What Happened Next
Making the Most of Opportunities
Sweet Home Folklife Days
Sometimes historians and cultural conservators
employed by federal, state, and local entities
are so enmeshed in gathering, interpreting,
and sharing information, they can easily
lose sight of the real people and communities
behind the stories. What do local residents see as important parts of their heritage? What do they want to share with others and what are their concerns about sharing? A group of community and state representatives in Louisiana discovered that by working from the bottom up to document traditions, they got to the true roots of
the culture and learned how to best share it.
In 1996, the Louisiana Office of Tourism established a Heritage Tourism Development Program that had, as one of its aims,
identification and documentation of the diversity of cultures in the state. Upon the request of the Tangipahoa Parish Tourism Commission, the tourism office teamed with the Louisiana Field Office of the National Park Service (NPS) through its Rivers, Trails and Conservation Assistance (RTCA) program to establish the Highway 51 Corridor Task Force. The Task Force, consisting of representatives from communities along the corridor, conducted inventories and assessments along the 51-mile route from the north shore of Lake Pontchartrain (New Orleans) to the Mississippi border, planning to use the information gathered to develop a tourism strategy for the region. But traditional assessment methods stalled progress. Sharon Calcote of the Office of Tourism and Robert Vernon of RTCA felt that the Task Force wasn’t getting at the cultural and historical heart of the corridor. In other words, the true
heritage and cultural identity of the area was still a well-kept secret among the local residents.
To tackle the problem, the Task Force brought in folklorist Laura Westbrook. Westbrook’s task was to interview and identify residents who maintain aspects of traditional life and customs that are passed on within families and communities. These are living, ongoing traditions in music, crafts, cuisine, and lore that persist as subcultures to the broader, more recognized ways of American life.
Based on Westbrook’s surveys, the Task Force selected Kentwood along Highway 51 for further work with residents to identify and document their traditions. African American residents in Kentwood had already created their own memorial to their past in the Sweet Home Baptist Missionary Church Museum. Westbrook helped this segment of the small Tangipahoa Parish town recognize that they considered their traditions as things of the past, things that used to be done. And, although many of these folkways were still practiced by the older residents, they weren’t being passed on. Through the interview and discovery process, the people realized they wanted to not only preserve their traditional ways but to perpetuate them by sharing them with others.
“We were told we were unique. We didn’t know we were unique,” explains Ms. Fochia Varnado Wilson, a former school principal who is the Sweet Home Museum curator and a respected community matriarch. “We were ashamed that we were brought up the way we were. We were embarrassed because we were poor. Then we learned that these things—the things we know—and the things we do—are special. And we want to pass them on to our younger generations so they don’t die out with us.”
The seed was sown. The Sweet Home community asked the Highway 51 Task Force leaders to help them document their heritage to prevent its loss as older generations passed away. But asking and receiving are two different things. Small communities aren’t always receptive to outsiders and new ways of thinking. And local politics and jealousies can be as cumbersome to overcome as distrust and fear. There was a lot more work to be done than just documenting dying folk traditions.
|“In my own field work, I incorporate the ambiance of the community by
working closely with the people who live there. Talking to local people I learn
a different perspective and I find that in many cases the locals know much
more about what the community wants than the traditional civic and public
leaders. Someone just needs to ask and listen.”
— Sharon Calcote, Louisiana Office of Tourism
What Happened Next
As the partners in the Highway 51 Task Force can now tell you, you don’t just walk into a small, close-knit community rife with racial and political tensions and expect to unlock its secrets. Folks aren’t going to open up and tell all about their customs and traditions just because you think it’s a noble cause to record them. Questioning from outsiders often breeds suspicion and distrust. As Calcote remembers, the attitude among the people at Sweet Home was, “So who are you and what do you want?” Only through gradual acceptance were the outsiders let in, not just physically, but emotionally. It began with finding the right contact, the one person who commands respect from all segments of the Kentwood community. She was found in the person of
Ms. Fochia Wilson.
“The key to the African American community was placing the project leadership in the hands of Ms. Fochia. When she is in charge, the information floodgates open. Through both earned trust and gained respect, the African American community of Sweet Home cracked the window and let us in,” explains Calcote.
Although the process took time, far more information than had been hoped for was eventually shared and gathered. The Task Force originally conceived of this project as a way to capture dying folk traditions in cooking and home remedies. But the program took on a life of its own through the exchange of ideas and the residents’ shared stories about everything from toy-making and music, to woodworking and sewing. The Sweet Home ladies, as the Task Force came to know them, took this project completely to heart and began unearthing traditions and stories long buried as unworthy or shameful, dusting them off, and not only holding them up for personal review, but seeing them in the light of new eyes on a distant past. The Sweet Home ladies decided to develop demonstrations and workshops to showcase their culture to their children and to visitors.
In early 1998, with help from Calcote and Betty Stewart, executive director of the Tangipahoa Parish Tourism Commission, the African American community in Kentwood applied for a grant from the Louisiana Division of the Arts to organize the first Sweet Home Folklife Days.
