ORAL HISTORY with CELESTINE LABAT (1898-2002)
They’re all gone now, most of them, the old Creoles-Veronica and I are the only ones left, from my father’s generation. The Creoles faded away because in most cases, a Creole would only marry another Creole. There were several pioneer Creole families in Bay St. Louis, and some of them were the Labats, the Barabinos, the Trudeaus, and the Piernas'. Mr. Louie Piernas, he was the first black postmaster here. He was a Republican and he paid his poll taxes, so he could vote. My father paid his poll taxes too, and they might have been the only Creoles in Bay St. Louis who could vote at that time. I remember how I used to see Mr. Louie walking down the street, he walked briskly, with a cane and a derby hat and a long frock coat and he was always friendly. He was a distinguished looking man, and I would say that he was the most educated, he wasn’t wealthy but he had more money than anyone else around here. I remember him and his wife, sitting on their front porch after dinner. They would sit there like statues, not talking, just sitting there in their straight chairs.
Mr. Louie Piernas’ wife’s name was Anastasia, I think, she was a Barabino. He called his wife La Fille, which means the girl. Miss La Fille was very Creole, she spoke only French, and she had a beautiful camellia bush in her front yard. She sold the camellias to the people on the excursion trains. She would poke holes in a big Irish potato, and she’d stick the flowers in the holes so they would stay moist and she would give them to some of the boys, the youngsters in the neighborhood. They would take them to the train and shout camellias, camellias! One day as a little girl I passed by Miss La Fille’s when she was out by the camellia bush and I said, Miss La Fille, give me a camellia, and she said, very emphatically, no! And I said to her Miss La Fille, you so stingy! And then she genuflected, and that black skirt went up and she said tant pis! That means I don’t care and she really didn’t care.
See those blue and white dishes in the cabinet? They were Miss La Fille’s wedding dishes, and she sold them to my sister Inez. This was during the Depression, she needed the money and knew Inez would take care of them. I can remember the first time I ever saw Miss LeFille’s dishes used; it was when Mr. James Weldon Johnson came here for dinner. We lost the key to this cabinet around 1940 I think, and I haven’t been able to open it since then. I sure would like to get in there and dust those dishes.
The Creole community was in this area, and the part of town across the tracks, past the train depot and Sycamore and Washington Streets, we called that “back ‘a town”. My father called the people who lived over there Americans, with the accent on the last syllable that was pronounced like can, like a can of soup. They were a different group of people, and my father used to tell me that I wasn’t a Creole, because I didn’t drink wine or coffee; he said that I was an American, just an old American. We never really had racial segregation in the neighborhoods, even over back ‘a town. The Catholics and the Creoles lived this side of the tracks, and the Americans lived back ‘a town. The most distinct example of racial prejudice in those days that I remember was within the Catholic Church.
Our Lady of the Gulf was integrated, but the white parishioners sat in the central pews and the colored sections were the narrow aisles on on the side. These pews were rented to members of the black community. So there was segregation within the church, but it made a difference who happened to be in power in Our Lady at any given time, too. For instance, there was a Father Henry LeDuc, he was the priest that married my father and mother and when they first started having children, he told them not to speak Creole in front of us because it would hamper our learning. So they never did, unless they were saying something that they did not want us to hear. Then there was a Father Pendergast who cared for blacks, and he appreciated the contributions that the black community made to the church. There were other white people who didn’t like his concern for us though, and when plans were started to build St. Rose he protested, so they got rid of him. After he left, I didn’t enjoy Mass anymore.
All of the Creole families around here had mixed colors in their families, some light people and some dark-skinned people, some white-looking and some colored, and they didn’t always stay around here or even if they did, some of them would still pass as white, what we called passé blanc. I know plenty of people around here that passed as white. If they couldn’t be white in the town they were born in, they would go off to California, or Chicago or New York someplace, and they would live as white. Sometimes it would happen that you would be put in a passé blanc position even if you hadn’t intended it, if you were white-looking’ enough. For instance, my mother used to take the train to New Orleans and a couple of times she took Sis when she was little, and the conductor would put them in the white coach. One time when that happened, my mother saw a colored man she knew from Bay St. Louis who was passing for white, and another time she was in that same car and she saw our white neighbor from right across the street, but he never said anything. Still, when my mother and Veronica got off that train she had to tell him that she hadn’t asked for them to be seated in that whites-only car.
