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Contributing Writer

Education Pioneer Mrs. Helen Roberts Donato

Since 1987 the month of March has been designated as National Women’s History month. This is the time to pay tribute to women of past generations who worked through courage and activism to change society. During this month St. Landry Now will have articles about some of the amazing women of Opelousas and St. Landry Parish. There are so many to focus on, especially stories of women from generations of our history. Today’s article tells the story of Mrs. Helen Roberts Donato, an early education pioneer of St. Landry Parish.

Born in the West Indies on September 2, 1837, Helen (sometimes listed as Ellen) Roberts immigrated to Opelousas sometime around the1860s. She married Emile Donato[1] (1835-1918), the son of Martin Donato, a wealthy free man of color, and Julie, a mulatto slave who was emancipated in Martin’s will after his death. Helen’s husband was prominently known in the Opelousas community where he served on the school board and worked as a bricklayer.[2] Their children included Julie, Raphael and Nelly[3].

Following the US Civil War, from 1865-1872[4], Mrs. Donato was employed as a teacher with the US Freedmen’s Bureau to help with the Freedmen’s school in Opelousas and the Banner School in Washington. Other teachers at the school were Hypolite Martin and Emerson Bentley.[5]

Mrs. Donato later worked for the Peabody Colored School in Opelousas, created in the 1870s during the period of Reconstruction.  She served as principal for that school as soon as it opened. The Peabody schools of the south, funded with grant support from Baltimore, Maryland banker George Peabody (1795-1869), offered opportunities for both whites and Blacks, including the newly freed slaves. Not long after the end of the Civil War 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.” The foundation was established with a gift of $2.1 million and a charge to raise the standard of schooling throughout the South without racial considerations. So, Opelousas had Peabody Schools…for Blacks and whites.

The Peabody Colored School in Opelousas became a major part of Helen Donato’s 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.

In July of 1879, the Opelousas Courier newspaper ran this report on the Peabody School, managed by Mrs. Donato: “As a sequel to the exercises of the Peabody Colored School, under the the efficient management of Mrs. Helen Donato, an exhibition will be given by the pupils of said school on Thursday, July 31, at the Varieties Hall, commencing at 8 O’clock P. M.  The programme will consist of songs, declamations, charades, and dramas. There will be an abundance of refreshments on hand, at prices to suit the times. The exhibition is given for the purpose of raising funds to purchase desks and benches for said school. Admission only 25 cents.[6]

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. Following the closing of the Peabody Schools, Mrs. Donato took it upon herself to make sure education opportunities for the African American children continued. As school principal and music teacher, 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. Her school continued until she was hired as principal for the Colored Public School in Opelousas during the 1890s.

On July 16, 1894, the St. Landry Clarion ran an article about the closing exercises at that school. At that time the paper wrote the following about the school and about Mrs. Donato: “The closing exercises of the Colored Public School, conducted by Mrs. Helen Donato, took place on Thursday. We learn that the scholars passed a very creditable examination. Mrs. Donato delivered an address which has been pronounced by those who heard it as most able, interesting and touching. Mrs. Donato is a most deserving colored woman and is justly entitled to a full measure of praise for her intelligent and well-directed efforts for the educational advancement of the colored youth of Opelousas.[7]

Mrs. Donato served as principal and music teacher of the school until the end of the 1895 school year. Besides being a teacher and a principal, she was also a very active member of the community. She was involved in many different groups and organizations and was part of a social group known as the Busy Bee Social Club. She served that group as its treasurer in 1879.

Helen Roberts Donato died February 13, 1896[8], following a brief illness. She is buried in St. Landry Catholic Church Cemetery in Opelousas. She was an early pioneer of education in Opelousas and Louisiana, and that is her legacy to the town and the parish. From 1865 to 1896, she was the person most associated with public education for the African American community in Opelousas. And because of her efforts, as the community entered the 20th century, the Opelousas Colored Public School continued to grow, with J. H. McGaffey as principal in 1902.

Obituary for Mrs. Helen Donato that ran in the St. Landry Clarion on Saturday, February 15, 1896.

Feature photograph caption: Advertisement for the school of Mrs. Helen Donato in the Opelousas Courier – October 30, 1880.

[1] 1870 US Federal Census Records.

[2] 1870 US Federal Census Records.

[3] 1880 US Federal Census Records.

[4] US Freedmen’s Bureau Records. 1865-1878.

[5] US Freedmen’s Bureau Records, 1865-1878.

[6] Opelousas Courier, Opelousas, Louisiana, July 26, 1879

[7] St. Landry Clarion, Opelousas, LA, July 16, 1894.

[8] U.S., Find a Grave Index, 1600s-Current.  

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