“Terrebonne Parish was the leader in green energy,” declared Dr. Chris Cenac with a smile, referring to the palmetto-thatched houses and shrimp camps of late 19th century southeast Louisiana.
Although joking, his comment resonated as I visited the Cenac collection of memorabilia, equipment and photographs currently on view at Nicholls State University Library. Indeed, this organized visual and written record of south Louisiana, a story rooted in one family, represents the history of many, and recalls a time when we built our houses from the land, formed our legacy around oysters and sugar cane, and appreciated the swamp more than the grocery store.
In fact, as I studied the collection, I thought of the new downtown Rouses Market and its variety of andouille, wall of mirlitons, and oysters-by-the-gallon, as I learned from Cenac’s history of oyster sheds and ‘dancing the shrimp.’ On my first visit to Rouses this past weekend, I was ‘Dahlin’d’ and ‘Cher’d’ throughout the store, all to the beat of Cajun music, the legacy of a people that love the swamps and nurture their culture based on everything natural offered by Louisiana.
The story, however, recorded not only within this exhibition, but also within the book Eyes of an Eagle: Jean-Pierre Cenac, Patriarch, is hardly a fairytale. Photographs, ledgers and articles abound, recounting slavery, bigotry and child labor. The history is one of endurance, as Child Labor Laws enforced Mandatory School Laws, so that eventually, although not prohibiting child labor, many children received an education, even as, beginning at age four, they worked in the oyster sheds after school.
When Dr. Cenac initially described to me his family's account and book of Terrebonne Parish (or, as he corrected me, “Southeast Louisiana, South Central Louisiana, and the Cenac Family”), I smiled politely and congratulated him, even as an image formed in my mind of yet another dry, unedited paperback memoir.
I could not have misjudged this ten-year project more. The book is an elegant coffee-table tome, an immigrant family’s story illustrated with Louisiana (and Acadian) paintings, photographs, furniture, tools and meticulous records, including newspaper articles, maps, currency, personal letters, ledgers and marriage certificates, all reproduced with sharp, full-color printing and accompanied by an insightful and well-researched text.
Within the exhibition, as I studied documents and correspondence, I thought about the death of handwriting and how reading this beautiful script, so common at the time, morphs rapidly into a specialized field, leaving future Americans unable to read the Declaration of Independence, the Louisiana Purchase, and the simplest of family records.
Accordingly, as much as Cenac’s book is a Louisiana story, it is also an American one. In 1860 Jean-Pierre Cenac, a Frenchman from the hills above Bordeaux, sailed from France to America. From Eyes of an Eagle:
“Neither Creole nor Acadian, Jean-Pierre Cenac took his chances in the rural parish of Terrebonne on the coast of the Gulf of Mexico.
“How did it feel to leave the Old Country, alone, to come to a new land? What induced the decision to endure a treacherous journey to settle in a place completely unknown?
“Almost every American can ask these questions about some ancestor who left the familiar for the unfamiliar, the certain for the uncertain.”
The Cenac collection, on view at the Nicholls State University Ellender Memorial Library until January 30th, 2012, remains housed and protected permanently within the university’s archives. Thanks to the efforts of Dr. and Mrs. Christopher Cenac, Sr. and their family, along with Claire Domangue Joller and Dr. Carl A. Brasseaux, this magnificent book, the perfect Louisiana holiday gift, is available for $50 at your favorite bookstore.
Wendy Rodrigue (a.k.a. Dolores Pepper)