(The following is a carefully researched but only partially authenticated history of one of Lafayette's most fascinating neighborhoods.  The history has been compiled over a ten-year span from multiple sources including the memories and family histories of many of Lafayette's oldest African-American families.  It has been compiled by various journalists, ministers, historians and University researchers who continue to seek out the lost stories of the last one and one-half centuries:)
 


HISTORY OF FREETOWN AND THE GOOD HOPE HALL

 
In the years before the Civil War, it was possible for the enslaved African-Americans of the South to purchase their own freedom, in many different ways, including through extra forms of work done on what was normally their own time.  Additionally, as various planter
s became fond of their workers, some of the older African-Americans were set free in return for good service rendered over several decades.  Ultimately, before the Civil War in the 1840's and 1850's, in the Town of Vermillionville (a town which was later to become the City of Lafayette) these "free men of color" settled in a newly engineered subdivision known as the "Mouton Addition". The Mouton Addition was populated by a heterogeneous mixture of lower and middle class Caucasians and Free Men of Color.  Nonetheless, because of the presence there of the freed African-Americans, the Mouton Addition became known, in the years immediately preceding the Civil War as "Freetown".  The land used for the "Mouton Addition" had been part of the plantation of Governor Alexandre Mouton, and many of the "free men of color" had worked on that plantation, called “Ile Copal”.  Alexander Mouton was the son of Jean Mouton, founder of Vermillionville.  The plantation faced the Vermilion River and was on the site of the present LeRosen School on Pinhook Road.

With the end of the Civil War, slavery ended in the South and the newly freed slaves sought the counsel of the older "free men of color" who peopled the Mouton Addition at the time.  As a result, the "free men of color" lent their experience in living at liberty to their newly freed brethren.  The livelihood of choice at that time was tenement farming the fields east of the city near the area known as Pinhook Road.  Many of the newly freed slaves also settled in "Freetown" and a common bond quickly developed between the original "free men of color" and the newly freed slaves. The original free families of the area became leaders of their communities for multiple generations that followed and set the stage for a very rich history and a tradition of significant achievement during times of heroic struggle for their race. The original “Freetown” families included the Martins, James’, Moutons, Figaros and Cocos, names that still play a very prominent role in Acadiana today.

With the advent shortly after the Civil War of the white-sheeted riders known as the Knights of the Klu Klux Klan and the Riders of the White Camelia, and with the terror which followed the Klansman for all of the black community, the "free men of color" brought their brethren together for the purpose of forming a mutual defense against the Klan.  To give impetus to their cause they named their organization the "True Friends Society", a group committed to the mutual defense of one another in the face of terrorism by the Klansmen.  Documentation reveals that the intelligence network of the "True Friends Society" was frequently able to determine the planned next strike of the Klan and circumvented these strikes by gathering at the homestead of the black family to be targeted.  Pitched battles with pick-axes, shovels and sharpened farm implements as well as pistols and muskets occurred for over a decade during this period and hastened the demise of the Klan.  Ultimately, the “True Friends Society” played a major role in limiting Klan activity for the decades that followed in the area that ultimately would come to be called “Acadiana”. As a direct result of this historic stand, racial tension in southwest Louisiana was greatly reduced, with many beneficial effects, including the admission of African-American students at the local university, Southwestern Louisiana Institute (SLI) in the mid 1940's. The significance of the admission of racial minorities into this “white” university a decade before Brown vs. Board of Education (the U.S. Supreme Court landmark case) cannot be overstated.

As the original "free men of color" aged into the 1870's and 1880's, Klan activity became very minimal and the bond of the "True Friends Society" was no longer as imperative.  During that time, the wives and daughters of the original "free men of color" came to the fore and slowly, over the course of several years, orchestrated a change in the fabric of the Society from one of “mutual defense” to one of “public welfare”.  These wives and daughters of the "free men of color" attended the sick, planned the celebrations and weddings and orchestrated the social agenda of the African-American community in Lafayette.  Ultimately, the "True Friends Association" was chartered in 1883, and at a time when the nation had no personal income tax for social and welfare programs, this Association very well served those purposes for the African-American community of Vermilionville.  A segment of the membership of the Association, looking forward to the last two decades of the 19th century and hoping that the good life they sought would one day be theirs, formed a similar benevolent group known as the "Good Hope Society".  These two groups became the leaders of the African-American community and its cultural well being into the 20th century.  To commemorate the founding of the "Good Hope Society" they built their meeting place, Good Hope Hall, in 1902 at its current location, the corner of Gordon and Stewart Streets in the Mouton Addition.  Origina
lly built on Lot 361 of the "Mouton Addition", the Hall was placed on property inherited by Mathilde Mouton directly from the succession of Alexandre Mouton.

