REMEMBERING AFRICAN-AMERICANS IN CENTRAL LOUISIANA
In 2002, members of the Alexandria Chapter of The Links, Incorporated made the decision to secure the wall of an abandoned building on Lee Street from a former African-American business owner. The purpose was to conduct an Art Project under the auspices of the Chapter’s Art Facet that would be visible to the entire community and recognize African-Americans that had made a noteworthy contribution to Central Louisiana. Thus, the idea of constructing a Mural was conceived. The Mural titled “Remembering African-Americans in Central Louisiana” was completed in 2003 in preparation for visitors expected to visit Alexandria, Louisiana during the “Heart of Spain” exhibit at the Alexandria Museum of Art. The Mural was revealed to the public in September, 2003 with a Reception held for special guests at a nearby church, Rose of Sharon Baptist Church, 1401 Tenth Street, Alexandria, Louisiana followed by a public unveiling of the Mural with a discussion of its overall significance and content.
Local artists Morris Taft Thomas (Project Director), Leon Cook, and Broderick McGinnis painted the mural on two walls; one that once housed a pool hall and another adjacent wall that had been part of a previously demolished building next door. Since its completion, the Mural has served as a history of Central Louisiana teaching tool, particularly African-American history for youth in the nine parish area called Central Louisiana.
The Mural depicts six prominent local African-Americans, including writer, Arna Bontempts a member of the Harlem Renaissance Movement, longtime Peabody High School principal, David Iles, trailblazing attorney Louis Berry, and educator Lois Hovell, who chartered the Alexandria Chapter of The Links, Incorporated. Also depicted are two local veterans of storied military units-Amos Wesley with the Tuskegee Airmen and Lonnie Hickman one of the famous “Buffalo Soldiers”.
For more than 12 years, the Mural was one of the most familiar sights on the drive down Lee Street into downtown Alexandria. Although the Mural no longer exist, a plan is underway to expose the history that inspired it to a wider audience. The Alexandria Chapter of Links, Incorporated in partnership with a local business is currently developing a digital curriculum around the Mural’s history and content that will be available to schools throughout Central Louisiana and beyond. Future plans involve the reproduction of the Mural on another wall or on a surface that could be moved from location to location to create more visibility.
David Faxton Iles
David Faxton Iles, known as “Prof Iles” or “Mr. Peabody,” name is synonymous with education and Peabody High School because of his long tenure at the school and tireless efforts to improve the quality of education for African-American children. David Faxton lles' dedication to education came from a core consciousness of a viable Black heritage and spiritual roots. He taught his students that the manner in which they viewed themselves and their history must be a true reflection of themselves, and not the narrow reflection of the other, majority world. Moreover, he helped his students excel and learn to be proud of their racial heritage. In turn, he was always proud of his students and shared his pride whenever and wherever possible.
Those Black students who attended the red brick school, the Peabody Negro School located on lower Third Street in Alexandria, Louisiana have fond memories of a humble beginning. At this little red brick school, the playground doubled as a football field, lunch was a brown-bag lunch or a meal from the "cool spot”, and the auditorium served as a multi-purpose building (cafeteria and basketball court). These students also remember courses in foreign languages and advanced courses in mathematics and science. In spite of the times, and the odds, Mr. Iles ensured that a well-rounded quality education was made available to Black elementary and high school children in Rapides Parish.
During the early days of Peabody High School's existence, the books were worn and sometimes tattered, but students were taught by David Iles that they should never use these challenges as a deterrent to learning. His teaching endowed his students with a formidable inner spirit that helped them to reach for the stars and realize their dreams. Through perseverance and commitment, David Faxton Iles made possible a quality education that placed Peabody High School students on a competitive footing with other students in Central Louisiana, the state of Louisiana, and the nation as a whole. During his tenure at Peabody High School, David Iles served as a positive role model for thousands of Black students, many of whom have risen to prominence in the state of Louisiana and the nation. His hard work and vision made Peabody High School one of the premier Black high schools in the State of Louisiana.
