Tellin’ HIStory

Author Curtis Johnson shares some segments from his book, “Glimpses of Black Life along Bayou Lafourche” at the Cypress Café last Wednesday at the weekly Talent Night.

There are many advantages to growing up in small town areas or in author Curtis Johnson’s case, along the bayou. The things you learn are historical and represent what the majority of the population has experienced. Johnson thought that way when he and his family first decided to write a family history book. That book wasn’t published for the public, it was kept between family and friends. However seven years ago, Johnson decided to further detail his childhood experiences along Bayou Lafourche and publish it.

Johnson grew up in Port Barrow and now lives in Yorktown, Virginia and he has released his new book “Glimpses of Black Life along Bayou Lafourche.”

It was in 1982 when Johnson’s family decided to write a family history of the area and the way they lived, which included schooling, music, cuisine and the economy. Then Johnson decided that history was “valuable.”

“Research showed it wasn’t available,” Johnson said. “We decided about to go ahead and press on with writing a book that would be published that could be used as a reference source for people regarding how black people lived from 1875-1975.”

In the book there is some information on before the start of the Civil War. The way Johnson was able to get the book rolling was through networking and reaching out to people who lived along Bayou Lafourche.

There are three parts to Johnson’s book: the Mississippi River - Lafourche area, family and family life, and the third is about hometown heroes.

“Black people were instrumental in the defense of this country,” Johnson said.

As far as the economy goes, the book started with the Great Depression including the need for welfare. Johnson said he used practically all of the historical information that was in the family rendition and tweaked and made some changes. He said he added the third part for the hometown heroes.

The book talks about the games and social outlets back then and in part two the focus on family and homestead.

“Most of my informal learning came from home,” Johnson said. “The most foundational information came at home.”

Johnson’s education came from the Lowery Training School that went to the eleventh grade and was the only high school in area. With that education he learned formal behavior and went on to graduate with a Bachelor’s degree from Southern University in Baton Rouge in 1954. He also has a Master’s degree in Public Administration from Old Dominion University in Norfolk, where he lives now.

In the book Johnson reflects on how schooling was and he remembers the discipline vividly. He said he spent two years in first grade because they felt he wasn’t mature enough.

“I didn’t think I deserve to be flunked,” Johnson said. “I was mature enough to be able to dodge about a 2 foot piece of stove wood that one teacher would use.”

As far as the area’s history, it includes the river parishes of: Ascension, Assumption, St. James, St. John and Lafourche.

Johnson said a good bit of the book is regular history but it also carries text by other people in other communities.

He said the common ground about the book is “how things were.”

Johnson has been getting different but positive reactions from the people who have read his book. Johnson’s wife Elizabeth “Libby” Johnson was born in South Carolina, but raised in New York said they’ve been touched by some of the individuals at book signings and their stories and how they relate to the information in the book.

Libby remembers one woman was in tears because she couldn’t find any information in print about one of her relatives. She said the woman explained to Johnson and she that there was a myth going around in the family about the relative and she couldn’t find any information to verify.

She told them she went to the state library and the librarians helped her find the Labadieville Bridge incident and they traced it back to Curtis’ book.

“That was a personal connection that meant a lot for her and it meant a lot for us too,” Libby said. “It verified the authenticity of what he has written in this book.”

Libby said the book addresses a folksy people side of what was going on at the time and the reactions have been surprising at times when people connect with what they remember from the past.

Proceeds from Johnson’s book will all go to the River Road African American Museum in Donaldsonville. It’s Johnson’s way of staying connected to the community, but he also feel the museum is a good cause and it needs the support.

“I’ve known for years that they haven’t had the space to display perhaps half of their artifacts. We need that museum. We need to see other things too that they have in storage. We need to see it developed.”