Post-Bellum Sanctuary and Salvation: the Old Benevolent Society in St. Francisville
By Anne Butler
February is Black History Month, so it’s only right that a little neglected structure in the middle of St. Francisville should be getting increased attention.
The St. Francisville area has been fortunate to retain a number of restored plantation homes that welcome visitors with an impressive picture of life as it was for the upper echelon of antebellum society in the South. But other structures---smaller, simpler---speak in quieter tones to teach a history lesson no less significant.
One such structure is the tiny Old Benevolent Society. Its small green historic marker designates this unassuming wood-frame shotgun house as the oldest black burial lodge in the parish. It was founded in 1883 by a gentleman of color whose grandson would more than a century later become president of the parish police jury.
The sign gives just the merest hint of the importance of benevolent societies in the turbulent aftermath of the Civil War, when slaves feed from bondage found few resources to fill needs hitherto addressed by masters of the plantations where they labored.
The most important institution for freedmen in those days was the church, which struggled to provide not just spiritual but temporal comfort as well in the absence of social service organizations or insurance companies open to persons of color. The church offered sanctuary and socialization in addition to salvation.
From tiny black churches sprang the soulful gospel music spiced by the cadences of African chants, the church suppers, shouting with the spirit, and all the other traditional rituals treasured by black congregants, practices that served to set them apart from the staid Protestant worship of their former owners.
And nearly every church had its benevolent society, officially incorporated under the direction of respected elders of the congregation. Preserved documents reveal that, while some of these church leaders laboriously wrote their names on deeds in the fanciful flowing script of the times, others, unlearned, simply signed with an X.
But they all took their responsibilities seriously, for the benevolent societies they formed filled direct and pressing needs. With few other outside resources, these societies offered significant services to their members---sitting with the sick, caring for the infirm, feeding the weak, funding medical care, and finally covering the modest expenses of a decent burial as well.
By July 1911 when the Union Reform Society applied for a charter, the corporation’s purposes had been embellished beyond these basics to include: “To better the condition of its members by shaping their manners, and framing their characters by the promotion of honesty, good morals and the diffusion of knowledge among them; and to care for the sick members of the organization; to aid them in distress, to bury their dead, and generally to promote and foster Friendship, Love and Good Fellowship.”
An 1877 issue of the West Feliciana Sentinel described the annual meeting of the Union Benevolent Society as involving a 75-foot table groaning under the weight of “turkey, chicken, sugar-cured hams, deliciously barbecued beef, mutton and pig, flanked with vegetables, fruits, desserts and wines. It was the finest ‘spread’ we have seen in many a long day, and reflected great credit upon our friends of the ‘Benevolents.’ We have frequently had occasion to mark the perfect order and decorum of the society when paying the last sad tribute to the dead, and the spontaneous manner in which they turn out upon such occasions.”
Only a few churches maintain their societies in this day of equal access to medical and life insurance coverage, and the Old Benevolent Society building has seen better days. No longer housed there is the horse-drawn black hearse that transported the deceased to burial grounds, mourners walking behind, women in white, carrying candles. But the structure deserves to be preserved as a reminder of the significant role benevolent societies played in southern black society of the late 19th and early 29th centuries.
Now an Old Benevolent Society Restoration Committee has formed, made up of representatives of the local historical society, town of St. Francisville, parish school system, members of the local Order of the Eastern Star, and other avid preservationists. Already overhanging tree branches have been removed and some short-term stabilization work undertaken to minimize further deterioration, though the structure in its present condition remains unsafe for use.
The Louisiana Trust for Historic Preservation included the site as one of fifteen on its 2018 list of Most Endangered, bringing much needed attention statewide with hopes of generating funding assistance. Said Brian Davis, executive director of the Louisiana Trust, “Historic buildings and sites are the fingerprints of our communities and it takes creative measures to preserve and protect them for future generations. Strategic partnerships, tax credits, and programs like revolving funds can save buildings many people may consider too far gone.”
Plans include applying for an individual listing on the National Register of Historic Places; the structure is already included in the Register’s St. Francisville Historic District. Social media and grant opportunities are being identified, and the committee hopes to enlist a preservation consultant to assess the building’s condition in anticipation of establishing a restoration scope and budget.
