Trois Questions A: Alfred Lemmon, Director of the William Research Center at The Historic New Orleans Collection
Francophonie takes on an infinite number of forms within the "most francophone State in the US". We’ve launched the "Three Questions" series to explore the diversity and vitality of Francophone culture in Louisiana.
My name is Alfred Lemmon and I’m a native of Lafayette Louisiana. I grew up at a time when French heritage was not exactly appreciated. I remember when CODOFIL was established, I when I was a little boy. Everyone thought how funny it was! I can recall the particular the day in Lafayette when they put street signs in French and in English. Everyone was just scratching their heads, we were all just greatly mystified. At that time, it wasn’t just that the language was suppressed to a degree, there was also a big social distinction. Cajuns were really frowned down upon, and in my opinion, for what it’s worth, the appearance of CODOFIL is more than just a reawakening of the language but a reawakening of the appreciation for Cajuns and Cajun heritage.
In my opinion, one of the wonderful things about CODOFIL is that it opened the door to the value of these traditions. Later on, people in my own family, who never wanted Cajun music in their house, were buying Cajun records. People that never claimed to be Cajuns, suddenly became Cajuns and decided to take on that identity. I think that’s a wonderful thing.
As for my own training, I started off in music, and I gravitated towards music history. I specialized in Spanish and Latin American history of music. The more I worked on Louisiana, the more I realized that there was really no conflict between the Spanish and French history of New Orleans. In fact, they are in constant interplay. You can see it clearly in the archives. For example, the Archives of the Indies have some of the earliest documents related to French Louisiana history, very important documents concerning De La Salle. And then you look at the French archives, and you see how Christian brothers were going to establish a school in Louisiana in 1741 for Spanish boys from Veracruz, as it was easier to get to New Orleans than Veracruz because of all the swamps and mountains they had to go through to get to Mexico City. So there’s this wonderful intermingling that I find so exciting, and that’s what make us unique.
I came here to The Historic New Orleans Collection on a lark, I’ve made a home here, and it’s allowed me to explore this wonderful world.
1. What fascinates you in particular about New Orleans?
My developmental years were rather interesting, because although I grew up in Lafayette. my father and my grandfather had a lot of connections in New Orleans. Consequently, I had the advantage of growing up in the country and coming to the city once a week, it was the best of both worlds! What’s amazing is in those days, you either came to New Orleans by car (there was no interstate you had to take the back roads), or you came by train. That was always a big adventure, one time, my father arranged for us to come to New Orleans in the caboose of a freight train. We were just always in New Orleans and we had a lot of family friends here, so I had one foot in each city.
What fascinates me about New Orleans is its polyphonic personality. You look at some cities in the United States, and you have to drive for miles to encounter a Spanish or an African American neighborhood, but here everything is very intermingled. It’s one of the things that defines us. You walk through the French Quarter, and then say you walk through southern Spain, and the cities feel so similar! Take for example the Cathedral, the Presbytere, and the Cabildo, which are sort of the icons of the city. The Cathedral was founded as a parish under the French, it became a cathedral under the Spanish, and then it was dedicated by an Englishman. Then you have the Caribbean influences of many houses in the city, since our climate more closely resembles the French or Spanish Caribbean. We’re a very exotic city!
One of the things that I find exciting about New Orleans is that its history just so much more incredibly richer than we think. For example, people drive down St. Charles Avenue all the time, but most don’t know who St. Charles Avenue is named for. And the fact is we can’t say for sure! We do know however it was named for either Carlos III or Carlos IV. We know St Louis Cemetery No. 1 was founded by Carlos IV. Antonio de Ulloa whom most people have heard of, is another great example. He was the first Spanish Governor, but he was also a great scientist. We’re fortunate enough to know that the library he had here in New Orleans contained works by all the great scientists of the period. Then we also have Alejandro O’Reilly, who is so associated with the Spanish period that people think he must have been here for years. He’s known as “Bloody O’Reilly” because he executed six Frenchmen who had plotted an uprising. He was really wasn’t here very long, but then we find out that low and behold Goya painted a portrait of him! We have such an incredibly exciting history.
One of the things about public history is that you can help people become more aware of their history, and as a result more proud. We have these typical stories that everyone knows, but when you get into it it’s just so much more exciting that people think, and that’s what’s fun!
2) In the context of our Tricentennial, how would you hope New Orleanians and visitors to this city reflect on its past? What are some lessons we can take moving forward?
First of all, the more we become aware of the incredible richness of our history, the more we will realize just how unique New Orleans is. It will help give us a greater sense of pride, and guide us in the future.
