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Photograph: The Venus House in LeVieux Village de Poste des Opelousas sits at the east entrance to Opelousas on US Highway 190. (Photograph by Freddie Herpin.)

Carola Lillie Hartley
Publisher and Contributing Writer

February is Black History Month, a time to celebrate and honor the enormous contributions Black Americans have made to our country, our state and our city. This year’s Black History Month started on Wednesday, February 1, 2023 and will end on Wednesday, March 1, 2023. But when did it actually begin?

Black educators and Black United Students at Kent State University first proposed Black History Month in February 1969. The first celebration of Black History Month took place at Kent State a year later, from January 2 to February 28, 1970. In 1976President Gerald R. Ford officially recognized Black History Month. President Ford called upon the public to “seize the opportunity to honor the too-often neglected accomplishments of Black Americans in every area of endeavor throughout our history.”

Opelousas citizens and visitors to the community can learn more about the contributions African Americans made to our local area by exploring historic sites in the city. We invite you to explore historic Opelousas during Black History Month. Here is a list with some historic information that will help you with that tour.

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Black History Month Tour of Opelousas – Part One
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1. Le Vieux Village du Poste des Opelousas

The Venus House at Le Vieux Village Historical Park & Museum is a African American Heritage Trail site located in Opelousas, Louisiana.

Le Vieux Village heritage park is a collection of exhibits, museums, and some of the area’s oldest structures. French for the old village, this attraction was created in 1988 by the Opelousas Tourism and Activities Committee. Many of its components were donated by families from the area.

Get a glimpse of historic Opelousas, one of Louisiana’s oldest cities, by touring the grounds which includes an old schoolhouse, a Methodist church, a doctor’s office, and the home of Marie Francois Venus, a Free Woman of Color who lived in the home during the late part of the 18th century. Tours are given by appointment. Self-guided tours are also available.

The village is located at the eastern entrance to Opelousas along U.S. Highway 190. Also housed at Le Vieux Village is the City of Opelousas Tourist Information Center & Gift Shop. The center houses the Jim Bowie Display and the Zydeco Music Exhibit.

The park is also home to the Louisiana Orphan Train Museum, a facility dedicated to documenting and researching the lives of the orphan train riders.

The following historic sites in the village will be of interest for this tour:

Venus House
This French Creole style home was originally located in the small community of Grand Prairie. The house is named for its former owner and occupant, Marie Francois Venus, a Free Woman of Color, who lived in the home during the 18th century.

The Venus House was the first building moved to the village in 1973 when the owners, the Earl Fontenot, Sr. family of Grand Prairie, LA donated it to the city.

For many years after the move the building housed the Jim Bowie Museum and was called the Jim Bowie House, but there is no evidence to link the house in any way to the famous hero of the Alamo who once called Opelousas his home.

Although there is no official documentation, many feel the Venus house is one of the oldest buildings west of the Mississippi River. A one-story frame structure, of typical French Creole style, there is architectural evidence that the house could have been built during the late eighteenth or early nineteenth century, or even earlier. For purposes of nomination to the National Register of Historic Places, the date c. 1800 was used.

The house is made of bousillage, a mixture of mud and moss, that is typical of houses built in South Louisiana, Normandy and Brittany.

Listed on the National Register of Historic Places on April 22, 1991, the Venus House is the only structure in the village awarded that honor.

La Chapelle House – Once located near the corner of Union and East Grolee streets, this house was built about 1840 by Free People of Color. The front porch of the house has French doors, windows and a staircase. Since the stairs were used by the boys to reach their bedroom, the staircase was called “garconniere,” which means boy or young man in English.

For decades Opelousas citizens referred to the old home as the Perkins Home, since Sam Perkins lived there for many years.

The La Chapelle (aka Perkins) Home was used as the Opelousas Art Center for the Opelousas Art League for many years.  Moved from its original site in 1991, the La Chapelle House was donated to the village by Dr. Van Christian.

Palmetto African American Methodist Church

Moved to the village in the year 2000, the former African American Methodist Church was built in 1948 in the village of Palmetto in St. Landry Parish. After it was moved to the village, the renovated church building was dedicated in 2003.

Palmetto African American Methodist Church in Le Vieux Village (Photograph by Freddie Herpin.)

JS Clark Memorial Walkway
The Opelousas high school that bore the name of the late educator J.S. Clark, founder of Southern University in Baton Rouge, lasted for only 15 years, but it made a lasting mark on its city inspiring current charter school J.S. Clark Christian Academy and will forever be remembered by the J.S. Clark Memorial Walkway, located at Le Vieux Village Heritage Park.

From 1954 to 1969, in the days before school desegregation, J.S. Clark served the needs of black high school students in and around Opelousas.

The memorial walkway was officially dedicated on October 18, 2014, during a special ceremony. It features bricks and monuments that pay tribute to many of the school’s former teachers, staff and students. 

