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.)

Saturday, March 3, 2012

"To Err Is Human": Errata and Updates from My Books

One of my favorite quotes is "No one who cannot rejoice in the discovery of his own mistakes deserves to be called a scholar."*

In the spirit of this quote, I post the below errata (including typographical errors) from my books and other publications. Some of the below, however, are not corrections of errors, but rather updates based on more recent findings.

From Swamp Pop: Cajun and Creole Rhythm and Blues (1996):

~ Page 10, photo caption, "Van Broussard performing at Dutch Town High School, Dutch Town (Ascension Parrish), La., 1957."

Correction: "Parish" is misspelled.

~ Page 65, "During the late 1960s Fender teamed up with Joe Barry and went on in the mid-'70s to record such enduring swamp pop classics as ‘Before the Next Teardrop Falls’ and ‘Wasted Days and Wasted Nights’ (the latter covered by Johnnie Allan in alternating English and Cajun French lyrics).”

Correction: "Latter" should be "former".

~ Page 115, "Cookie — renowned vocalist on swamp pop classics like 'Mathilda,' 'Belinda,' 'I'm Twisted,' 'Got You on My Mind,' and 'Betty and Dupree.' . . ."

Correction: Cookie did not sing vocals on "Betty and Dupree"; rather, his bandmate Shelton Dunaway handled the vocals.

~ Page 254, the index entry for "Creole" says "See also Black Creole; Creole of Color; French Creole" — but there is no index entry for "French Creole."

From "Floyd Soileau and J. D. Miller: A Comparison of Two Small-town Recordmen of Acadiana," Louisiana Folklife 15 (December 1991):

~ N.p., regarding the passage:

"He [J. D. Miller] played his first dance with Joseph Falcon and his Silver Bell Band which was playing at the Cow Island nightclub that lacked an electrified sound system. Although the group was billed as 'string' band, Miller recalls that it featured the Breaux Brothers, traditional Cajun musicians."

Update: I cannot locate the source of my statement that Miller played with Joseph Falcon and his Silver Bell Band. As such, I believe the passage in question should read:

"He played his first dance at a Cow Island nightclub that lacked an electrified sound system. Although the group was billed as 'string' band, Miller recalls that it featured the Breaux Brothers, traditional Cajun musicians."

From The Cajuns: Americanization of a People (2003):

~ Page xi, "Regardless, when I visited my Cajun grandparents on Crochet Street in Opelousas, I heard Cajun French."

Correction: "Crochet" should be "Crouchet."

~ Page xvii, I state that Cajuns were known to be reviled by local blacks as "Acadian n*****s"On closer examination, however, I see that the original 19th-century quote states, "the n******, when they want to express contempt for one of their own race, call him [a fellow black person] an Acadian n*****." In other words, blacks used this pejorative as a black-on-black insult, not as an anti-Cajun insult or expression of perceived Cajun non-whiteness. See A.R.W. [Alfred Rudolph Waud], "Acadians of Louisiana," Harper's Weekly, 20 October 1866, p. 670.

~ Page 121, "And in the 1956 film Bayou . . . Peter Graves battles a villainous south Louisiana rival for a Cajun belle played by scantily clad Italian starlet Lita Milan."

Correction: Despite her ethnic-sounding name (a pseudonym, it turns out), Lita Milan was not "Italian" but rather a Brooklyn-born American actress of Hungarian-Polish descent — real name Iris Menshell.

~ Passim, update: Because of changing views about race and racism I have as of spring 2021 asked my publisher, University Press of Mississippi, to obscure all instances of "the N word" in this book by using asterisks, dashes, or blank spaces. The word in question appears in pre-spring 2021 editions solely when the book quoted or cited racially offensive historical and archival material. Although printed in an academic context — that is, in a book based closely on my Ph.D. dissertation in History and published by a peer-reviewed academic press — future editions of the book will obscure the offensive word.

From Tabasco: An Illustrated History (2007):

The below revisions will appear in the 2nd edition of this book, tentatively to be published in 2019:

~ Page 34, "The plan called for lopping off the brick tower's third-floor lookout (an alteration that was never carried out)."

Update: The discovery of a previously unknown 1885 photograph of the structure in question — the original Tabasco Sauce factory — reveals that it began as a small one-story building and only later (probably after E. McIlhenny's death in 1890) became a much larger building with a tower. As such, the "plan" in question was apparently not to lop off the third floor of the brick tower, but to build a brick tower in the first place — a tower that in execution grew from two stories to three.

~ Page 37, "Edmund originally called his condiment 'Petite Anse Sauce,' but he changed the trademark after Judge Avery objected to this use of his plantation’s name. As a result, Edmund rechristened his product with the trademark 'Tabasco.'" . . .

Update: The discovery of a previously unknown letter abstract book belonging to E. McIlhenny not only confirmed that McIlhenny at one time called Tabasco Sauce by the name "Petite Anse Sauce," but clarified the chronology surrounding the early name change. In short, the book, in which McIlhenny wrote synopses of his outgoing mail, revealed that McIlhenny first used the brand name Tabasco Sauce, then changed it to Petite Anse Sauce, then returned to calling it Tabasco Sauce — the name that has been used ever since. All this occurred over a short period in 1868, the sauce's inaugural year as a commercial product.

