Wednesday, March 14, 2012

More on That Word "Coonass": A Labor Dispute Trial Documents Its Use in 1940

New research has confirmed the use of the word "coonass" as early as 1940. In addition, the word was clearly used at the time as an ethnic slur (unlike in the "Cajun Coonass" airplane images from 1943, when the word was apparently used as a badge of ethnic pride).

"Coonass" continues to be a
controversial word in Cajun country.
Its origin remains a mystery.

My source for this documented 1940 use of the word "coonass" is "In the Matter of Shell Oil Company, Incorporated[,] and Oil Workers International Union, Local 367," Case No. C-1858, Decided 23 August 1941," in Decisions of the National Labor Relations Board, Volume 34 (1942), pages 866-[892].

This labor dispute centered around a verbal altercation between one W. O. Ventura, a union member, and one Alec Vincent, a former union member, both employed at a Shell Oil facility located in Texas, evidently in or very near Houston. (Local 367 was active in the Houston area; in addition, the National Labor Board report on this dispute refers more than once to Harris County, Texas, where Houston is located; and, finally, the report gives Shell Oil's location as Houston, next to which the company did operate at least one petroleum plant in 1940, namely, at Deer Park.) [Note of 28 March 2012: I have now confirmed that the incident in question occurred at the Deer Park refinery near Houston.]

Angered that Vincent had dropped out of the union, Ventura approached Vincent during their lunch break on January 10, 1940, and berated him for refusing to pay his union dues. When Vincent asked to be left alone, Ventura — according to Vincent's written statement to Shell Oil of five days later — barked:

"I'm through with you, you coon-ass son-of-a-bitch, I'll meet you at the gate at 4:30. I want to whip your God-damned ass."

An excerpt of Vincent's statement from the original document. 

Ventura himself recalled the phraseology this way:

"Why don't you just admit that you are just a damn coon-ass and too tight to pay the two dollars . . . Vincent, it is 12:30 now. Either now or at 4:30 you can come out to the gate and you can either whip my God-damn ass or I'll whip yours or we can go out and talk it over or settle it any way you want to . . . [sic]"

An excerpt of Ventura's statement from the original document.

Eight days after this incident, Shell Oil asked an eyewitness, employee and union member Leo L. Fullerton, to record his recollection of the incident. Fullerton stated:

"Bill [Ventura] said, 'Well, if that is the way you feel about it, Coon ass [sic], just wait until 4:00 and we will argue about it on the outside of the gate."

Fired for his verbal assault on Vincent, Ventura appealed to the National Labor Relations Board, asserting that Shell Oil had terminated him not because of his disparaging language, but because he was an active union member. In his defense, Ventura demonstrated that Shell Oil had not fired other, non-union coworkers for similar offenses.

The Trial Examiner of the National Review Board ruled that although Ventura had called Vincent a "coon ass son-of-a-bitch," Shell Oil had terminated him unjustly. In fact, the National Review Board observed, "We also find . . . that the language used by Ventura on this occasion was used frequently among the respondent's employees. [Shell Oil coworkers] Benson, Nelson, Ventura, Vincent, and Robison, all testified that employees at the plant often cursed and called each other 'coon ass' and 'son-of-a-bitch' when arguing over various matters." The Trial Examiner then ordered Shell Oil to reinstate Ventura as an employee and to pay his lost wages.

What is important about this incident to Cajun history, however, is not the labor dispute itself, but its documentation of the word "coonass" — now the earliest known use of this word by a little over three years.

Moreover, the word was used in this 1940 incident as a derogatory term for "Cajun," because it's reasonably clear that Vincent was indeed a Cajun.

I say this for several reasons.

First, the incident appears to have taken place in or near Houston, a city to which many Cajuns have emigrated since the first half of the twentieth century, primarily to work in its petroleum facilities. Second, "Vincent" is a Cajun surname, sometimes pronounced in the Anglo-American way (VIN-SENT), but even today said by some in the Cajun French manner (VAH[N]-SOH[N]).  Third, and most importantly, one of Vincent's coworkers, M. L. Roller, noted in his statement about the incident that Vincent's nickname was — "Frenchy."

A "coonass" sticker on a hard hat.
(Photo by the author.)

Addendum of 28 March 2012:  

I returned to the history of the word "coonass" a couple of weeks ago or so because state media outlets have been covering south Louisiana attorney Warren Perrin's outcry over local radio stations playing "RCA (Registered Coonass)," a song by Cajun musician Jamie Bergeron.  See, for example, "KBON Radio Could Face FCC Complaint over 'Coonass' Lyrics" and "'Coonass' in Lyrics Draws Ire of Perrin".

Oddly enough, "coonass" is now in the national media and political spotlight (if only tangentially) because it has been invoked in reference to the Trayvon Martin shooting — most notably on MSNBC's "Hardball with Chris Matthews."  See, for instance, "Zimmerman Friend Defends Racial Slur: ‘Coon Asses’ Used Proudly In Parts Of This Country" and "Zimmerman Friend Joe Oliver Claims 'Coon A**' Isn't a Racial Slur".  (Note the interesting comments about "coonass" that readers have left under these articles on their respective websites.)

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