Freetown marks the spot

Published 1:38 pm Tuesday, March 31, 2015

ST. JAMES — There is a historic marker located on St. James Parish west bank’s River Road or Louisiana 18 that acknowledges a community founded by former slaves.

The marker is the culmination of a five-year research effort conducted by Shandria Smith.

Smith is quoted as first hearing stories regarding the settlement founded in 1872 from a great aunt.

Following the Civil War, 31 individuals in 1872 bought lots from C. Oliver, who, along with three other individuals acquired portions of the Pedesclaux-Landry Sugar Plantation located in St. James.

One of the new owners found himself in financial difficulties and extended offers to free people of color and former enslaved persons to purchase portions of the property.

“The land established the parish’s first multi-ethnic settlement of property owners,” Smith said. “The pioneering settlers and landowners were: J.C. Oliver, Celéstin Oliver, Jean-Baptiste Louis, Onzimé Louis, John León Louis, Jean Louis Jr., Joachim Paul, Victorin Moris, Narcisse Gibson, Édmond Johnson, Félix Moris, Ben Benjamin, Ursin Toussaint, Philippé Simms, Lindor Louis, Aaron Éllison, Sally Johnson, Mack Nelson, William Jackson, Alec Smith, Trazimon Communi, James Clay, Jean-Baptiste Phillippé, Joséph Scott, Constantin Boyd, Victor Jacob, Moses Lane, Paul Daniel, Théoville Pierre, Louis Joséph and Samuel Brown.

The Settlement of Freetown was the site of Sweet Beulah Baptist Church, Freetown Intercessors’ Garden, Webster and Lillian’s Hide-A-Way Social Lounge and Freetown Hall. Each served as vital meeting locations for the residents to meet, discuss and address social issues impacting people of color during one of the country’s most turbulent times.

While Sweet Beulah Baptist Church, Webster and Lillian’s Hide-A-Way Social Lounge are no longer part of Freetown’s landscape, the Freetown Hall has survived, Smith said.

Freetown Hall was built in 1900 by Elfére Mitchell, a man of Choctaw descent. During its early years, Freetown Hall was the venue in which the bodies of deceased Freetown residents were prepared for funerals and burial.

It also served as a venue for fundraisers and social events, Smith said.

Freetown Hall is the home of The Rising Sun Benevolent Association, the second oldest, continually existing benevolent association on the west bank of St. James Parish. It was founded Sept. 29, 1908, with the motto – “Take care of the sick and bury the dead.”

Benevolent associations were the forerunner of insurance. Whenever a member died or became ill, existing members were taxed with proceeds going to the family in order help defray burial and other expenses.

Like many benevolent associations of its time, the Rising Sun Benevolent Association assisted its members with medical, funeral and burial expenses. The association has also been instrumental in connecting the community with local physicians, businesses and parish leaders, Smith said.

The first installed officers were: The Honorable Williams Washington, President, C. Harris, VP, C. Villavaso, Recorder, Charles Blouin, Financial Secretary, O. Villavaso, Treasurer and John Grégoire, Marshall. Membership at that time was 500.

The following Settlement of Freetown landowners have carved their mark in local St. James Parish’s  history : J.C. Oliver, the St. James Parish’s first black sheriff (1871-1872), who became a Louisiana delegate representing St. James Parish; Sally Johnson, St. James, La first pioneering female landowner of color post Civil War; Traismond Communi — one of Freetown’s pioneering landowners and a sugar and timber magnate; Mack Nelson, St. James Parish’s first constable of color and a Civil War Corporal; and, Alec Smith, St. James Parish’s mail carrier post Civil War.

The Louisiana Lieutenant’s Governor’s office recently granted the historical designation and paved the way for the marker and ostensibly the dedication ceremony.

Today, the Freetown settlement is relegated to no more than two streets that without the historical marker, nothing of significance is noted by vehicles speeding by.

Scott, also, noted the marker is the only one of its kind that highlights people of color between New Orleans and Baton Rouge.

St. James Parish President Timmy Roussel spoke at the dedication ceremony before a crowd estimated to be approximately 100 people.

“We can’t ever forget where we came from,” Roussel said. “We need to, also, remember a lot of people suffered, a lot of people endured and a lot of people succeeded.”