David Faxton Iles was a team player who believed in education for all Blacks. He and a group of Blacks are credited with the establishment of the Central Louisiana Trade School, organized to train World War II veterans in Central Louisiana. Amos Wesley, Jr. was born to Amos Wesley Sr. and Lauretta Meredith Wesley in Rochelle, Louisiana on August 2, 1913. The family moved to Alexandria, Louisiana in 1920 after the death of his father. Wesley, Jr. began working for the Standard Oil Company at the age of 12 and later gained employment at Blotner Brothers Auto Parts. It was there that he learned to use micrometers, lathes, drills, honing equipment for shaving motor heads, and various other technical equipment of those times.
Amos Wesley Jr.
Amos Wesley, Jr. returned to Tuskegee, Alabama in 1943 and assumed duties as the Chief Inspector for the 99th Squadron of the Tuskegee Airmen. Airplanes were permitted to fly or were grounded by the stroke of his pen. The Tuskegee Airmen flew over 400 combat and escort missions during World War" and never lost a bomber. As a means of identification, the tails of their fighter planes were painted red, and these red tails became a symbol of honor, daring and precision. All-white bomber squadrons began to request the "red-tails" to escort them on bombing missions. It was not by accident that the Tuskegee Airmen were able to out maneuver the German aviators. The mechanics and inspectors made their own innovative modifications on the planes assigned to them. This resulted in both faster and more easily maneuverable aircraft. The "red tails" consistently performed maneuvers that were unexpected and which kept the Germans confused, mystified and apprehensive.
On December 7, 1941, after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Wesley volunteered for the United States Army. Because of his high scores on aptitude tests, he was assigned to the United States Army Corps based at Tuskegee, Alabama. Due to his prior employment and training as a mechanic, Amos Wesley, Jr. was trained as an aircraft mechanic at Tuskegee Institute, where he specialized in engine theory and repair. His superior performance led him to be selected to attend the (traditionally all white) University of Nebraska at Lincoln, Nebraska in 1943 where he trained to be an aircraft inspector.
Amos Wesley, Jr. returned to Tuskegee, Alabama in 1943 and assumed duties as the Chief Inspector for the 99thSquadron of theTuskegee Airmen. Airplanes were permitted to fly or were grounded by the stroke of his pen. The Tuskegee Airmen flew over 400 combat and escort missions during World War" and never lost a bomber. As a means of identification, the tails of their fighter planes were painted red, and these red tails became a symbol of honor, daring and precision. All-white bomber squadrons began to request the "red-tails" to escort them on bombing missions
In December 1945, Amos Wesley, Jr. was discharged from the United States Army. He sought employment in the air- craft industry, but because of his race and despite his areas of expertise, only menial labor was offered to him. Unable to find employment that would support his family above the poverty line, he opened Wesley's Automotive Repairs. He later joined the staff of the Central Louisiana Trade School in 1948 as an automotive mechanic instructor. During his tenure at the school, he was hired as the first Black Rapides Parish Sheriff’s Deputy in 1949 during Grady Kelly, Jr.'s tenure. In 1956, Amos Wesley was hired by David Faxton Iles as the first Automotive Instructor at Peabody High School. He was later transferred to Plainview High School where he remained until retirement.
Lois E. Mosely Hovell
Lois Elaine Mosely Hovell, one of four children was born in Ft. Worth, Texas. She attended and graduated from Wiley College High School in Marshall, Texas. Lois Mosely Hovell entered Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee as a freshman in 1926 and graduated from Fisk University in 1930. Lois married James R. Hovell of Alexandria, Louisiana in 1931, and from this union a son was born, James R. Hovell, Jr.
Lois Hovell worked as a social worker in the 1930's. She worked as a social worker for 21 years. She began her career as an educator at the St. James High School in 1951. In 1953, she joined the Rapides Parish School System as a teacher at South Alexandria Elementary School. Lois Hovell retired from the Rapides Parish School System in the early 70's after having taught for more than twenty years. During her teaching career, Lois Hovell was a positive role model for many young educators and students in the Alexandria community. Many of her former mentees speak lovingly of her even today. According to her mentees, many of whom are known locally and nationally as prominent Blacks, Lois Hovell is still regarded as a "Lady of Class, Style, and Sophistication". Lois Hovell was a community activist through- out her life. She was an active member of Newman United Methodist Church and many other community organizations.