Because the Sweet Home ladies were unaccustomed to public speaking or demonstrations, they decided to hold a dress rehearsal in May that, while open to the public, was promoted in only a limited fashion. The participants were able to practice storytelling, cooking or explaining their crafts to the public, and the organizers were able to work out kinks in logistics.
October 16 and 17, 1998 marked the first Sweet Home Folklife Days. Kentwood’s African American community opened its doors to its own and to anyone else who wanted to see demonstrations in everything from broom making and quilting to cooking and baking. Traditional cooking was explored and samples offered
of such Sweet Home staples as sweet potato tarts, syrup bread, and chicken pie. Dis-cussion panels explored time-honored traditions in daily life, storytellers passed down family folklore, and gospel performers from eight local churches filled the air with soul-stirring music. Approx-imately 1,000 people attended the event —an event celebrating traditions once considered embarrassing
and of no value.
Folklife Days proved so popular and such a strong community pride-builder that the Sweet Home ladies took complete ownership of the project from that moment on, producing another two annual programs, a turn of events that has created pride in their sponsors, as well. “So often you help build a project then turn it over to the local organizers and just hope they won’t let it go,” says Betty Stewart. “But the Sweet Home folks have embraced the entire project and made it their own. They require less and less help from our office each year, turning to us now mostly for our marketing assistance.”
A self-sustaining event, Sweet Home Folklife Days continues to reach out to local African American churches to involve those congregations and keep the workload manageable. In 1998 the program was a satellite venue for Southeastern Louisiana University’s annual month-long celebration of the arts known as Fanfare. The importance of this designation
cannot be stressed enough, explains Stewart, who says that “to be considered for Fanfare’s calendar you have to be a significant cultural event.”
Making the Most of Opportunities
Collaborate: Racial and political tensions are still a reality for many communities, and Kentwood is no exception. To combat this, Task Force leaders held meetings that involved all the people—Sweet Home members as well as town leaders—to distribute duties equitably. Since the event showcased African American folklife, the black community concentrated on their presentations, panel discussions, show-and-tell, and selling folklife items at the event. White community members supported the folklife festival by taking care of logistics including parking, security, insurance and traffic control.
Find the Fit between the Community and Tourism: In this process of going directly to the community and finding out what matters to them, tourism developers are producing a product
created by the locals for the locals, says Calcote. “It was not something developed to merely attract visitors, but something of real importance to the community itself.” The conversations with locals allowed Task Force members to better understand the community’s sense of values and allowed the community to decide what part and how much of itself it wanted to share with outsiders.
Make Sites and Programs Come Alive: It doesn’t get much more alive than
this. Gospel singing, home cooking, doll-making, apron-sewing, woodworking, broom making and storytelling activities fill all the senses during the two days that Sweet Home presents its Folklife Days. Participants and visitors interact on a personal basis and
traditions and legends are passed directly from one person to another.
Focus on Quality and Authenticity: Louisiana’s new tourism development model, fashioned directly from experiences gained through the Sweet Home Folklife Days, is more effective than
traditional methods because it takes an anthropological approach, says Calcote. It is a cultural tourism method based on the real lives of real people. “The strength of this process,” explains Calcote, “is that communities, regardless of racial, ethnic, social or economic factors, can develop a tourism product in its natural setting. Culture does not need to be borrowed or built.” The real life experiences provide the authenticity for heritage tourism.
Preserve and Protect Resources: Preserving and protecting the endangered folkways, or folk traditions, of
the Sweet Home congregation was the foundation of the entire tourism effort that succeeded it. Through the program, the Sweet Home congregation is not only preserving its folkways, but is teaching indigenous crafts, life skills, music, and cooking traditions to new generations.
- Of real significance is the improved
relationship between the black and white communities in Kentwood. Tangible
evidence of this bridged
gap came in the form of
funds granted by the
to the Sweet Home
Museum for physical
restoration of the aging
- Recognition and
appreciation of the
increased; demonstrations and educational workshops
are expanding into the schools and into other Highway 51 Corridor museums.
- While modest, there has been some
economic benefit to Kentwood through expenditures at local businesses by both festival planners and attendees.
- The Sweet Home Gospel Choir has been invited to sing in France as part of a sister city effort.
- Another project along the Highway 51 Corridor has been completed. Based on the principles used by Sweet Home, it
documents and records the Italian-American tradition of the St. Joseph Altar in Independence, Louisiana.
- Since Sweet Home’s success, the major daily newspaper for the Highway 51 corridor in Louisiana is taking up the cause of finding and celebrating local heritage by printing a weekly page called “Route 51,” which highlights activities and businesses along the route. A new museum has opened in Amite that uses revolving exhibits to depict historical and cultural aspects of
the parish. New businesses are opening along Highway 51 and the route is being landscaped and beautified in various
communities through which it passes.
Click here for Story Credits
National Trust for Historic Preservation ®
What Happened Next
Making Most of Opportunities