On Scholar Alcee Fortier
Stories tend to get mixed up once they’ve been passed down and around for a long time. However, it turns out that this was not the case for many folktales that slaves brought with them from West Africa to America. One of the people who noticed this pattern was Alcee Fortier.
A Tulane University (tulane.edu) scholar of French, Louisiana, and Creole cultures in the late 1800s, Alcee Fortier specialized in folklore, languages, and dialects. He collected folktales from slaves around Louisiana. Many of these stories had started in Africa and had been passed down and slightly changed through oral tradition as time went on. Some of them even had different versions in different regions of the South. For instance, the character known as Compair Lapin in Lousiana was also called Br’er Rabbit in Georgia. (In West Africa today, the original stories about this same character are still told under his French name, Leuk-le-Lievre.)
Alcee Fortier noticed these very similar tales that so many slaves held in common and recorded them for future generations to read. Here you can read a brief example of his writing that was published in the New York Times in 1904, the same year he published A History of Louisiana, which we found at archive.org. Of all the places where Fortier interviewed slaves, the one where he found most of his tales was Laura Plantation in Vacherie. (All of the photos on this page were taken at the Laura Plantation.)
On Laura Plantation
Our visit to Laura Plantation was engaging and informative. Our tour guide was a theater major from a local college whose family had lived nearby for 200 years, so she was knowledgeable and theatrical in her presentation. Laura Plantation represents the history of a dynasty and how it changed as the US changed through hundreds of years.
Besides hearing about Alcee Fortier and Compair Lapin, we learned about the Creole culture unique to Louisiana and how hard slave life was for the slaves on that plantation.
If you or anyone with you is learning French, the signs on the tour are in both French and English, so you can pick up vocabulary on the way. Make sure to visit the gift shop, where books about Compair Lapin, Br’er Rabbit and Leuk-le-Lievre can be found and where you may be able to use the French you learned at the counter.
On the Stories
Alcee Fortier once gave a lecture about his stories, and one of his audience members realized that he heard the same ones. This man was Joel Chandler Harris, who later wrote down his versions of these folktales as well. Check him out on our Georgia page at Joel Chandler Harris.
This is the fifth stop on our Louisiana Trail!