My father’s father came to the United States from Martinique. His name was Joseph Labat, he was a big black man, and he bought the freedom of a slave in Convent, Louisiana and married her. They had five children in Convent, and they had five more here. I don’t really know very much about my grandmother, except that she was born in Convent, she was a Lanaux, and I was named after her. She was a light skinned woman, and her children were all mixed colors, from light to dark brown. Like most Creoles, they isolated themselves because they thought they were above other people. The prejudice was both racial and religious; if you were a Creole, you were supposed to marry Catholic and marry Creole and I guess that’s why some of my sisters never had any husbands and why I don’t have a husband. But my father was brown and my mother was very light skinned, especially when she was younger, and they had children of all colors, black, white and in-betweens.
Inez was my oldest sister, and she lifted us out of poverty with her salary as an educator. She was very generous, and she always spoke her own mind. Inez hated prejudice and segregation, and she didn’t care who knew it. She used to go to St. Louis Cathedral in the Quarter, and she had to sit in the back of the church. Once she decided to go upstairs and sit with the choir, but when she started up, an usher pulled her back. She resisted and told him, go say your prayers, and she went up anyway.
Inez looked Indian and my sister Sylvia looked Mexican; she was a beautiful brown color. In fact, Sylvia used to pass for a Mexican; if she wanted to go around in the French Quarter, she’d put on these big earrings and a lot of beads, as if to say I’m Mexican and she would be able to eat in white restaurants and go wherever she wanted. When Sylvia was going to Xavier Prep, she was the hostess for distinguished black people who would come to Xavier or to Dillard University. Sylvia used to take some of those guests to the French Quarter and if they were light skinned and if they were willing, they would both passé blanc, and they would eat wherever they wanted to.
My father was such a good man, he was homey and nice and very Catholic. I always knew my father loved me, because when I had been away and I would come home, he would hug me and kiss me on the forehead and on both cheeks, and he would cry. I was in California when he got sick but I got here before he died, and when I got here he saw me and I leaned over to kiss him and he hugged me so hard that I thought I was going to pass out if he didn’t let go of me. He called me “Tine”; he was the only one who ever called me that.
My father had four sisters who lived over by where the Yacht Club is now. When we visited, we used to like to catch those little bayou crabs, we called them touloulous; I don’t know what their real name is. We would go in the water and when we came out we would be hungry and they would always have something for us to eat. Those aunts of ours had a pier with a bathhouse on the end and we would go crabbing but the blue crabs we would catch were small and thin, they weren’t good fat crabs. They would use them anyway and make us gumbo but it wasn’t very good. Anytime we saw small crabs like that, we would call them Aunt Mary’s crabs. My aunts used to all talk at once and they only spoke Creole and sometimes they would sound just like the cackling chickens they had in the yard.
My mother was born here too, but I can’t figure out where she lived, and I can’t figure out where she learned to read and write; I don’t think they had any schools. My mother was a Creole too, and her mother had five beautiful daughters. The man who fathered them, I don’t guess he could marry her, because he was a white Creole and she was a black Creole. My mother’s mother was part Choctaw, and she lived with the Choctaws. My mother had high cheekbones and hair like an Indian, but my grandmother didn’t look like an Indian, she had more Negroid features. My sister Inez looked like an Indian though, she had a different kind of hair. Sis was the fairest, and Sylvia was a beautiful brown, and my other sisters Portia, Johnnie and Elise fell someplace in between. I remember once a guest we had for dinner toasted my father and said, all of your daughters are beautiful, but Johnnie is your masterpiece!
I had four brothers, and they were all different colors also; there was Sumner and Fabian, Lucien and Victor. We all had friends of different colors too; my mother and father didn’t have any prejudices about color, but they did about religion, and they wanted all of us to marry Catholics. When we were children, we would play games and pretend that we were rich white people we had heard my parents talking about. I suppose that children today still play it, but by the time it got down to my nephew’s children, they weren’t using the names of white people anymore; they selected names of black people, but they were black people with money, so I guess that part hasn’t changed. The thing we ate the most when we were growing up was gumbo. We would put chickens in it, or whatever my father had gotten hunting, and we made seafood gumbo too, with the fish and crabs we would catch. The other thing I remember eating a lot was oysters. There was an oyster shop on the corner of Toulme and St. John and my mother used to send me over there with a quarter and a bucket, and he’d fill that bucket three quarters full for a quarter. Food was cheap then, and my mother knew how to stretch food. In our house on Sundays we had gumbo, and duck or maybe roast or chicken. My father always used to say that if there wasn’t any gumbo, it just wasn’t Sunday, and I also remember that he would say that about Christmas, too.
