Migratory Movement: The Politics of Ethnic Community (Re) Construction among Creoles of Color, 1920-1940

Article excerpt

INTRODUCTION

This article considers the social and economic conditions under which Creoles of Color left the state of Louisiana from 1920-1940.1 Because Creoles in the years following 1920 were legally reclassified as black, many lost their land, social and legal rights, and access to education as well as the possibility of upward mobility to which they had previously had access when they were accorded the status of a distinct/legal ethnic group. Creole families had to make decisions about the economic, social, religious, and cultural futures of their children and the community as a whole. As a form of resistance to colonial and neocolonial rule, thousands of Creoles left Louisiana, following the pattern established by members of the previous generation who had anticipated the advent and implications of the new legal racial system as far back as the mid to late 1800s and had engaged in the first wave of migration from 1840-1890, moving primarily from rural ethnic enclaves to larger urban cities within the US and to international sites such as Mexico, Cuba, Haiti, Brazil, and other parts of the Caribbean and Latin America where racial lines were more fluid (Gehman, 1994).

This essay addresses the second wave of Creole migration which begins around 1920 and ends in the 1950s. I will focus primarily on the twenty-year span from 1920-1940, demonstrating that a detailed analysis of the material and cultural conditions in Louisiana during this period is essential to understanding how reconstruction, Act 220, and segregation led to Creole migration and community reconstruction in the form of ethnic enclaves. Also essential to an understanding of these phenomena is a critical evaluation of the ideology behind "passing," which reveals an underlying political, racial, and economic project that both denies white and black racism and results in the marginalization of mixed race, hybrid, mestizo populations. Consequently, I will devote considerable attention in this article to a critical discussion of acts historically considered as ethnic "performativity" and ethnic "authenticity." Finally, I will examine the meaning of home for Creoles living within the diaspora both in and out of Louisiana, and explore how the travel between Creole enclaves outside of and within Louisiana, along with the economic support provided by migrating Creoles to family members that remained, mirrors the patterns of transnational and diasporic communities globally.

ECONOMIC, POLITICAL AND RACIAL PUSH FACTORS

The 1920s brought about an economic decline in Louisiana that sent the state literally spiraling into abject poverty. The ramifications of the post-slave economy and Jim Crow segregation were heaviest on Creoles of Color, because they stood to lose the most as a result of the change in their racial status from Creole to Black. Because of the drastic changes under reconstruction, political power-in the form of voting-was not exercised in the way that it once had been by the Creole of Color community. As anticipated, registration-particularly among blacks-declined precipitously. The number of whites on the rolls statewide dropped from 164,088 to 91,716 in 1904; black registration simply collapsed, falling from 130,344 to 1,342. Although the number of white voters slowly climbed as the state population increased, and especially after women began to register under the Nineteenth Amendment (ratified in 1920), black registration in Louisiana, as elsewhere, shriveled even further. Only 735 Louisiana blacks were listed on the rolls in 1918, at the same time there were 144,832 registered whites, still below the 1896 level. Black registration fell to its lowest point in the twentieth century in 1922, when exactly 598 black voters were listed in Louisiana compared with 191,789 whites, including women. As late as 1940 only 886 Negroes were registered (Wall, 1984: 235).

The socially engineered decline in voting and voter registration among blacks is one way in which the African American community has historically been disenfranchised. …