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Tuesday, June 14, 2016

The Story of the "Labat: A Creole Legacy" Quilt

Chance meetings can result in amazing things. In 2000, Artist Lori K. Gordon and 102-year-old Celestine Labat met at a Hancock County Historical Society luncheon where Labat was the featured speaker. Gordon writes of their meeting:

Completely captivated by the grace, composure and presence of Ms. Celestine Labat, I went home and immediately began making phone calls in order to arrange an introduction. Later that week, I made what was to be the first of many visits to her family home.

With Labat’s permission, Gordon began sketching and drawing her, then recording memories of Labat’s childhood and long life. The transcripts of Celestine Labat’s interviews are remarkable in their exquisite detail. Stories she told, along with pictures of her, her family, and community, became the art quilt titled Labat: A Creole Legacy. Measuring 7.5” x 9.5”, the quilt is composed of hundreds of photographs and lines of text transferred onto cloth squares, which are hand-sewn to a backing cloth. Lori Gordon’s art quilt was exhibited locally and in 2004 was donated to the Anacostia Community Museum along with the project records.

Lori K. Gordon
Visual artist Lori K. Gordon (1958- ) grew up in eastern South Dakota and moved to Bay St. Louis, Mississippi, where she met Celestine Labat. Her art reflects her engagement with social issues and her environment. Gordon’s work includes sculpture, collage, and painting, and has been collected worldwide. She is also the founder and president of Six Degrees Consortium, a nonprofit organization created to "enable the creation and dissemination of works of art that are socially relevant, timely, build bridges across cultures and that address the issues faced by humans in an ever-shrinking world." Gordon’s work can be found on her blog, where she has more information about the Labat Project.

The Life and Community of Celestine Labat
Celestine Vivian “Teenie” Labat (1898-2002), whose life provided material for the quilt, was born and raised in Bay St. Louis, Mississippi, a Gulf Coast town with a large Creole community, both white and African American. Her family was of African, white, and Choctaw heritage. The family traced their name back to her grandfather, Joseph Labat I, who arrived in Convent, Louisiana, from Martinique. Celestine was the fifth of her parents’ thirteen children, two of whom died in infancy.

Labat grew up in a world without cars – automobiles did not arrive in the area until “the late teens or early twenties.” Labat’s deeply Catholic community celebrated holidays like Immaculate Conception Day (December 8th) and Assumption Day (August 15th), and did not celebrate the 4th of July or sing the national anthem. Her parent’s generation spoke French fluently; Labat’s generation was encouraged not to speak French, but used an English with many French and French-derived words for everyday things. Her family’s diet included the fish, crabs, oysters, and ducks that her father and brother caught and brought back for the family.

Detail from "Labat:  A Creole Legacy" by Bay St. Louis, Mississippi artist Lori K. Gordon.
Labat: A Creole Legacy
Project records, Anacostia Community Museum Archives, Smithsonian Institution, gift of Lori K. Gordon.
Celestine Labat’s education would have been limited to eighth grade due to racial discrimination, but she moved to Indianapolis and did domestic work in order to support herself while she finished high school. Her oldest sister Inez, who later became a school principal, supported the other Labat children in attaining the highest level of education they desired. Their education enabled them to meet several famous black leaders in education and civil rights. Labat recalls James Weldon Johnson coming to dinner, and a memory of staying a night in Mary McCleod Bethune’s house.

After graduation, she returned to Mississippi and became a secondary school teacher. She moved to Washington, DC, during WWII and received a bachelor’s degree in science from Howard University. She moved to San Antonio, Texas, then Los Angeles, California, where she got her master’s degree in education at the University of Southern California. She again returned to Mississippi and taught at St. Augustine Seminary for twenty years before retiring at age 72.

In her reminiscences, Labat talks frankly about the ways that racism affected her community, from the segregated seating of her local church, to losing homes to predatory white officials, to the unprosecuted murder of a family friend by a white man. Describing her sister Inez’ experience, Labat says:

 She had to ride in the colored coaches and in the backs of the buses. She was a schoolteacher and   very classy and she resented segregation. She resented it most in the Catholic Church; she didn’t want to go to St. Rose, she didn’t want segregation in the church so she kept going to Our Lady of the Gulf. We were born there, we made our first communion there. We were educated in the Catholic schools through the sixth grade, all of us, but there was some repugnance on her. We resented the segregation in the church too.

Labat did feel that significant social progress had been made on racism. Gordon spoke to her before she died, and recounts that

[Labat] felt a deep satisfaction that the color of a person’s skin no longer meant what it had for many of the years of her life. She said that as a young person, she never would have dreamed of seeing the day when she would have so many friends of all races.

Celestine Labat’s generosity in sharing her story turned a chance meeting with Gordon into a partnership to create a unique piece of art. “Labat: A Creole Legacy” is a window into one accomplished woman’s life, and into the proud history of a Gulf Coast Creole community.

Katie Seitz, Volunteer 2016
Anacostia Community Museum Archives

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