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Black History Month: How a former slave became a political giant and went on to establish Southern

5 months 9 hours 54 minutes ago Friday, February 16 2024 Feb 16, 2024 February 16, 2024 6:18 AM February 16, 2024 in Black History Month
Source: WBRZ

In St. John Parish, where plantations are not hard to find, there is some hidden history in the village of Wallace.

“The community of Wallace was established by self-emancipated enslaved to join the Union army encampment, " said Jo Banner, founder and director of area non-profit, The Descendants Project.

At the Fifolet Cafe, Banner and her twin sister, Dr. Joy Banner, are on a mission to preserve Wallace's history, including one man’s story.

“All the universities in the state should be talking about this person because he established such an important educational opportunity for Black people who did not have any, and my goal is to have that recognized,” she continued.

While researching for The Descendants Project, Banner learned about Henry Demas, one of the founders of Southern University.

“I've been a fan of his for almost five decades because it was very interesting that a slave, a former slave, would rise to such prominence,” explained Dr. Charles Vincent, a historian.

Vincent says Henry Demas was born enslaved in 1847 on a physician's plantation in St. John Parish and escaped to join the Union army at just 15 or 16 years old.

“He would be a constable, police juror, then he defeated another incumbent former slave, a gentleman named Dennis Burrell, for the representative seat, and he would serve as a representative for 8 years, then after that, he would serve as a state senator for 20 years,” said Vincent.

As public education got its first boost during reconstruction, Demas, along with former governor P.B.S. Pinchback, found funding to establish Southern University in New Orleans.

“Southern University came out of the constitutional convention of 1879," Vincent continued. "Reconstruction ended two years prior to that and they were trying to wrestle something that could go forward. They could see what was coming, and they were exactly right."

After Reconstruction, Black politicians quickly began losing their prominence, and Jim Crow violence was rampant.

“Quite a political maneuver to stay in power for such a long time and [he was] taken out of politics after the 1896 state election when Jim Crow was at its height," Vincent said. "They just counted him out regardless of what the votes were.

"They said, 'you think you won, you come to the courthouse and claim your seat,’ and violence was all over the place."

Since reopening in Scotlandville in 1914, Southern University has become the nation's only HBCU system.

After he died in April of 1900, Demas was buried in St. John the Baptist Parish, and according to Jo Banner, that makes the town of Wallace worth protecting. 

“We're also researching his descendants and trying to find as many people as we can to show the validity of Wallace to agencies who would normally see that," Banner said.

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