Lois Hovell was a visionary who believed in the principles of friendship and service, and knew that an organization like The Links, Incorporated would play a vital role relative to the much needed community services in the City of Alexandria. Therefore, she was the driving force behind establishing and chartering of the Alexandria Chapter (LA) of The Links, Incorporated, and organization that has been active in com- munity service in Central Louisiana for more than 30 years. Lois Hovell contacted 10 other Black ladies in the City of Alexandria and together they worked constructively and the chapter was chartered on April 14, 1973. Like the International Organization of The Links, Incorporated, the Alexandria Chapter was founded on the premises of friendship and service. Lois Hovell was elected as the first president of the Alexandria Chapter of The Links, Incorporated and held other chapter offices through the years.
In addition to her hard work in the City of Alexandria, Lois Hovell also spent time with her hobbies of reading, gardening, and traveling in her retirement years. Most of her time and energy however was devoted to the two things that she loved most, Newman United Methodist Church and the Alexandria Chapter of The Links, Incorporated. As a product of the rigid racially segregated South, Lois Hovell was a champion of civil rights through education. She learned the value of an education at an early age from her father who was the son of a plantation owner in North Louisiana. When the plantation owner decided to give each of his offspring a portion of land as an inheritance, her father asked that he be sent to college. Her father was granted his wish of a college education and made sure that his children, Lois and three siblings also receive college degrees.
Lonnie Hickman was born on May 2, 1926 in Leesville, Louisiana to Jim and Ophelia Hickman, the ninth of ten children. He attended the public schools of Vernon Parish and graduated from high school in 1948. The term "Buffalo Soldier" was given to the members of the all Black segregated units in past years. Lonnie Hickman often told the story of how the term came to be used. When Lonnie Hickman joined the 933rd Anti-Aircraft Battalion, he learned that the battalion was one of the last two Black battalions left of Buffalo Soldiers. This is how he gained the prestigious distinction of being among the last of the "Buffalo Soldiers," a distinction that gave him much pride.
Lonnie Hickman voluntarily entered the United States Army in July, 1948 directly after his graduation from Vernon Parish High School. He received his basic training at Fort Dix, New Jersey. Afterwards, he served in the 933rd AAA Battalion in Yokohama, Japan until the Korean War in 1950, when he was sent to serve in Suwon, Korea, where he remained in combat until 1951. On December 3, 1951, Lonnie returned to the United States and was assigned to the 466th Battalion at Fort Lewis, Washington until 1952. He departed Fort Lewis, Washington for Fort Ord, California, where he remained for only a short period of time before being reassigned to March Air Force base in California. During this period, he met and married Odessa Kenerson and they became parents of a daughter, Connie Dewanda.
In 1953, Lonnie Hickman was assigned to a Camp Stewart, Georgia. From there he served as one of the builders of NORAAD (Northern Radar Air Defense) outfits in Thule, Greenland, which wathought to be 65 miles from the North Pole. Subsequent military assignments included repeat assignments at Fort Ord, Fort Bliss, Fort Lewis and Japan. From Japan, he and his family traveled in 1959 to Mainze, Germany, serving there until December 1967. Eventually, he was re-assigned to serve as a military advisor in Korea. While serving in Fort Bliss, Texas, Lonnie Hickman became one of only 18 enlisted men from the entire United States Army to be trained as Warrant Officers. Lonnie Hickman retired from the United States Army as a Chief Warrant Officer on November 1, 1969 while stationed at Fort Polk, Louisiana, marking twenty-one years of distinguished military service.Mr. Lonnie Hickman had the proud distinction of being known as one of the last of the Buffalo Soldiers. Moreover, he remained active with his group of distinguished military men throughout his life. He and his fellow 933rd and 466th Battalion veterans held an annual reunion with the motto "Last of An Era."
Arna W. Bontemps
Arna Wendell Bontemps, known to many as "Alexandria's Native Son," was a noted Black poet, author, anthologist and librarian. He was born in Alexandria, Louisiana on October 13, 1902. He lived with his parents, Paul Bismark and Marie Wendell Bontemps in a turn-of-the- century wood frame house at its original location of Ninth and Winn Streets. His family home was later moved to the downtown historic district where it now houses a museum that bears his name. It is located at 1327 Third Street in Alexandria, Louisiana. Arna Wendell Bontemps was baptized at St. Francis Xavier Cathedral in Alexandria, Louisiana. He eventually moved with his family to California as a part of the early twentieth century's great Black migration from the South.
