|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
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,
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
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
For some of them, the transition
was simply one upheaval too many. If they stayed in school at all, they
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
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.