Monday, January 10, 2011


by Anne Butler

The St. Francisville, LA, area is fortunate to retain a number of magnificently restored plantation homes that welcome visitors throughout the year with an impressive picture of life as it was for the upper echelon of antebellum society in the South. But other structures---smaller, simpler---speak in quieter tones to teach a history lesson no less significant.
green sign
Historic green marker in front of Benevolent Society building.
One such structure is the tiny Old Benevolent Society just across Ferdinand St. from the tourist information center/museum in the midst of St. Francisville’s National Register-listed Historic District. Its small green historic marker designates this unassuming wood-frame shotgun house as the oldest black burial lodge in the parish, founded in 1883 by a gentleman whose grandson would more than a century later become president of the parish police jury. The small sign gives just the merest hint of the importance of benevolent societies in the turbulent aftermath of the Civil War, when slaves freed from bondage found few resources to fill needs hitherto addressed by masters on the plantations where they labored.
green sign
Historic Old Benevolent Society Hall on Ferdinand St.
(main street) St. Francisville, La.
The most important institution for freedmen in those days, of course, was the church, which struggled to provide not just spiritual but temporal comfort as well in the absence of social service organizations or insurance companies open to persons of color. The church offered sanctuary and socialization in addition to salvation. From tiny black churches sprang the soulful gospel music spiced by the cadences of African chants, the bountiful church suppers and shouting with the spirit, the homecomings and all the other traditional rituals treasured by black congregants to set them apart from the staid Protestant practices of their former owners.
And nearly every church had its benevolent society, officially incorporated under the direction of respected elders of the congregation. Preserved documents reveal that, while some of these church leaders laboriously wrote their names on deeds in the fanciful flowing script of the times, others, unlearned, simply signed with an X. But they all took their responsibilities seriously, for the benevolent societies they formed filled dire and pressing needs.
 With few other outside resources, these societies offered significant services to their members---sitting with the sick, caring for the infirm, feeding the weak, funding medical care, and finally covering the modest expenses of a decent burial as well.  The charter for the Poor Peoples Benevolent Society, filed August 20, 1904, before West Feliciana’s deputy clerk Eugene S. Muse and certified by District Attorney Robert C. Wickliffe, specified its purpose as being “to help and care for the sick and infirm, and the poor members of the society, and to bury the dead.”
green sign
Afton Villa Baptist Church
By July 1911 when the Union Reform Society applied before the same Eugene S. Muse for a charter, the corporation purposes had been considerably embellished. Article III of the incorporation papers stated: “The purposes for which this corporation is established and its objects are declared to be: To better the condition of its members by shaping their manners, and framing their characters by the promotion of honesty, good morals and the diffusion of knowledge among them; and to care for the sick members of the organization; to aid them in distress, to bury their dead, and generally to promote and foster Friendship, Love and Good Fellowship…under such rules and regulations as they may prescribe, subject to the Constitution and Laws of the State of Louisiana.” When the Greenwood Young Benevolent Society was chartered in July of 1913, the same goals were stipulated in the standardized incorporation papers, with the society given the power for the ensuing 99 years to establish bylaws, elect directors and officers, and also to enter into contracts and purchase property.
In 1920, for example, the Royal Benevolent Society, “incorporated under the Laws of the State of Louisiana and filed in the Parish of West Feliciana, at St. Francisville,” purchased from Morris Burgas a parcel of land on the Woodville and Bayou Sara Public Road, bounded on the north by property of St. Andrew Baptist Church. Fronting 50 feet on the Woodville Road, the property was purchased for $350, with $100 payable in cash and the balance in five notes of $50 each spread over the next five years, the mortgage secured by society president Emanuel Williams and Secretary William Wilkerson.
According to an 1877 issue of the early newspaper called the West Feliciana Sentinel, benevolent societies’ annual meetings could be elaborate affairs, if the description of that hosted by the Union Benevolent Society was any indication, involving as it did a 75-foot table groaning under the weight of “turkey, chicken, sugar-cured hams, deliciously barbecued beef, mutton and pig, flanked with vegetables, fruits and an extensive variety of dessert and generous supply of wines. To sum up, it was the finest ‘spread’ we have seen in many a long day, and reflected great credit upon our friends of the ‘Benevolents.’  We have frequently had occasion to mark the perfect order and decorum of the society when paying the last sad tribute to the dead, and the spontaneous manner in which they turn out upon such occasions. The objects of the association as set forth in their constitution and bylaws, and indeed, as evinced in their practical working, is (sic) to foster Christian love, union and peace, to attend and alleviate the sick, to administer to the wants of the destitute in feeding the hungry and clothing the naked, and to bury the dead…We wish them a hearty Godspeed in their noble efforts to subserve the ends of charity. In all their legitimate and reasonable undertakings the colored people of West Feliciana will find no warmer friend and supporter than the W.F. Sentinel.”
