force until the Civil Rights struggles of the 1960s. One hundred years after emancipation, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 helped eliminate Jim Crow segregation and combat racial discrimination in the United States. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 prohibited poll taxes, literacy tests and other measures that prevented black citizens from voting. The John Lewis Voting Rights Act of 2021 will strengthen and restore the Voting Rights Act of 1965. On August 24, 2021, the bill introduced by Civil Rights icon and State Representative John Lewis passed in the U.S. House of Representatives, but on November 3. 2021, the bill did not pass in the U.S. Senate.

Théophile T. Allain: A Model for Reconstruction

Theophile T. AllainTheophile T. Allain was born into slavery in 1846 on Australia Plantation in the southern portion of West Baton Rouge. His white father treated him as a freedman, allowing Allain to travel with him to Europe and having him educated in New Jersey. When Allain returned to Louisiana after the Civil War, he invested in local businesses. In 1870 he owned a sugar plantation in Iberville Parish that employed thirty-five laborers. In 1870, he was elected to the Louisiana House of Representatives for Iberville Parish, but refused his seat due to balloting irregularities. He eventually did serve as a Representative from 1880-1884, as well as in the state Senate from 1884-1888, and again in the House until 1892.

When discussing life for people of color in the sugar-growing districts of Louisiana (as compared to the cotton growing areas), Allain proudly remarked that, of the thirteen people of color who were members in the Louisiana House of Representatives and the four in the Senate, all were from the sugar districts.

 Allain is noted for helping to organize a public school system in West Baton Rouge for both white and black children after the Civil War and for helping to establish Southern University as a state-supported institution of higher learning for African-Americans. He also took the lead in organizing and funding the maintenance of the levees in Louisiana.

Théophile Mahier

Theophile Mahier (1821-1881) was a free man of color and a delegate in the Louisiana Constitutional Convention of 1868, serving as the State Representative for West Baton Rouge Parish. He served with four white legislators on the Building Committee. He was married to Josephine Deruize.

Charles P. Adams

Charles P. AdamsCharles Philip Adams was a Brusly (West Baton Rouge Parish) native and Tuskegee Institute graduate who followed Booker T. Washington’s advice to travel to North Louisiana to develop a school. On November 1, 1901, Adams founded and opened the school in Lincoln Parish which in 1974 became known as Grambling State University. Adams maintained his residence at the school until his death, only returning to Brusly for visits.

Adams founded the school that is now known as Grambling State University in 1901, the same year that he left Brusly for North Louisiana. This information was uncovered during the planning of the Brusly Centennial, which was held in October 2001. Grambling Alumna, Carolyn Brown, was the speaker during the dedication ceremony.

The Charles P. Adams House was nominated to the National Register of Historic Places in 2004, the Charles P. Adams House, located just south of the Grambling State University campus, is the only surviving building directly associated with the institution’s founder and first president. Adams lived in the home, built for his retirement, from 1936 until his death in 1961. The educator founded his first school at the urging of his mentor, Booker T. Washington, in 1901. His second school, which he shepherded through incarnations as an agricultural and industrial school, a parish training school and a normal (teach training) school, eventually evolved into the full-fledged, state-supported university which Grambling is today. (Preservation in Print, Volume 32, Number 1, February 2005, editors Patricia L. Duncan and Donna Fricker, Division of Historic Preservation)