As soon as Louisiana became French, there was an immediate recognition of the Native American presence. Jean-Baptiste Lully wrote a wonderful Ballet called “Le Temple de la Paix” (1685) shortly after La Salle claimed Louisiana. It was a celebration of the King of France, the great peacemaker of the world. During the ballet, you have an entourage of “sauvages” (which has a different meaning than “savages”, more of the “noble native”), that come and deliver greetings to the King and celebrate him for having claimed Louisiana. Interestingly, we know the names and the costumes exists for the nobility that assumed the roles of the natives at the Palace premiere. Later on, and this is where our history is just so fascinating, who would imagine that a delegation of Native Americans would leave New Orleans in 1725 and go to France! One of the wonderful things that we’ve been able to do here at The Historic New Orleans Collection is display the speech that was read to the King of France, delivered by a Native American Chief. We know that some of the Native Americans were baptized at Notre Dame Cathedral, and some were even married there. Furthermore, Native American dancers from Louisiana not only performed for the king, but also at one of the theaters in Paris where Rameau, one of the great French composers, was in attendance. He wrote a piece of music for his assemblage of harpsichord music in 1727 or 1728 (we’re not too sure of the publication date), that used the melody and rhythm of one of the dances that the Native Americans performed. He later wrote a letter describing how he was trying to capture it. For me, examples such as these are a part of the French recognition of Native American culture.
During this time, Native Americans would be granted honorary titles by the French. The Spanish did the same thing, and the certificates were practically identical. However, during the Spanish period all sorts of strange things started happening. For example there was a large migration from Spain because the governor had to populate the area. The Spanish have been colonizers for a long time and they realized that they couldn’t squelch the local culture, and they permitted the Spanish officials to marry locals. Even the Spanish Governors, such as Galvez, whose father was in control of all the Spanish Indies, married a Frenchwoman. Miró also married a Frenchwoman who ended up being buried with the Pontalba family in Paris! Galvez was educated in France, and although we typically think of him as a military man, he was probably one of the most sophisticated Spanish Governors in terms of performing arts. When he was Governor, he wrote a set of guidelines that still affect the way performances take place today. So that’s the thing, our history is just so much richer than we imagine.
And then in 1803 we become American. In the Cathedral’s baptismal record, an entry basically states that “this is the last baby to be baptized under his most Catholic majesty”. Can you imagine the fear? All of these people had been given land from the King of Spain or the King of France, and people don’t realize that it took them a good century to sort out all the land ownership. There were different measuring systems. There’s just so much work for historians to do, but also so much to be done to educate the public. When Napoleon invaded Spain, the authorities in Cuba said “we don’t want these Frenchmen” so they sent them to New Orleans in 1809. There was such a big migration of people that the population doubled, right after the Louisiana purchase. So at the very moment we were supposed to be leaning English, people were talking French in the streets.
There was large contingency of New Orleanians going to France to complete their education. For example Mignon Faget’s family were part of the St Domingue exiles and her ancestor went to France to continue his education. With free people of color you have the case of Victor Séjour, who went to France to continue his education. He became a very famous playwright, and had more than 20 plays produced in Paris. We know that Napoleon III attended premieres of his plays and had special editions printed with beautiful bindings. When Victor Séjour was in New Orleans, he wrote a play about the return of Napoleon’s body to Paris from St Helene. So here’s this young American from New Orleans writing this incredible ode to Napoleon, and it was translated into Dutch, German, Danish, English, Spanish, Portuguese, Turkish, Greek.
3- Do you think if people were more aware of this cultural richness, this link New Orleans has with France and Spain, would that be inspiring to rekindle a similar relationship?
Oh yes! Our history is just so exciting. The Louisiana constitution was bilingual going all the way back to the 20th century. Today, you can learn so many languages in New Orleans. It’s such an important sign of hope for the future.
You had a lot of great examples of cultural solidarity post-Katrina. The Historic New Orleans Collection had planned a big exhibit on the Saint Domingue refugees that was scheduled to open right after Katrina hit, and of course we had to delay it. However, not one lending institution pulled a loan. I remember the Spanish archivists telling me that they wanted to send them here specifically as a sign of solidarity and hope for the city. Today, with “New Orleans: The Founding Era”, the Bibliotèque National de France has sent us some of the most incredible documents. The foreign office even sent the Treatise between France and the United States, which the Ambassador could not believe!
Culture has a way of expanding people’s quality of life and their horizons. The Founding Era is a wonderful exhibit because it treats every aspect of the early New Orleanian experience, ranging from the Native American to the African American to the European. I haven’t talked enough about the African American influence and it’s such an important part of our history. It’s a question of putting it into a greater world context. Today we think about jazz, but when you look at the 16th century Spanish world, so many things that were being done musically to incorporate the African experience into European music, we need more people to be aware of that. If we can make people more aware of these traditions, we can be better as a culture, because everyone enriches everyone else! We just have to realize that we’re all in this together and no matter what our nationality is, there’s strength in diversity.