Rosedown Baptist Church baptismal
While some benevolent societies met in their own small separate structures, others gathered in church halls. Some churches even had more than one society, as did Afton Villa Baptist Church, oldest black church in West Feliciana, founded in 1871 when Mrs. Susan Barrow of Afton Villa Plantation donated a small piece of land for the purpose of erecting a church and school. Mrs. Barrow had an abiding concern for providing formalized religious instruction and education to the black residents of the area, and they in turn had grown increasingly reluctant to be dominated by former masters in matters of religion, giving rise to the large number of black Baptist congregations in an area previously dominated by Anglican worship practices in this section called Louisiana’s English plantation country.
Violet Pate, octogenarian historian and lifelong congregant of Afton Villa Baptist Church, recounts some of the old-time practices there---the pond baptisms with white-clad candidates liberally immersed and cleansed of sin, the wake services as congregants sat up throughout the night with the deceased who’d been transported to church in a big black glass-windowed mule-drawn wagon, the “veiling” of the seat of deceased church officers. Mrs. Pate recalls the old folks walking barefoot along dirt roads, lanterns lighting their way at night, cleaning their feet with rags before putting on shoes to enter the church.
There were two benevolent societies in the church, the older Afton Villa Benevolent Society dating from 1905 and the Willing Workers society begun by some of the younger men around 1935. Violet Pate explains that these societies filled many needs such as sitting with the sick, plus covering a specified number of doctor visits, prescriptions and ambulance trips per year out of the dues paid by several hundred members; Willing Workers dues began at 25 cents a month, but have risen to $5. 
While the Willing Workers society still has about a hundred members, the Afton Villa Benevolent Society has disbanded, and only a few other churches maintain their societies. Their services, after all, are no longer so vitally necessary, with today’s equal access to standard insurance coverage for medical and funeral costs.
West Feliciana Sentianel newspaper dated Aug. 11, 1877
The tiny Old Benevolent Society building, too, has seen better days, its horse-drawn black hearse no longer housed in a tin shelter behind it, the woeful wagon that transported the deceased to burial grounds, mourners walking behind, women in white, carrying candles. Over the years, several ideas have been floated for using the building, perhaps to house exhibits on black history and culture, but there has never been agreement on just what modern-day usage would be appropriate or viable. However, the structure deserves to be preserved as a reminder of the significant role benevolent societies played in southern black society of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Located on US Highway 61 on the Mississippi River between Baton Rouge, LA, and Natchez, MS, the St. Francisville area is a year-round tourist destination, but visitors find it especially enjoyable in the winter when the glorious 19th-century gardens are filled with blooming camellias.  While the Old Benevolent Society can be seen only from the outside, a number of splendidly restored plantation homes are open for tours daily: the Cottage Plantation, Butler Greenwood Plantation, the Myrtles Plantation, Greenwood Plantation, plus Catalpa Plantation by reservation and Afton Villa Gardens seasonally. Particularly important to tourism in the area are its two significant state historic sites, Rosedown Plantation and Oakley Plantation in the Audubon state site, which offer fascinating living-history demonstrations most weekends to allow visitors to experience 19th-century plantation life and customs.
The nearby Tunica Hills region offers unmatched recreational activities in its unspoiled wilderness areas—hiking, biking, birding, photography, hunting. There are unique art galleries plus specialty and antiques shops, many in restored historic structures, and some fine little restaurants throughout the St. Francisville area serving everything from soul food to Chinese and Mexican cuisine, seafood and classic Louisiana favorites. For overnight stays, the area offers some of the state’s most popular Bed & Breakfasts, including historic plantations, lakeside clubhouses and beautiful townhouses right in the middle of St. Francisville’s extensive National Register-listed historic district, and there are also modern motel accommodations for large bus groups.
For visitor information, call St. Francisville Main Street at 225-635-3873 or West Feliciana Tourist Commission at 225-635-4224; online visit (the events calendar gives dates and information on special activities, including the lively monthly third Saturday morning Community Market Day in Parker Park) or