From 1619 to 1865, the total number of enslaved Black persons in the United States (including the British colonies before the Revolutionary War) was around 5 million. Enslaved people were forced to work in harsh conditions, experienced terrible treatment, and could exercise no rights in the country that they had had no choice in coming to. Even after slavery was abolished, formerly enslaved Black people and their descendants struggled to fight against prejudice, violence, and systems built to prevent them from gaining power. Despite the progress that has been made, racism – systemic and otherwise – is still very real in the United States today, and the struggle against it by Black Americans and allies continues.
In addition to the multitude of harsh realities of being enslaved in the United States, people who were forced to leave their homeland against their will also had to endure the pain of losing access to their culture and the knowledge of previous generations. They were separated from their families and communities with no way of reaching out to them again. However, many Black Americans still worked hard to hold on to the traditions that they could remember. One of the ways in which they preserved what they still had of their culture was by passing down folktales to their children, who later passed them down to their own children and grandchildren. Even after centuries, many of these stories had barely changed from their original West African forms. These stories were important because they connected Black people to the cultures that had been taken from them and allowed them to hold on to their identity and traditions even multiple generations after being forced to leave Africa.
On Alcée Fortier
Alcée Fortier was a Tulane University (tulane.edu) scholar of French, Louisiana, and Creole cultures in the late 1800s. He specialized in folklore, languages, and dialects and was aware of many of the folktales that had originated in West Africa and continued to be told in the Black community of Louisiana. Due to many racist policies and customs that limited opportunities for Black people, many formerly enslaved people and their descendants still lived and worked on plantations. Fortier, therefore, decided to visit plantations around Louisiana and interview the Black people living there about the folktales that had been passed down to them. He recorded their stories and published them in 1895 in his book, Louisiana Folk-tales, In French Diaclect and English Translation.
On Laura Plantation
Fortier conducted his interviews at many plantations throughout Louisiana, but the one where he found most of his tales was Laura Plantation in Vacherie. (The photos on this page were taken at the Laura Plantation.) Vacherie is in easy driving distance of New Orleans and has a population of approximately 5,500 people.
When we visited Laura Plantation, we took a very informative tour that addressed how difficult the lives of the people enslaved there had been. Our tour guide talked about Alcée Fortier and his interviews. She also told us about the Creole culture unique to Louisiana and the history that created it.
Once, while Alcée Fortier was giving a lecture about his stories, 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 Author Adventures Trail!