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 20th Century brings problems and prosperity: Part Eight
By Alice Ferguson 
Editor note: By the arrival of the 20th Century, the Acadians had already survived 300 of years of
struggle and persecution in the New World. They had found a permanent homeland in the bayou
country of south Louisiana. But their story was far from over. Today's Part 8 of The Advertiser's series
focuses on the Acadians' growth and development during the 1900's. 

     After Le Grand Derangement of the 1750's and the wave of resettlement and prosperity that followed, it
would seem that the Acadians might be due for a rest--if not from their labors, then at least from the
persecution which had haunted them through their earlier years in the New World. Undoubtedly, many
Acadians found that restful peace in La Nouvelle Acadie.
     But does history ever really leave any of us alone?
     It certainly did not forget the Acadians. They had done exactly as their ancestors' British nemesis, Col. John
Winslow, had instructed them in October 1755, when he informed them that they would be expelled from
their homes in Nova Scotia:
     "I hope that in whatever part of the world you fall, you will be faithful subjects and a peaceable and happy
people."
     It seemed his parting words were almost prophetic. The Acadians did prove faithful subjects, through
America's Great Depression and all of the nation's wars. Statistics from Louisiana. A Guide to the State
prove their patriotism: More than 5,000 Louisiana soldiers died in World War II alone. Nearly 800 were
lost in the Viet Nam conflict.
     In peacetime, the Acadians rode the wave of steady, if controversial, prosperity brought. by Gov. Huey
Long's legacy. They developed the state's sugar cane and rice industries, built roads, railroads and bridges,
raised levees and constructed great universities. School children received free books, pencils and paper.
And when oil was first discovered beneath Acadiana's soils and swamps -- near Jennings in 1901,
according to the Louisiana Almanac - the Acadians rode that wave of good fortune too.
     But times were not always, good for these determined people. Mother Nature sent them plagues of yellow
fever (the last, according to the Almanac, in 1909); floods (the worst in 1927) and hurricanes (Audrey,
Hilda and Betsy, just to name a few) . In many seasons, it was a struggle just to keep the crops in the
ground and the rivers in their banks.
     Worst of all was the attitude of those not included in the French Acadian community. Les Americans, as
these non-French speaking outsiders were called, did not understand the Acadian history, culture, or way
of life. They viewed the French speaking people as something less than socially. The nation developeda
negative image of Winslow's "loyal subjects," and "Cajun" became a racial slur. Yet again, the descendants
of North America's first permanent settlers found themselves at the short end of the proverbial stick.
     O.C. 'Dan' Guillot and members of his staff at the Lafayette Parish Clerk of Court's office remember those
days well. The prejudice against the Acadians wasn't just happening in other parts of the country, either.
Even here in Louisiana, their unique and delicate culture came under attack.
     In those days, Guillot said, public schools punished students for speaking their native language. Young
children, who grew up speaking only French, discovered on the first day of school that French was
unacceptable, maybe even a source of shame. They would be forced to speak only English in school.
     "If you got caught speaking French, the teacher would make you recite a poem in English, or some other
punishment," said one of Guillot's staffers. Who can say how this requirement affected students' scholastic
performance, much less their self esteem? Their parents, many of whom did not speak English at all,
couldn't help the children with school work taught in a foreign tongue. Nor could they understand the need
for such an approach to education.
      These children, caught between the French heritage of the past and the American, English-speaking view of the future, were forced to ask themselves, "Is it so bad to be a Cajun?"
     For some of them, the transition was simply one upheaval too many. If they stayed in school at all, they did
so for only short period, before returning to the French-speaking comfort of family-owned farms and
businesses. Many of those who did acquire an education - in English - did so only to leave Louisiana and
their heritage behind them in search of higher-paying employment elsewhere.
     But as the centuries since 1604 have shown, the Acadian spirit is not easily bruised. Before long, that
spirit's voice could be heard in grass-roots movements to preserve a unique language, culture and history.
     "It was in the 1950's that Cajuns started to realize they were a special people, and that they should be
proud that they could speak two languages," Guillot said. "Dudley J. LeBlanc was really the first
preservationist. He the same time, and they fought like cats and dogs."
     The Longs may have secured political power, but it was LeBlanc who raised the flag for preservation of the
Acadian heritage and culture.
     His efforts set the example for many others, most notably Jimmy Domengeaux, founder of CODOFIL the
Council for the Development of French in Louisiana. His philosophy was that if the language is saved, so is
the culture. Today, many tourist attractions, parks and living museums such as Acadian Village and
Vermillionville take pride in celebrating the Acadian way of life.
     And the public school system which had once tried to stamp out the Cajun French language, did a
complete about-face when they instituted French immersion and other programs designed to nurture the
Acadian culture, rather than smother it.
     Even the national view of Acadiana began to change with the growth of south Louisiana's tourism industry.
No longer seen as "second-class", the Acadians were viewed with respect and perhaps a bit of awe by
those who came to know their history and culture. Les Americans just couldn't get enough of the happy
music, the spicy food, warm hospitality, sporting lifestyle or the rich natural resources of Acadiana. One can
once again be proud to be called "Cajun," and proud to speak the native French.

© 1994 Lafayette Daily Advertiser [July 24, 1994]