Nestled between University Avenue and the Evangeline Thruway, directly on the side of the university, lies a neighborhood filled with azaleas, crepe myrtles and gardenias.
Houses built in the late 1800s in the Victorian and Traditional-styles are nestled along new developments filled with old families and newcomers.
With a description of this, you may think you are near Sterling Grove or even Downtown. But of course, this is one of Lafayette’s best-kept secrets, perhaps even the best, the historical neighborhood of Freetown-Port Rico.
In the years before the Civil War, long before streets like Johnston, McKinley and University were even planned, there stood the large Greek revival plantation home of Gov. Alexandre Mouton, who was the 11th Governor of Louisiana, an avid supporter of the Confederacy, and owner of about 120 slaves. This plantation was called Île Copal with a long leading path planted with Quercus Virginiana or southern live oaks and fields of sugar-cane were located where the present LeRosen Elementary is today.
In the Shadows of Île Copal, was a small discarded sector near the town of Vermilionville called the Mouton Addition. Whites and free people of color primarily inhabited the Mouton Addition. These free people of color, who worked on the Ile Copal Plantation as contracted craftsmen, would give the neighborhood its present name of “Free Town.”
After the Civil War, Freetown became a haven or beacon for the newly freed slaves of the Vermilionville — leading to its population increase due to its presence as a community established by fellow people of color. The newly freed largely would continue their tireless work as contracted sharecroppers; likewise, their struggle for racial equality and fundamental rights would continue. In the reconstruction era of Louisiana, a notable number of African Americans (both gens de couleur libres and the newly freed) were elected to statewide offices, yet the everyday struggle of the African American was still a task to grasp.
In the wake of racial massacres, violence and riots that occurred throughout Louisiana — by the hands of organized militias named the Ku Klux Klan and the Riders of the White Camelia, the people of Freetown, united neither as “gens de couleur libres,” or “freedmen” but as True Friends.
The True Friends was a society of mutual defense truly unifying all peoples of African descent in the late 1800s to the early 1900s or Post Civil War Acadiana. The True Friends armed with faith and their noble rights to protect themselves and their property from any unlawful, oppressive force was able to deter and rapidly decline the Klan and all her allies in the regions between the Teche and the Vermilion.
The work of the True Friends would lead to the groundwork of a neighborhood filled with a heterogeneous population of diverse peoples and languages with businesses and a jazz lounge. And of which the site of their plight, Île Copal, would become a school educating African Americans in exact opposition to those who withheld basic understanding from them. (Lafayette Public Policy)
As I look toward the future, gazing at the past, I wonder how can we preserve this great past especially in this month of Black History. In regards to recognizing and protecting the history of not only Freetown but all American history.
Marissa Petrou, Ph.D., professor of public history at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, said it’s good to know the past.
“First, It's good to know the past and acknowledge it,” Petrou said. “Telling individual people's stories have been really compelling even throughout public histories, it's one of the reasons that earliest things that were preserved where the houses of important individuals because of it's a very important gateway.”
In 2016, Freetown-Port Rico was declared as Lafayette’s second historical district. One of the questions remains how do we tell what societies deem as difficult histories.
As Ian Beamish, Ph.D, a professor of history at UL Lafayette who offers a course centered around the Public History of Slavery in Louisiana, said you have to recognize the significance of places like Freetown.
“Beyond given talks or things like that, I think what's important are public places and public narratives as a first step because you have to force people to recognize,” Beamish said. “To make a history that needs to be talked about, visible, and harder to avoid.”
Freetown-Port Rico with the Neighborhood Coterie & city-parish councilman who represent the neighborhood was contacted but did not respond.