When he was a young man, my father bought this house for thirty five dollars, but it only had three rooms and a detached kitchen. There was a red brick walk that led back to the kitchen, it was like slave quarters, and we had a walk in pantry. Later, my father added the three back rooms; he said that he was tired of seeing half-naked teenagers running around. There were three or four iron beds in our room, and we sisters slept two to a bed. All the beds had mosquito netting, what we used to call mosquito rods. He built a room out back too, in the building that had been a stable, for my brothers. I stayed in the house for Camille and I also stayed in the house during the 1915 hurricane, and I think that one may have been even worse than Camille. I was 17 years old then and that was my first hurricane.
I never did know much about my grandfather, my mother’s father. He was a white Creole, and I don’t know if he just abandoned my grandmother and her children, or if he took care of them. I do know that later on, he married a white woman. That whole situation was hush hush; they never did talk about it. You know, back then whites and coloreds couldn’t marry, it was against the law. So even if he had wanted to marry my grandmother, he couldn’t. People knew about those relationships, though; there was an area of town that we called Bunker Hill, it was over there where McDonald Street is now, and there were white men living with black women. Some white people tried to sever those mixed-race relationships, and sent the policemen after them. I remember there was this one white man living with his woman over there, and the police went and told him he had to discontinue the relationship and stop living with her and he got his shotgun out there on the porch and he dared those policemen to come after him! I guess he loved that woman, all right.
Do you know how I met my Grandfather, that white Creole? I was playing in front of the house with my cousin one day, I must have been nine or ten and she whispered in my ear look at your grandfather and I looked and he was staring at me, he didn’t say anything, he didn’t smile, he was just staring and he had these blue eyes, real blue and this white hair, and he just stared at me. Then he turned around and walked away, and that’s the only time I can ever remember seeing him.
There used to be balls at the Promote Hall for members of the black community. We all used to dance a lot, and my brother Sumner’s band used to play at those balls. I was very young, and I had a boyfriend who used to take me to the balls and I enjoyed it so much, I never wanted to go home. That’s what I remember so well about those days, how the people loved music and loved to dance. My father would go and dance all night, but my mother didn’t like to go. My father was a good dancer and he used to win prizes. People would tease my mother, saying Joe sure had a good time at the ball last night. Some of those young ladies are going to take him away from you. She’d say well, they can take him as long as they take all these children and just leave me my baby. It didn’t matter who the baby was at the time, either.
I was my mother’s fifth child and after I finished high school in Indiana, I taught in Vicksburg, Pearlington and the Bay. I went to college and got a bachelor’s degree in science at Howard University, and later I went to California and got a master’s degree in education. Several of my siblings attended Xavier Prep, and when my brother Vic was there he was a very good athlete. Vic had two friends from the Bay, Pierre and Jim, who were also very good, and they called them the Three Musketeers. I knew them very well and for awhile I dated Pierre’s brother Joe. But that Jim, he was a character. We used to feed him and I remember once we had saved him some red beans and rice that we had made, and we heard him in the kitchen scraping’ the pot and Portia called to him now Jim, don’t you be eating those beans, it’s fast day and there’s meat in those beans. Jim called back, Nan, I ain’t eating these beans fast, I’m eating them slow! Jim used to call everyone cuz, it would be cuz this and cuz that. I remember something that happened once with all that cuz business. We had a white neighbor who lived across the street, his name was Placide but he had a black relative named Julien and he acknowledged Julien, but once when Placide was over here Jim was visiting too and Jim called him cuz and Placide said well I’ll be damned, it’s enough that Julien is kin to me!
There was a modest house next door to us, and a little black boy named Jimmy lived there with his mother. We went to school together and everyone called him Jimmy and his last name was Barthe, pronounced like hearth, but when he got famous he started pronouncing it Bar-tay and he didn’t want anyone, even his mother, to call him Jimmy. My sister Portia was flip and sassy and Barthe liked her attitude, and Portia confronted him one day and said something smart about Barthe and he said; well you know I don’t mind you calling me Jimmy! My sisters Inez, Sylvia and Portia visited Barthe after he finished art school and they said he was very poor, eating canned beans, and the soles on his shoes were flapping. So Inez had his shoes fixed, and she gave him some change, it couldn’t have been much, but he never forgot it. He wanted to thank her so he told her, sit down, I am going to do a bust of you and in the next room is that beautiful bronze bust he did of her. Then he told my other sisters that he wanted to sketch them. That’s Barthe’s portrait of Portia on this wall and Sylvia’s portrait is over there. He was a great artist, and a good friend. I can still see his sweet way of smiling.