Once restored, the committee envisions a small museum telling the story of benevolent societies and their significant role in African American history. In addition, it may be open to the public for special local events and festivals, educational children’s programs, and other activities. For information on restoration efforts, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
February is also the month for the much-anticipated Writers and Readers Symposium, sponsored annually by The Celebration of Literature and Art at Hemingbough conference center just south of St. Francisville on Highway 965. Every year the selection committee brings in accomplished published writers of every genre to present their works and creative processes, and avid readers have a chance to visit with these authors, purchase autographed books and enjoy lunch. This year’s presentation, on Saturday, February 16, from 9 to 3:30, features an amazing lineup of six award-winning writers.
Jason Berry, New Orleans author and film director, is best known for his pioneering investigative reporting on clergy sex abuse in the Catholic Church, but his most recent book, City of a Million Dreams, covers the 300-year history of New Orleans. His other books, Up From the Cradle of Jazz, Render Unto Rome, Vows of Silence, and Lead Us Not into Temptation, have been called the perfect balance of scholarship, compassion, and the ability to write with the poetic power of Robert Penn Warren. Dr. Jack Bedell, Louisiana’s 2017-2019 Poet Laureate, is a professor of English at Southeastern Louisiana University and longtime editor of the college literary magazine; he is the author of nine books.
Erica Spindler, another featured presenter, is a prolific New York Times best-selling author whose books have been published in 25 countries and are called thrill-packed page-turners, white-knuckle rides and edge-of-your-seat whodunits. Among her most popular books are The Other Girl, The First Wife, All Fall Down, and Bone Cold. C.H. Lawler’s books, including The Saints of Lost Things and Living Among the Dead, tell moving stories of flawed characters from a place of compassion...a 1965 hurricane awakening a forbidden love, or an old man in 1925 on Prytania St. in New Orleans recording his memories of the aftermath of the Civil War.
Dima Ghawi is a motivational speaker and author of Breaking Vases, her memoir of a Middle Eastern woman’s struggles to escape the subservient culture to pursue her passion of helping others find the courage to overcome hardships and forge their own paths. A special addition to this symposium will be a presentation by Alysson Foti Bourque, the author of several award-winning children’s books: the Rhyme or Reason Travel series and the Alycat series, emphasizing techniques for book promotion.
Tickets for the 2019 Writers and Readers Symposium, $45 including lunch, are available from bontempstix.com/even...writers-readers-symposium.
Located on US Highway 61 on the Mississippi River between Baton Rouge, LA, and Natchez, MS, the St. Francisville area is a year-round tourist destination. A number of splendidly restored plantation homes are open for tours: The Cottage Plantation (weekends), Myrtles Plantation, Greenwood Plantation, plus Catalpa Plantation by reservation; Afton Villa Gardens is open in season and is spectacular. Particularly important to tourism in the area are its two significant state historic sites, Rosedown Plantation (a National Historic Landmark) and Oakley Plantation in the Audubon state site, which offer periodic living-history demonstrations to allow visitors to experience 19th-century plantation life and customs.
The nearby Tunica Hills region offers unmatched recreational activities in its unspoiled wilderness areas—hiking, biking and especially bicycle racing due to the challenging terrain, birding, photography, hunting. There are unique art galleries plus specialty and antiques shops, many in restored historic structures, and some nice restaurants throughout the St. Francisville area serving everything from ethnic cuisine to seafood and classic Louisiana favorites. For overnight stays, the area offers some of the state’s most popular Bed & Breakfasts, including historic plantations, lakeside clubhouses and beautiful townhouses right in the middle of St. Francisville’s extensive National Register-listed historic district, and there are also modern motel accommodations for large bus groups.
For visitor information, call West Feliciana Tourist Commission and West Feliciana Historical Society at 225-6330 or 225-635-4224, or St. Francisville Main Street at 225-635-3873; online www.stfrancisvillefestivals.com, www.stfrancisville.net or www.stfrancisville.us (the events calendar gives dates and information on special activities).