The History of Freetown and the Good Hope Hall
(The following is a carefully researched but only partially authenticated history of one of Lafayette’s most fascinating neighborhoods. The history has been compiled over a ten year span from multiple sources including the memories and family histories of many of Lafayette’s oldest African-American families. It has been compiled by various journalists, ministers, historians and University researchers who continue to seek out the lost stories of the last one and one-half centuries.)
Courtesy of Louis J. Perret, Clerk of Court, Lafayette
In the years before the Civil War, it was possible for the enslaved African-Americans of the South to purchase their own freedom, in many different ways, including through extra forms of work done on what was normally their own time. Additionally, as various planters became fond of their workers, some of the older African-Americans were set free in return for good service rendered over several decades. Ultimately, before the Civil War in the 1840s and 1850s, in the Town of Vermilionville (a town which was later to become the City of Lafayette) these free men of color settled in a newly engineered subdivision known as the “Mouton Addition.” The Mouton Addition was populated by a heterogeneous mixture of lower and middle-class Caucasians and free men of color. Nonetheless, because of the presence there of freed African-Americans, the Mouton Addition became known, in the years immediately preceding the Civil War as “Freetown.”
With the end of the Civil War, slavery ended in the South and the newly freed slaves sought the counsel of the older free men of color who peopled the Mouton Addition at the time. As a result, the free men of color lent their experience in living at liberty to their newly freed brethren. The livelihood of choice at the time was tenement farming the fields east of the city near the area known as Pinhook Road. Many of the newly freed slaves also settled in “Freetown” and a common bond quickly developed between them and the original free men of color. The original free families of the area became leaders of their communities for multiple generations that followed and set the stage for a very rich history and a tradition of significant achievement during times of heroic struggle for their race.
With the advent shortly after the Civil War of the Knights of the Klu Klux Klan and the Riders of the White Camelia, and with the terror which followed the Klansman for all of the black community, the free men of color brought their brethren together for the purpose of forming a mutual defense against the Klan. To give impetus to their cause they named their organization the “True Friends Society,” a group committed to the mutual defense of one another in the face of terrorism by the Klansmen. Documentation reveals that the intelligence network of the “True Friends Society” was frequently able to determine the planned next strike of the Klan and circumvented these strikes by gathering at the homestead of the black families to be targeted. Pitched battles with pick-axes, shovels, and sharpened farm implements as well as pistols and
muskets occurred for over a decade during this period and hastened the demise of the Klan. Ultimately, the “True Friends Society” played a major role in limiting Klan activity for the decades that followed in the area that ultimately would come to be called “Acadiana”. As a direct result of this historic stand, racial tension in southwest Louisiana was greatly reduced.
As the original free men of color aged into the 1870s and 1880s, Klan activity became very minimal and the bond of the “True Friends Society” was no longer as imperative. During that time, the wives and daughters of the original free men of color came to the fore and slowly, over the course of several years, orchestrated a change in the fabric of the Society from one of “mutual defense” to one of “public welfare”. These wives and daughters of the freemen of color attended the sick, planned the celebrations and weddings and orchestrated the social agenda of the African-American community in Lafayette. Ultimately, the “True Friends Association” was chartered in 1883, and at a time when the nation had no personal income tax for social and welfare programs, this Association very well served those purposes for the African-American community of Vermillionville. A segment of the membership of the Association, looking forward to the last two decades of the 19th century and hoping that the good life they sought would one day be theirs, formed a similar benevolent group known as the “Good Hope Society”. These two groups became the leaders of the African-American community and its cultural well-being into the 20th century. To commemorate the founding of the “Good Hope Society” they built their meeting place, Good Hope Hall, in 1902.
Courtesy of The Advocate, photo by Leslie Westbrook
In the roaring twenties and the depression of the thirties, Good Hope Hall became one of the truly great jazz halls of America as all of the great jazz artists from across the country played there regularly. Included in this list of impressive figures in the early days of jazz were Louis Armstrong and Fats Pinchon. It also was the center for orchestras and bands from all over Louisiana, as well as out-of-state touring bands of great repute. Tradition has it that whenever a dance was scheduled for Good Hope Hall the evening, the trumpeter of the jazz band to play there would climb to the upper gallery of the structure, blow his horn for several minutes and thereby announce to the entire community in the downtown area some blocks away that things would be lively that evening at Good Hope Hall. When those evenings came around, the African-American community in the Mouton Addition enter their meeting hall, Good Hope Hall, and enjoy the jazz music in merriment while many members of the
Caucasian community gathered outside in the streets to listen to superb strands of jazz music filtering out from within. Perhaps in all America, this was the only corner in the 1920’s and 1930’s where African-Americans were the only ones permitted inside while the white community was left out in the street. The building was truly a “jazz mecca” for nearly twenty years, drawing both jazz groups and orchestras and bands from all over Louisiana as well as out-of-state touring bands. The building often saw “double-headed” sessions, with a band playing at one end of the hall while another played the same tune at the opposite end. Some of the spectators swore that music “rocked the building”.
One of these bands, The Black Eagle Band of Crowley, with Evan Thomas as a trumpet player, would often play at Good Hope Hall. George “Country-Boy” Benoit, a community resident who had moved to “Freetown” from Long Plantation off what is now the Kaliste Saloom Road area of Lafayette to become a barber in the city, recalled vividly that Tomas, in particular, would get out on the upper gallery, raise his trumpet to his lips and blow. “It could be heard all over town,” Benoit recalled, “and folks would know there’d be a dance that night”. Benoit ultimately set up his barbershop within the hall and operated there for many years, until he moved across Stewart Street to set his shop up “on the corner” where he operated it until his death in 1989 at the age of 97.
Today, Good Hope Hall still stands and is now home to The Glenn Armentor Law Corporation.
The compiled research is courtesy of The Glenn Armentor Law Corporation.