Arna Bontemps attended public schools and graduated at the age of 17 from Pacific Union College in 1923, having completed a Bachelor of Arts degree in three years. During his tenure as a student at Pacific Union College, he developed an interest in writing and began to write poetry, essays, short stories, fiction, non-fiction and children’s books. His writings were influenced by memories and oral traditions of his boyhood days in Alexandria, Louisiana. His works also include biographical writing about famous Black athletes, authors, and social activists.
Arna Bontemps moved to Harlem, New York in 1924 and accepted a teaching position at Harlem Academy. It was at Harlem Academy that he met Alberta Johnson, who later became his wife. Together they had six children, which he claimed made him famous among Negro writers. He received professional training in history from the graduate school at the University of Chicago and earned the Master of Science degree in 1945. Following his receipt of his Master's degree, he returned to the South and accepted the position of Librarian at Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee. Bontemps lectured throughout the United States at such prestigious institutions as the University of Illinois, the University of Wisconsin at Madison and Yale University.
Arna Bontemps is credited with writing over 20 books, plays and anthologies and is considered the leading authority on the Harlem Renaissance. He was a significant member of the core of Black writers who led the "Negro Movement" and was known to occupy a front row seat to view and participate in the jazz, theater and literary events taking place in Harlem. His scholarly interest in developing a new appraisal and his reevaluation of the African-American's place in American history represent only a small part of his legacy. His children's books, poetry and prose are unique in that they convey the rhythms and richness of the African- American culture and experience. Even today, Bontemps' extraordinary insight and literary style can be evidenced and detected in the writings of a number of African-American authors who have been influenced by his greatness and followed his lead.
Louis Berry was born in 1917 in Alexandria, Louisiana. He graduated from Howard University, Washington, D.C. While a student at Howard University, he was privileged to study under Thurgood Marshall who later became the first Black to serve on the United States Supreme Court. Louis Berry was only the second Black attorney to practice law in the State of Louisiana and the first to practice in Alexandria, Louisiana. Berry was licensed to practice law in California where he practiced with the famed attorney, Johnnie Cochran. He was also licensed to practice in Louisiana, Missouri, and Alaska. Berry considered himself a "social surgeon" trained to "cut out" the malignancy of racism, discrimination, and cultural lags created by slavery.
During his career as an attorney, Louis Berry taught in the Howard University Law School, Washington, D. C. and the Southern University Law School, Baton Rouge, Louisiana. He began his law career in Alexandria, Louisiana in 1947 in an old house on Ninth Street, only a short distance from the United States District Courthouse. His office was hidden away, close to, but isolated from the more affluent law offices nearer to the parish and federal courthouses. In his small office, he handled many cases that championed the civil rights of mostly poor Blacks and some whites in Central Louisiana. He returned to Alexandria, Louisiana to represent a group of Blacks in a lawsuit filed against the City of Alexandria. The City of Alexandria had closed the Casson Street Community Center and the group of Blacks demanded to be allowed to use the all-white Alexandria Community Center on Bolton Avenue. As a result of this lawsuit, the City of Alexandria renovated and reopened the Casson Street Community Center. Some of Attorney Berry's other landmark civil rights lawsuits resulted in the integration of the Trolley Car system in New Orleans, Louisiana; integration of the Law School, Dental School, and Medical School at Louisiana State University. His lawsuit against the Louisiana State University Law School opened the door for many Black law school graduates. The first law student was "Dutch' Morial, who later became the first Black mayor of New Orleans, Louisiana. Attorney Berry's most famous civil rights lawsuits in Central Louisiana included the integration of the public schools in Rapides, Avoyelles, and Natchitoches parishes and his most famous desegregation litigation was in the case of the Rev. Sylvester Valley et.al. against the Rapides Parish School System.
Berry received his first experience with civil rights activism in 1934 as a freshman at Howard University when he and a group of students staged a "sit-in" at the United States Senate restaurant. This action later led to the congressional restaurant being opened to Blacks. Louis Berry became known by many of his colleagues in Central Louisiana as the "Godfather of Civil Rights". During his long career, he served as a mentor to many young, Black attorneys, some of whom are currently practicing law in Alexandria, Louisiana.