I have an acquaintance who has stated that I am the most racist person he knows. He contends that everything I produce is biased against White Southerners. While I certainly don't agree with him, I will confess he does have somewhat of a point. It is true that if one were to only read my writings to gain a picture of the history of Minden they would get a slanted view. However, the view one would get would be slanted in precisely the opposite direction from what this person charges.
The reality is that the myopia in my works is the sad omission of vital history of the Black population of Minden. This past week several different things made me realize it was time to revise and rerun an article I ran several years ago on this topic. The most significant event of the week was not a complaint, but rather a very positive phone call, including a question that I wish I could answer in a better way. In light of last week's article on E. S. Richardson, this person wondered could I write a similar article on J. L. Jones. Sadly, the answer is at this time, no. I simply don't have the material to produce such an article. The reasons will be the topic of this week's Echo. So, before you begin this article, be prepared to serve as my personal "shrink" as some of the problems are personal to me and perhaps in the end be prepared to serve as a fellow researcher along with me to help solve a big problem in preserving our history for future generations.
Very little space in these columns has been devoted to the Black population of Minden and our area. The stories of the many positive achievements of Black residents of Minden could serve as inspiration for children reading about members of their ethnic group, rather than always about White residents and for all readers regardless of race. While some my label my reasons as excuses, I'm going to attempt to give you some reasons, both personal and logistical, as to why the vast majority of my columns have been about only a portion of the local community.
The first reason relates to the time frames I usually cover in my columns. I try to limit my topics to either biographies of individuals or events that occurred in a time frame so that few if any living individuals were involved. My reasons for choosing the older events are varied and are inspired by different circumstances and motivations. I choose older events because they tend to inspire less controversy and thus eliminate the potential for negative feedback to the Press-Herald and myself. I am an unpaid, volunteer columnist. I love writing about local history and appreciate being given the opportunity by the newspaper. However, if the outcome of my work is to create public relations problems for the newspaper, I should and would expect that the invitation to write would soon be removed. Writing in the older time frames means that the sources available for those years generally don't mention any activities of the Black community. We all recognize that we lived in an extremely segregated society until the very recent past. Many of the significant events and even the day-to-day life of the Black community are not contained in local newspapers until the 1970s. During the 1950s, future Mayor Robert Tobin, then a teacher at Webster High School, did write a column called "Negro News" but it contained only small tidbits of information. Large events, particularly those that involved the Civil Rights Movement, are simply ignored in the newspapers of those years. In August, 1965, James Farmer, the nationally known Civil Rights leader came to Minden and led a march to City Hall. Farmer came to Minden directly from the White House ceremony where President Lyndon Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act. Reading the Minden newspapers of those years, that event is not recorded. It is given brief coverage in the Shreveport Times; however, the most extensive coverage I find of that event is in the New York Times.
The absence of local written sources leads to a personal reason for not having the material to write columns about the Black community. Presently, my time for research is severely limited. I do not have the time to do the original primary source research in area libraries or in newspapers such as the Shreveport Sun or even the more significant process of conducting interviews with those having the needed information. I do see hope for the community at large as I know of at least two oral history projects that may soon begin, enabling the preservation of many important strands of our history. My limited time for research will probably bring about the end of my columns in the not too distant future. I have a tremendous amount of material that I have compiled over the years as a Graduate Student and an independent researcher. That material was assembled during a time when I was able to devote nearly all of my time to research. I no longer have that time at my disposal. The material that I have about the Civil Rights Era in Minden stems from my time as a Graduate Student. My potential dissertation topic used those events as its theme, so I have quite a bit of information about that topic in my files, including copies of the FBI files about activities in Minden from 1956 through 1967. On occasion, I will find source material on the Internet, or be able to obtain books through Interlibrary Loan that touch on our local history, but for the most part I am limited to what I already have or what I can find in sources available here in Minden.
One obvious answer to the problem I just discussed is to go beyond printed sources to the first type of primary source -- individuals. That brings us to the "shrink" part of this discussion. Because of the person I am, I am largely a "one-trick-pony" in my research. I lack the adequate social and people skills to be an effective oral historian. I have tried to work beyond this, but frankly at times you can't "teach an old dog new tricks" – and my personality makes gaining information through interviews difficult.
That's the bad news. However, there are good things that make me hope that at some point conditions will improve and many hidden historical treasures will be revealed. Dr.Roy Phillips and Mr. James Smith have produced an amazing project on local Black History for the Dorcheat Museum. I have not yet tapped that resource for my columns, but I hope we can see their work distributed in a more public way. It gives information and insight unlike anything we have had access to for local Black History.
I also hope that perhaps I can plant the seeds for further research by more capable researchers than myself in this area. I would love to see history students from area colleges engage in research in local Black History. There are abundant topics out there.
Clearly the lives of local slaves is a rich topic. Moving closer to the Civil War, there was a "free-person-of-color" living in Minden in 1860 who later enlisted in the Louisiana Native Guards, the famous Black unit that fought first for the Confederacy in defense of New Orleans and then, after New Orleans fell, became on of the first all Black units in the Union Army. From the Reconstruction years you have the story of the occupation of Minden by the 61st United States Colored Troops during 1865. Included in that story is Eli Bobo, a member of the Union occupation troops that came to Minden in 1865, who remained in our town and served on the Town Council. George Bowles, a local tinsmith who served several terms on the Town Council. The stories of locals who lived through the end of Black political participation for three-quarters of a century with the onset of the Jim Crow era needs to be told. You had individuals who went from being elected officials to being disenfranchised in less than a decade. Education is such a rich topic. Beyond J.L. Jones you have the story of the Webster Training School and its transition to Webster High School. Individuals such as Dr. J. L. Phillips, Jerry Moore, Leon Hayes, Grace Landry, Robert Tobin and Mary G. Thompson who is still living here in Minden, need to be recognized. I have merely scratched the surface and any glaring ommissions from these I have listed are probably based on my ignorace.
John Agan is a local historian, an instructor at Bossier Parish Community College and a published author. His column appears Fridays in the Minden Press-Herald.