~ Page 37, "From there steamboats carried it down Bayou Teche, across several coastal bays, against the current up Bayou Plaquemines, and down the Mississippi to New Orleans."

Update: New research indicates this is not the route that these steamboats would have followed. Rather, they would have taken a solely inland river route: down Bayou Teche and the Lower Atchafalaya River; up the Atchafalaya River proper; over the massive Atchafalaya Swamp through Old River; and finally down the Mississippi River to New Orleans.

~ Pages 70 and 72: "John in his Rough Riders uniform playing cards with family friends and fellow veterans Bert Fish and (in Civil War Zouave uniform) Latham Fish, Greenport, Connecticut, circa 1898. . . . John in a formal studio pose with family friends and fellow veterans Ed Fish, Latham Fish, unknown, and Bert Fish, circa 1898."

Correction: It is more correct to refer to the Fishes as "northern relatives" of the Averys and McIlhennys, rather than "family friends."

~ Page 79, "or take tea with Mr. and Mrs. Winston Churchill."

Update: It is now known this not a reference to Winston Churchill, the future British prime minister, but to the American novelist of the same name.

~ Page 98, image identified as that of Edward Avery McIlhenny "around age 5, circa 1877."

Update: I later found the child in this image to be Edward's younger brother, Rufus Avery McIlhenny. (An original print of the image bears the true identification; the annotation is by Mary Eliza Avery McIlhenny, Edward and Rufus' mother.)

~ Page 136, "the 1901 silent short [film] Aunt Jane's Experience with Tabasco Sauce. . . ."

Correction: This film was actually released a year earlier, in 1900.

~ Page 219, "He developed his 250-acre personal estate, Jungle Gardens, into a wholesale plant nursery. . . ."

Correction: Jungle Gardens is actually 170 acres in area.

From Cajuns and Their Acadian Ancestors: A Young Reader's History (2008):

~ Page 29, "The next year, a group of about three hundred exiles arrived in Louisiana under the guidance of a daring Acadian leader named Joseph Broussard did Beausoleil."

Correction: "About three hundred" should be "about two hundred".

From Teche: A History of Louisiana's Most Famous Bayou (2016):

~ Unnumbered page at beginning of book, on 
map of middle Teche region ("from Parks downstream to Franklin"), "Île Piquant".

Correction: The placename "Île Piquant" should be spelled "Île Piquante" (with an -e on the end of the second word) because "Île" is feminine in French and thus its adjective should correspond in gender. The placename does, however, sometimes appear in historical records as "Île Piquant."

~ Page 7, "songsmith Alfred Dieudonne. . . ."

Correction: "Alfred" should be "Albert". Same goes for his index entry (page 245). Also, to convey proper pronunciation Dieudonne should be rendered "Dieudonné" (with an accent over the final letter).

~ Page 18, "About a mile south of the Levant-St. John refinery lies St. Martinville."

Correction: "Levant-St. John" should be "Levert-St. John".

~ Page 28, "apparently unaware of Masse's death around 1785. . . ."

Update: Masse's succession is mentioned in Spanish judicial records of January 1785, thus explaining my assertion that Masse died "around 1785." I observed in my end notes, however, that "Donald J. Arceneaux has determined that Masse died after February 1772 but before January 1773" (see page 210, note 15). While I chose to defer to the judicial records, Donald has since pointed out that genealogist Winston De Ville found reference to Masse's succession in a document from 2 December 1772 — indicating that Masse died sometime before that date. So the phrase in question should read "apparently unaware of Masse's death around 1772. . . ." Source: Winston De Ville, Mississippi Valley Mélange, Volume 2 (Ville Platte, La.: Winston De Ville, 1996), page 39.

~ Page 53, "Drawing on his navigational skills, Gonsoulin stood in Nueva Iberia’s 'place d’armes' on the expedition’s first day, June 18, 1799, and confirmed the village’s latitude."

Correction: "1799" should be "1779".

~ Page 55, "The fifth major salt dome in the region, Jefferson Island, lay farther island. . . ."

Correction: The word "island" should be "inland".

~ Page 86, "Union map of the site of the Battle of Ft. Bisland, 1863, fought on both sites of the Teche near present-day Calumet."

Correction: "both sites" should be "both sides".

~ Page 116, "[But a]s the curtail fell, a happy bedlam broke loose in the audience."

Correction: "curtail" should be "curtain".

~ Page 223, regarding the source of "The Passing of Harry Mahoney, Negro Politician of Radical Days":

Update: In Endnote 18 of Chapter 4 I note that one of my sources, “The Passing of Harry Mahoney, Negro Politician of Radical Days,” is from a "typewritten transcript . . . of [an] article from [an] unidentified New Orleans newspaper." Researcher Judy Riffel has found, however, that the article originally appeared in the (New Orleans, La.) Times-Democrat, 28 September 1913, page 20. Despite the article's title, it is not an obituary, but a reference to Mahoney's ousting from office. (Mahoney died three years later, in 1916.)

*Source: Donald Foster, Professor of English, Vassar College, as quoted in William S. Niederkorn, "A Scholar Recants on His 'Shakespeare' Discovery," New York Times, 20 June 2002.