It also honors outstanding people connected with J.S. Clark: football standout Preston Fontenot, 1972 Olympic track and field gold medalist Rodney Milburn, and Rosa B. Scott Anderson, a former lead majorette who became a nurse and helped casualties during a firearm assault on Fairchild Air Force Base in the state of Washington over 20 years ago.

Rodney Milburn exhibit in Le Vieux Village (Photograph by Freddie Herpin.)

Le Vieux Village  Contact Information

  • Address: 828 East Landry Street, Opelousas, Louisiana 70570

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2. St. Landry Training School Historic Marker

Located just across Highway 190 from Le Vieux Village at the east entrance to the city is the historic marker that denotes the site of the St. Landry Training School, established there in 1918.  The school was important to the history of African American education in Opelousas.

Opelousas Colored School/St. Landry Training School Marker

The following is a brief history of African American Education in Opelousas from the 1830s until 1920:

History of African American Education in Opelousas, LA

Grimble Bell School
By the 1830s-decade Opelousas had a school for free people of color (fpc)when the Grimble Bell School was established. It was an elite private school located near Opelousas and Washington for the education of children of the wealthy free people of color planters in the area. According to reports, including one in Harper’s New Monthly Magazine of June – November 1866, during the 1830s this school had 125 students enrolled and four teachers. The monthly tuition was fifteen dollars. The school taught all customary subjects, including writing, arithmetic, history, bookkeeping, French, English and Latin. However, by the late 1850s the school was forced to close due to racial tensions.

Opelousas Freedmen’s School
Although there may have been some earlier efforts towards educating the African American population in the Opelousas area, it seems the first organized public school for that purpose in the area was the Freedmen’s Bureau School, established in about 1866-67 following the Civil War. Two of the teachers at the school were Emerson Bentley and his brother Linden. Local residents in Opelousas referred to the Bentley brothers as carpetbaggers. Emerson Bentley was also a political activist and a writer for the St. Landry Progress newspaper. 

The Freedmen’s Bureau established schools in Louisiana to educate Negro children following the occupation of New Orleans by Union Forces during the Civil War.  At the close of that war, the bureau opened schools in many other Louisiana towns, including the Opelousas school in St. Landry Parish. (From The Freedmen’s Bureau In Louisiana, Howard A. White, Louisiana State University Press, Baton Rouge, LA, 1970.)

Peabody Colored School of Opelousas
Another early school for Blacks was the Peabody Colored School, funded with grant support from Baltimore, Maryland banker George Peabody (1795-1869). 

The Peabody Schools of the south offered opportunities for both whites and the newly freed slaves. With a gift of $2.1 million dollars, in early 1867, Peabody established America’s very first formal foundation, the Peabody Education Fund to “encourage the intellectual, moral, and industrial education of the destitute children of the Southern States.” Opelousas had Peabody Schools…for whites and blacks.

Mrs. Helen Donato
The principal of the Peabody Colored School in Opelousas was Mrs. Helen Donato, sometimes listed as Mrs. E. Donato. She served as principal for this school as soon as it opened after the Civil War. That school became a major part of her life, and in many accounts about the school, it is most often referred to as “Madame Donato’s Colored School.” By 1879, the school had an enrollment of 143 pupils. Mrs. Donato continued to work in the school until the money from the Peabody Fund dried up. When Peabody died in 1869, grant funding was discontinued during the next years and by1880 the Peabody schools in Opelousas closed.

Mrs. Donato’s School
Following the closing of the Peabody Schools, in 1880 Mrs. Donato took it upon herself to make sure education opportunities for the African American children continued. She opened her own private school in Opelousas at her home, which was located opposite St. Landry Catholic Church in town. The first day of that school was on September 6, 1880.

Sometime after that, Mrs. Donato was listed as the principal of the “Colored Public School” in Opelousas. Mrs. Donato continued her work in the school for several years. On July 16, 1895, the St. Landry Clarion ran a very positive article about the closing exercises at the school and congratulated Mrs. Donato for her excellent work with the school. She served as principal of the school until the end of the 1895 school year.

Mrs. Helen Donato was an early pioneer of education in Opelousas and Louisiana. From the mid 1860s until the mid 1890s, she was the person most associated with public education for the African American community in Opelousas.

St. Joseph Academy
Following the Civil War during Reconstruction, St. Joseph’s Academy, for Colored, (sometimes called St. Joseph Convent or St. Joseph School) was organized in 1874 in Opelousas. The brothers Father Gilbert and Francis Raymond, pioneers in the education of the Negroes of the community, opened the school with the help of the Sisters of the Holy Family, who taught there.

