Civil War to Civil Rights:
African American People and Places in Natchitoches, Louisiana

Dr. Susan E. Dollar


The story of the African American experience in Natchitoches, Louisiana, from the Civil War to Civil Rights, is the story of community, plain and simple. In Natchitoches, as seen in so many other places throughout the South, African Americans turned to the tradition of self help that they had established in slavery and used that tradition to build a community in freedom.

While still enslaved, African Americans had long-established networks of support among themselves. These networks, consisting of blood relatives and beyond, most often took the form of an extended family, wherein neighbor helped neighbor and could, in turn, count on the help of others. Within such a framework, community formed despite the bonds of servitude.

It is this type of support network that formed the foundation of the communities that African Americans founded for themselves in freedom. No longer bound together as a slave community, the freedpeople of Natchitoches sought to unify themselves in community through their own institutions; and that is the heart of the African American experience between the Civil War and Civil Rights in the town of Natchitoches.

Church Groups and Associations

In the early post-Civil War years, the local economy suffered through several years of crop losses, leaving landowners with no money with which to pay their workers. The Freedmen’s Bureau issued over 6,000 rations for “indigent and helpless white and colored people” in July 1867 alone. Many people went without basic necessities, but African Americans joined in community to help those in need among them.

In 1866, one of the earliest such groups, led by minister Reverend Ebenezer Hayward and members of Asbury United Methodist Church, formed an association “to relieve the sick and indigent,” even before their church building was constructed. With over 100 members reported in September of that year, the association charged $1.00 for membership and took monthly contributions of 25¢ per member, with the money going to those in need.

This same Methodist congregation worked to open the first Freedmen’s Bureau school built and led by African Americans in the town of Natchitoches. By the end of 1866, they learned that the Missionary Society of the Methodist Episcopal Society had awarded them a sum of $2,000 to go toward the building of their church/school building on the corner of St. Denis and Fifth Street.

Asbury United Methodist Church still holds services in a building at that same address now, more than 140 years later, a testament to the strength of community established in the post-Civil War period.

Other communities in faith were soon to follow in their footsteps: First Baptist Church, Second Street (1866), from which two new congregations were later established at First Baptist Church, Amulet and First Baptist Church, North Street. A number of other churches were to follow in the next several decades, many of which still serve the community. By 1870, the Twelfth District Baptist Association was founded in Natchitoches by several religious and community leaders: Raiford Blount, Martin Kiles, Benjamin Perrow and a number of others.

The early work of these leaders has been described in some detail:

These brethren deserve much credit for pioneer work. Present-day conveniences of travel were unknown to them, yet they pressed their way to the remotest bounds of their District, planting the gospel banner as they marched. . . . They have gone on with the work of organizing churches, ordaining preachers, until the entire District has been flooded by gospel light. . . . This association has evidenced its interest in education by doing what it could by way of fostering and encouraging schools (Hicks 1915).

These first Methodist and Baptist churches came 14 years before the White Methodist and Baptist congregations would have their own churches in town. Very often these church buildings also served the community as school buildings and community meeting halls, where many political and social topics were discussed and debated through the years. These groups provided an extended network of support for the community through the days of Jim Crow1 and beyond.

Other Benevolent Groups

Although little is known about early groups other than church organizations, we do know that a number of groups worked in varying ways to bring together the African American community, providing African Americans with a focus and a voice of unity in their heritage and in their fight for Civil Rights.

The Fraternal Order of Freemasons

Fraternal orders came about very early and were important in the lives of many people. Two early groups were the Prince Hall Grand Lodge of Louisiana and the African American Freemasons, who founded lodges throughout the state. In Natchitoches, John Gideon Lewis was instrumental in the founding of the Corinthian Lodge and the Dawn of Light Lodge #22 and served as Grandmaster in Louisiana before his death. The Masons have been active for many years in the community and remain active today.

With close ties to many other lodges throughout the parish, fraternal orders like the Freemasons maintained prominent positions in the community. Their meeting places were often used for community buildings or schools, and their aid was available to those who needed help. Throughout the state, established lodges were often the force behind change and improvements for African American communities. With an active presence from Reconstruction through the Jim Crow years and beyond, Freemasonry in Natchitoches has provided a unifying center for activities in the community for generations.

Civic Organizations

As political organization grew increasingly important through the years of Jim Crow and Civil Rights, a number of organizations served the African American community of Natchitoches, giving a focus to its energies in fighting for civil and social justice. Among these groups, one could find the Young Businessmen’s Club, the Civic and Voters League, and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. These groups were important in leading civil rights activities. Local churches offered meeting sites and places for voter registration in the organized effort to realize civil rights for all citizens.

Social Clubs

Through the years, a number of social clubs were founded, providing healthy outlets for enjoying activities and entertainment that brought friends and family together as community. Among these numerous groups one may hear of the Demery's Club, a social club that offered members social events and hunting/fishing trips; the Gentlemen’s Contemporary Twenty-One, first a private, then a public social club; the Bayou Rod and Gun Club, a hunting and social club for men that offered a variety of activities, including barbeques and parties for their members. There were also a number of riding clubs and associations of other interests.

In combination with the nightclubs that opened for the African American community in the town of Natchitoches, giving access to the latest musical groups and trends, there was no shortage of activities available for those who wanted to join with the community around them.

Community, Plain and Simple

In the early days of emancipation, the freedpeople in Natchitoches brought with them a tradition of self help that they had established and relied upon in slavery and used it to build community in their newfound freedom. Building upon that tradition, the generations who followed in their footsteps nurtured and strengthened that community through the unity their ancestors had founded.

The story of the African American experience in Natchitoches, Louisiana, from the Civil War to Civil Rights, is the story of community, plain and simple.

<-Introduction Cane River Baptisms->