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Tidbits of Opelousas History – African American Education in Opelousas

Contributing Writer

The history of education for the Opelousas area Black community goes back to the late 1820s. While recently researching early Opelousas materials, I came across information about a special Opelousas area school called the Grimble Bell School. The school, that was well established by the start of the 1830s decade, was an elite private school for the education of children of wealthy Free People of Color planters and Free Negroes.  It was located near Opelousas and Washington. 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.

Following the Civil War, the Freedmen’s Bureau established schools in many Louisiana towns, including Opelousas, to educate Black students. According to Howard A. White’s book, The Freedmen’s Bureau in Louisiana, published by the LSU Press in 1970, that school was established in about 1866-67 with Emerson Bentley, a young white teacher from Ohio who was called a carpetbagger by many Opelousas citizens, as its primary educator.

Also, during the period of Reconstruction in Louisiana, the Peabody schools, founded with grant support from Baltimore, Maryland banker George Peabody (1795-1869) were opened in the state. The Peabody Schools of the south offered opportunities for both whites and Blacks, including the newly freed slaves. The Peabody Colored School in Opelousas was created early in the 1870s. The school’s principal was Mrs. Helen Donato, sometimes listed as Mrs. E. Donato. Mrs. Donato was a pioneer in the advancement of African American education in Opelousas. She served as principal for this school as soon as it opened. The school became a major part of her life, and in many accounts about the school, it was 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, and by 1880, all the Peabody schools in Opelousas closed. Mrs. Donato operated a private school for a while and by the 1890s was teaching and serving as principal of what was known as the Colored Public School.

St. Joseph Catholic School pictured in 1915.
Frances Emerson (1924–2012), second row, third from left, is pictured with her 1941 graduating class from Holy Ghost School in Opelousas. In 1945, she married Alvin A. Haynes Sr. Mrs. Frances Haynes became an Opelousas businesswoman, teacher, and community leader, who worked to build Williams Funeral Home in Opelousas into one of the most successful businesses in town, today operated by her sons Chubby Haynes and Vernon Haynes. She also served on the board of directors of Williams Life Insurance Company, one of the largest African American–owned businesses of its kind in the nation. (Photograph courtesy of the Haynes family.)

There were also religious schools established for the education of the area’s Black population. In 1874 the St. Joseph Academy, also called St. Joseph Convent or St. Joseph School was established. The brothers Father Gilbert and Francis Raymond opened the school with the help of the Sisters of the Holy Family. This school continued for years and when Holy Ghost Church was chartered in 1920, the school eventually became Holy Ghost Academy and then Holy Ghost School. The top featured photograph shows the Holy Ghost school band in the early days, pictured on the grounds of the Holy Ghost Catholic Church rectory on Union Street around 1928. (Courtesy of Frank Boudreaux and Opelousas Catholic School.)

Also, at the end of the 19th century, Mt. Olive Baptist Church established the 7th District Baptist school in their original building on Church Street in 1897. That school operated until 1918.  In 1911, St. Joseph’s College was founded by Father J. Engberink, pastor of St. Landry Catholic Church, and operated until 1920.

7th District Baptist school historic marker on Church Street

Another school that served the Black community at the turn of the 20th century was the Bloch Colored School, organized by Henry Bloch. At that same time, public education for Blacks continued with a school called the Opelousas Colored School.  J. H. McGaffey served as that school’s principle in 1902. Dr. J. H. Augustus took over as principle in 1905, serving for many years. In 1918 representatives from that school asked for a new school building. Since the old St. Landry High School building, constructed in 1893 on North 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. The building was moved in 1919 to the corner of Vine and Academy streets. After the building was rebuilt and enlarged, it became the Opelousas Colored School. The school 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 Black teachers in St. Landry Parish.

The 1940 graduating class of St. Landry Training School taken in front of the school located on the corner of Vine and Academy streets in Opelousas. Left to right – bottom row:  Ashton P. Giron, Irene Tolbert Hayes, Helen Boyance Giron, Jessie Aaron Shaw, Gertrude Desimone Giron, Virginia Reynaud and Lessie Jackson;  second row:  Willie Pitre, Lily M. Veazie Hammand, Victoria Dominque LeBlance, Rose Ella Touissiant Newman, Pearl Charles, Edna Aaron Beford;  top row:  Willie Johnson, Alvin Haynes, Sr., J. H. Augustus, principal, and Stella Van Dyke.

Years later, a new building was constructed to house a more modern school for Blacks. That school became  J. S. Clark High School in 1953, named for Joseph Samuel Clark (1871-1944), the Louisiana educator who worked to advance educational opportunities for Blacks in Louisiana and served as president of Southern University from 1914-1938.  J. S. Clark and Opelousas High School were merged in 1969-1970 and both schools became Opelousas High School (OHS).

*Note: Unless otherwise noted in the photograph captions, the historic photographs in the article are from the Carola Lillie Hartley collection.