St. Joseph Catholic School pictured in c.1915

In 1874, Mother Mary Josephine Charles, Superior General of the Sisters of the Holy Family, left New Orleans for Opelousas taking Sister Magdalene Alpaugh, Mother Elizabeth Bradley and Sister Cecilia Capla with her. It was a four-day journey by boat and rail. The travelers landed in Washington, St. Landry Parish by way of Bayou Courtableau and endured the last few miles in a horse drawn wagon.

After they arrived, the sisters began almost immediately visiting homes and organizations of instruction classes for adults, not just in Opelousas, but the entire area of St. Landry Parish. They encouraged the parents they met during these visits to send their children to Catholic school. The following week St. Joseph School was opened, and Mother Josephine then returned to New Orleans.

The first classes at St. Joseph School were held in the basement of the St. Joseph Convent, and the girls boarded in the building. The curriculum consisted of catechism and English, with French, piano, needlework and art added later. In August of 1881, a fire did some damage to the school, and money had to be raised to repair the building. Fund raisers were held in the community and the area. The sisters were able to collect the funds necessary and the building was repaired. The school did well and received support from the entire community.

This school continued to operate for many years. After Holy Ghost Catholic Church was chartered in 1920, the school became Holy Ghost Academy and then Holy Ghost School. It was combined with the Academy of the Immaculate Conception in 1971 to become Opelousas Catholic School.

Holy Ghost Church Rectory with the Holy Ghost School Band during the late 1920s. (Photograph courtesy of Frank Boudreaux)

7th District Baptist School
In 1897, when there were few local schools for Blacks, the 7th District Baptist School was founded and housed in the original building of the Mt. Olive Baptist Church on Church Street.  That school operated until 1918.

Historic Marker for Black Academy at Mt Olive Baptist Church on Church Street.

St. Joseph Industrial College – 1911-1920
Opelousas also had a Catholic college for Blacks in the area called St. Joseph’s College, founded by Father J. Engberink, pastor of St. Landry Catholic Church. The college enrolled 88 students, all young men, for the 1911-12 school year. Leonard Dwight “L. D.” Lang, a graduate of St. Joseph College at Montgomery, Alabama and a close associate of the noted educator Booker T. Washington, was the director of the College.

St. Joseph Industrial College c. 1915

Opelousas Bloch Colored School
In the early 1900s, Opelousas had the Bloch Colored School. The school was established by Henry Bloch, a local man who served as the first Black Postmaster in Opelousas for a short time during the 1890s.

The St. Landry Parish Board of School Directors in January of 1904 appropriated $15.00 a month in support of the Bloch School. (St. Landry Clarion, Opelousas, LA, January 23, 1904.) In September of that year Miss Etna R. Rochon was appointed teacher of the Bloch Colored School in Opelousas at a salary of $15.00 per month. (St. Landry Clarion, Opelousas, LA, October 1, 1904.)

Opelousas Colored School
In the early 1900 there was also a school known as the Opelousas Colored School. In 1902, J. H. McGaffey was principal of that school, making a salary of $35.00 per month. Teachers that year included Helen Littell, making $20.00 per month and Sadie Cuney, making $15.00 per month. (St. Landry Clarion, Opelousas, LA, September 6, 1902.)  In September of 1904, Sadie Cuney was rehired  by the school for a salary of $20.00 per month. (St. Landry Clarion, Opelousas, LA, October 1, 1904.)

Dr. J. H. Augustus served as principal of the Opelousas Colored School for many years, starting in 1905. (St. Landry Clarion, Opelousas, LA, December 16, 1905.)  In 1916, and for several years, the school went only to the 9th grade.

In 1918, the Opelousas Colored School representatives asked for a new school building and better facilities. They organized a school building committee composed of Mrs. J. H. Deshotel, chairman; Miss B. Robert, vice-chairman; J. H, Augustus, recording secretary; Miss M. J. Walters, corresponding secretary; and A. V. Giron, treasurer. Immediately after they organized, the committee appeared before the Opelousas City Council and the St. Landry Parish Police Jury asking for help in getting a new school building. (Star Progress Newspaper, Opelousas, LA, March 30, 1918.) They appeared before the St. Landry Parish School Board in April of that year asking for a new school building.

St. Landry High School Building in its original location on North Market Street, pictured in about 1910. In 1918-19 this building was moved to the corner of Vine and Academy Street, reconstructed and became the St. Landry Training School.

To help raise funds for the new school building, in early May the school building committee ordered lapel buttons with the inscription “Help Furnish Colored Public School,” and sold the buttons for twenty-five cents each. The money from the button sales went towards the building fund. (St. Landry Clarion, Opelousas, LA, May 4, 1918.) Later that month the Opelousas City Council appointed a committee with full authority to act in the matter of selling, transferring or donating the old St. Landry High School building on Market St. to be used as the Opelousas Colored School building. The committee was also asked to look into a proper location for the school.  (St. Landry Clarion, Opelousas, LA, May 11, 1918).