There were a lot of religious holidays we celebrated when we were children, and they were the really important ones. Lately, we’ve had 4th of July celebrations around here, but not when I was a child. I don’t know why we didn’t celebrate the 4th of July, nobody in the community celebrated. I was never taught patriotism in school. As a matter of fact, when I went to high school in Indianapolis, the first time they started playing the National Anthem, I had never heard it before and I didn’t stand up. Somebody came and pushed me and said stand up! So patriotic holidays didn’t mean much to us, but the activities at Our Lady and Saint Rose did.
The seminary played a big part in our lives too. St. Augustine was originally located in Greenville, but it didn’t last long. They had white priests from Germany, and the students were all black. The Ku Klux Klan was strong up there and they didn’t like that, so they caused all sorts of trouble. It was decided to move the seminary here, where race relations were better. The students from the seminary used to like to come here. It happened more than once that some seminarians would be here without permission and they would hear some priests coming for a visit and by the time the priests got in the front door, the students had disappeared out the back.
We had some religious organizations that were formed to assist members of the black community. My father was one of the founders of the Knights of Peter Clavier; that was formed because blacks couldn’t join the Knights of Columbus. You paid a monthly fee and if you got sick they paid the doctor’s fee or if you died they buried you. The white groups and the black groups didn’t interact, and it could be that the whites didn’t have as many as the blacks did, I’m not sure.
My mother’s mother became a Baptist; she left the Catholic Church when she became angry about the treatment of blacks, especially after the time she had gone to Lucien and Portia’s communion rites at Our Lady of the Gulf. My grandmother had to sit in the back while all the white children received communion, and only then did the black children get communion. So she left the church and never went back. The Baptists were prejudiced too but at least they had a segregated church, and she didn’t have to sit behind white people.
When I was young, race relations were generally better here than they were further north, on account of the French influence on the coast. The French didn’t have prejudices about mixing with the natives that were here, and later that same attitude resulted in relationships with people of African descent too. That’s how there came to be black Creoles and white Creoles. Prejudice infected the area though, and it got to the point where if you had even a fraction of African blood you were considered black. There were a lot of light-skinned negroes that had as much white blood as a white Creole, and it just depended on how you had started out, what the community thought of you and sometimes, it was how much you could get away with. I know a lot of people around here that passed as white.
The poor treatment of colored people wasn’t as bad here, but we had our share of it. For instance, we couldn’t swim on the beaches out on the Gulf, because that was a segregated area. I remember one incident that happened during the civil rights agitation; a black woman had taken some of her children swimming in the Gulf and a policeman saw them. He shouted for her to get out of the water and she told him, come and get me! So there were those things, and of course the government was racist, and we were all affected by the attitudes of the officials. I remember Governor Bilbo; he was a terrible segregationist, even worse than Wallace was. He treated black people so badly that we called him Knocker, because he was always knocking colored people. We had a black and white dog that my mother named after him; I think there are some photos of that dog around.
We did have a few terrible things happen here that were on account of racism. There used to be a grocery store on the corner of Main and Toulme, and a black man named Albert Rabateau was working in the store. He was stocking shelves when a black lady came in. The white clerk, he didn’t give her enough change and she protested and Albert defended her. The next day the father of that white clerk came back into the store with a shotgun and he shot Albert in the back and he said to the witnesses, if the sheriff wants to talk to me he knows where to find me. Nothing ever happened to that white man, though. This happened in the early forties, and Albert was about my age. He was married to a good friend of mine, Mabel Ishem, we went to school together, and she had a little baby who was only a few months old when Albert was killed by that man. Albert’s son, his name is Albert too, is a professor at Princeton. He wrote two books, the first one was called Slave Religion and the second one is Fire in the Bones. I heard later that the white man who shot Albert, he went crazy, so maybe he couldn’t live with what he had done.
There were some cases, though, where white people went out of their way to help blacks. For instance, there was a black boy named Moses Singleton who was reared by a good white woman named Miss Jo Welch. Miss Jo took him in, she had a room underneath her bookstore, she let him stay there and she took care of him. He used to ride a bicycle, and he ran errands for her. One day some men in the Ku Klux Klan wanted to harm him. He told her and she said come on, show me who you are talking about and she got her gun and found those men and she said, do you see this gun? And do you see this boy? If you do any harm to him I’m going to use this gun on you. So Moses grew up and married, and do you know who he married? That woman out in the water with the children, the ones the policeman came after, and those children were his children and he named his daughter Josie, after Miss Jo Welch.
Excerpts from Celestine Labat oral history, 2000-2002. Interview conducted by Lori K. Gordon in Bay St. Louis, MS.