CROWLEY - Crowley’s ethnic diversity, from its very early days, made it one of the most cosmopolitan and urban communities in the region and possibly the state. Initial settlers in Acadia parish were primarily of Anglo Saxon, French, Cajun, African American, Creole, Italian, German, and Lebanese heritages.
Most of the first African Americans who came to Crowley during the latter part of the 19th century served as maids, cooks, nurses, gardeners and laborers. As the rice industry grew, many more worked in the rice mills or on the construction of the irrigation systems.
However, before long, many began several business enterprises and a thriving commercial district emerged. Jake Johnson operated a skating rink in Benevolent Hall on West Hutchinson in 1906. George Chapman had an ice cream stand. George Barker had a general store. Alex Johnson operated a barbershop. “Aunt Sally” Bias sold coffee at the courthouse. Restaurant operators included Alice Thornton, Rebekah Freeman, Lilly Boutte, and George Easley.
Marcel Thomas (1865-1963) was a businessman, realtor and financier in Crowley. Although born in Breaux Bridge, he was a resident of Crowley for 70 years before dying in Lafayette. Among his business enterprises, he owned a general store, sold coffins and operated a funeral home. Perhaps he is best known as operating a patent medicine and natural herbs business. In 1902, he was a charter member of the People’s Investment Company, for which he served 10 years as its president.
The People’s Investment Company was a vital financial link in the African-American community. Chartered in August, 1902, this was an all-black undertaking of 34 leaders in the community. Those who needed money on an emergency basis were able to negotiate a loan from the firm putting up little or no collateral. Most of the loans were made to those who otherwise may not have qualified for a loan at the other banks in town. With fair interest rates and reasonable terms, the company soon had an excellent reputation and played a critical role in the development and growth in the community.
Wesley Manuel “Billy” Jacob, the head cook at the Crowley House, Crowley’s first hotel, was also instrumental in the operations of People’s Investment Company and served as its president for 42 years. He opened his own store in 1907, acquired significant parcels property in Crowley and was an early realtor in the city.
In addition, among the first officers and stockholders of People’s Investment Company were James A. Spann, George A. Chapman, H.C. Ross, Marcel Thomas, V. Vallien Jr., Alfred F. Corbin, Alexander Oliver, A.R. Chargois, Adam and Joseph Glode, E. Gardner, George Wilson, Isaac Bascum, Grant Brown, Sam and George Easley, Reuben Gordon, John Mitchell, N.E. A. Jones, Joseph Barker, J.B. Leonard, Jamers Harrison, Isiah Lawson, Peyton and V. Washington, Daniel N. Rhone, Ovide and V. Adams Jr., V.C. John, and Stonewall Simon, Luster Barker, Jeff McElroy, and S.M. Daniels.
One well known African Americans in early Crowley history was Henry Clay Ross (1871-1945). Noted as both an educator and a pastor, he was a strong proponent of education. Born near Thibodeaux, he came to Crowley before 1900 and began teaching in 1899. He was principal of a one room school on Ave. C. Later the school had 18 students and one teacher and moved to west Hutchinson. It came to be known as Ross School. By 1908, he had secured a new school building. Officially called the Crowley Industrial School, he was principal for over 40 years at the “Ross School” as it was better known. Today, Ross Elementary still holds his name.
Well respected in both the white and black community, a street, Ross Avenue was named for him while he was still living. By 1911, whenever his name appeared in the newspaper, he was listed as Professor Ross. Because of his dedication to his civic activities, he was described as “a man of high character” and recognized and appreciated by all who know him. He was called “the local Booker T. Washington.”
He was one of the reasons that Booker T. Washington visited Crowley. Washington came to Crowley for four hours on a beautiful spring day in 1915. Professor Ross’s daughter, Jeanette, was 13 years old and played a piano selection for B.T. Washington’s visit. In an interview with Mary Alice Fontenot in 1980, she recollected that Mr. Washington was a man of small stature, light in color, with strong features. Furthermore, she recalls his words, “I remember that he told us, ‘The world doesn’t owe us anything. We have to make our own way.’ And he said that, ‘work is honorable and that we should earn whatever comes to us, and not look for something to be handed to us’.” From 1910 until his death, Professor Ross was pastor of the Morning Star Baptist Church.
In more modern times, Joseph “Joe” Pete (1912-2005) and David L. May (1899-1987) were elected to the Crowley City Council (Ward 3) in 1954. They were Louisiana’s first black councilmen elected since Reconstruction. Mr. Pete served from 1954-1982. He was instrumental in the construction of the West Crowley Community Center (now known as the Martin Luther King Center). A barber for 50 years, he opened a shop in 1936. In an interview with Mary Alice Fontenot, he stated, “I think I’m a better person for having served in public office. Most of all, I learned what can be accomplished by teamwork and cooperation.”
Pete had earlier served on a grand jury in Acadia Parish. He is recognized as the first black to register to vote in Crowley. His campaign for voting rights yielded 900 black voters. Pete married Mary Grace Poullard.
Since he served for a shorter time, from 1954-1962, perhaps Mr. May is better remembered as a teacher and principal for over 40 years. He also served on the Acadia Parish Library Board for a number of years. He and his wife, Jeanette, were named outstanding Crowley citizens in 1980 for their leadership in the areas of education, civic, and church.
Because of Crowley’s reputation for being “cosmopolitan and non-racist”, there was no negative response when they were seated on the council. These early pioneers blazed the trail for future generations both in Crowley and our nation. African Americans in Acadia parish are now involved in all aspects of leadership, community service and many different occupations within the parish.
Ann Mire, of the Acadia Parish Library, contributed to this article to commemorate the first 125 years of Crowley.