Since the old St. Landry High School Building, that was constructed in 1893 on Market Street, had been vacant since 1915 when the new high school was built on South Street, the city council thought it would be a perfect building to use as the Opelousas Colored School. On July 20, 1918 the St. Landry Parish School Superintendent W. B. Prescott announced bids were opened for the taking down, moving and reconstructing of the building on Market Street that once was the St. Landry High School. The building was to be dismantled, moved and rebuilt on the plans of the original St. Landry High School building, except for the ceiling was to be lowered and the halls made smaller. (St. Landry Clarion, Opelousas, LA, July 20, 1918.) The building was to be moved to a site that was later to be determined.

After several months of meetings by the Opelousas City Council committee formed to find a location for the Opelousas Colored School, it was reported at a special meeting held on October 16, 1918 that a location had been selected. The city purchased property located on the corner of Vine and Academy streets, measuring 170 feet by 276 feet, for the price of $1,000.00 from Joseph Ducharme. The property was to be use for the Opelousas Colored School. The old St. Landry High School building was dismantled, moved and rebuilt as specified to that property.

After the building was moved and put back together, it became the Opelousas Colored School. The school still went to the 9th grade at that time. It later had classes up to 11th grade and finally 12th grade. It eventually became known as the St. Landry Training School, so named because the building was also used during the early days as a training facility for all the Negro teachers in St. Landry Parish.

Years later, a new building was constructed to house a more modern school for blacks, and that school became  J. S. Clark High School in 1953.  J. S. Clark and Opelousas High School were merged in 1969-1970 and both schools became Opelousas High School (OHS).

What became of the St. Landry Training School building?
When the new J. S. Clark School building was constructed in 1952, the old St. Landry Training School building was abandoned for about three years. In 1955, the school board remodeled the building and used it to house five classrooms for a few years. Later the building was only used for storage.

In 1960, the school board advertised it was accepting bids to sell the old school building. However, the only bid offered was $600. That was rejected and the School Board kept the building until July of 1961 when it advertised for bids to purchase the building, remove it from the site on Academy Street, and have the site cleaned and leveled. (Daily World, Opelousas, LA, July 7, 1961.) On August 3, 1961 the School Board sold the old building to Charley Robert for $1,040, with the understanding that the building had to be moved from the property and the property cleaned and leveled. (Daily World, Opelousas, LA, August 4, 1961.) The building was taken down in the latter part of 1961.

St. Landry Training School Building taken not long before it was demolished in 1961.

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3. Little Zion Baptist Church


Little Zion Baptist Church in Opelousas was first organized in 1867 and is known as the first Black Baptist Church in the city.

A few years after the Civil War, during the period of Reconstruction in Louisiana, the Opelousas African Baptist Church was organized by Rev. J. P. Davenport in a blacksmith shop on June 29, 1867. It eventually became Little Zion Baptist Church, the first Baptist church in Opelousas.

On August 16, 1869, Rev, J. P. Davenport asked the St. Landry Parish Police Jury for a donation of land to build a Church, Parsonage and graveyard. James Thompson, Police Jury President, located and marked off the land and it was transferred to the church on that same day. The first church building was constructed soon after and it became Little Zion Baptist Church. In 1968 the old building was moved from the property. Groundbreaking ceremonies were held on January 21, 1968, and a new brick church was constructed for the congregation. That building on North Academy Street is today the house of worship for members of the church.

Contact Information

Address: 128 North Academy Street – Opelousas, LA 70570

Phone: 337-948-6490 

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4. Opelousas Museum and Interpretive Center

The Opelousas Museum & Interpretive Center is a great destination for those interested in the civil war, Zydeco music, Native American history, Black history, or for any traveler looking for things to do in Opelousas. 

Opened in 1992 by the City of Opelousas and the Opelousas Tourism and Activities Committee, the museum explores the history and culture of the Opelousas area from prehistoric times to the present. The Main Exhibit Room tells the story of the Opelousas Indians and the first settlers. The other side of the exhibit space focuses on Zydeco, a popular music genre fostered right here in Opelousas.

Grand Opening of the Opelousas Museum and Interpretive Center on September 19, 1992.

Other exhibits include the Civil War Room, The Geraldine Smith Welch Doll Collection, the Louisiana Video Collection Library, the Rodney Milburn Exhibit, and the Southwest Louisiana Zydeco Music Festival Archives. Watch for information on the Free People of Color Exhibit scheduled to open in March.

Group tours are available by appointment. Sign up for the museum newsletter or check out the museum’s Facebook Page for new programming.

Opelousas Museum and Interpretive Center on North Main Street. (Photograph: St. Landry Parish Tourist Information Center.)

Hours of Operation and Contact Information

The Black History Month Tour of historic Opelousas will be continued in part two of this story.