While the historically significant building is now popularly known as “Good Hope Hall”, it was known originally as “True Friends Hall”, having been built originally by the True Friends Association.  The Association bought the lot on which they constructed their building from Mathilde Mouton on July 2, 1902, for $250.  The Association went into debt to build the structure and to furnish it.  On July 2, 1904, the Association was reorganized and through their agent, Orther C. Mouton purchased the lot and buildings, giving a mortgage on July 5, 1904, in the amount of $1,200 on the property to Isaac Bendel.  However, the Association was unable to pay its debt, and on September 17, 1910, the property was sold at public auction with Bendel buying the property.  Bendel sold the True Friends Hall on January 15, 1913, to the Good Hope Society for $3,400.  At the same time, this Society sold Lot No. 51 in the Second Mouton Addition to Bendel for $200.  The Good Hope Society was able to retain the property for most of the twentieth century, until May 19, 1977, when they sold it to Patrick Prudhomme for $22,000.

Originally, the building served as a meeting hall and a place for wedding receptions and celebrations.  It was also a place for religious worship and ultimately became a Catholic Church.  The wives and daughters of the original "free men of color" perpetuated the benevolent causes of the "Good Hope Society" in the Mouton Addition at a time when federal and state financed assistance programs did not exist.  As such, the families in the Mouton Addition were close-knit and depended upon one another to an extent, which was seldom seen in other communities in the South following the Civil War.  Good Hope Hall continued in these uses until it was partially destroyed in the teen years of the twentieth century by a hurricane, which blew a portion of the structure over.  As originally built, Good Hope Hall had been a two-story building, the top floor of which was destroyed by the aforementioned hurricane.  The "Good Hope Society" rebuilt Good Hope Hall as a single story building on high brick piers, its current composition to
day.

In the roaring twenties and the depression of the thirties, Good Hope Hall became one of the truly great jazz halls of America as all of the great jazz artists from across the country played there regularly.  Included in this list of impressive figures in the early days of jazz were Louie Armstrong and Fats Pinchon.  It also was the center for orchestras and bands from all over Louisiana, as well as out-of-state touring bands of great repute.  Tradition has it that whenever a dance was scheduled for Good Hope Hall that evening, the trumpeter of the jazz band to play there would climb to the upper gallery of the structure, blow his horn for several minutes and thereby nnounce to the entire community in the downtown area some blocks away that things would be lively that evening at Good Hope Hall.  When those evenings came around, the African-American community in the Mouton Addition entered their meeting hall, Good Hope Hall, and enjoyed the jazz music in raucous dance and merriment while many members of the Caucasian community gathered outside in the streets to listen to the superb strands of jazz music filtering out from within.  Perhaps in all America, this was the only corner in the 1920's and 1930's where African-Americans were the only ones permitted inside while the white community was left out in the street.  The building was truly a "jazz mecca" for nearly twenty years, drawing both jazz groups and orchestras and bands from all over Louisiana as well as out-of-state touring bands.  The building often saw "double-headed" sessions, with a band playing at one end of the hall while another played the same tune at the opposite end.  Some of the spectators swore that music "rocked the building".
One of these bands, The Black Eagle Band of Crow
ley, with Evan Thomas as trumpet player, would often play at Good Hope Hall.  George “Country-Boy” Benoit, a community resident who had moved to "Freetown" from Long Plantation off what is now the Kaliste Saloom Road area of Lafayette to become a barber in the city, recalled vividly that Thomas in particular would get out on the upper gallery, raise his trumpet to his lips and blow.  "It could be heard all over town," Benoit recalled, "and folks would know there'd be a dance that night".  Benoit ultimately set up his barber shop within the hall and operated there for many years, until he moved across Stewart Street to set his shop up "on the corner" where he operated it until his death at the age of ninety-seven in 1989.  At the end, he was still charging $2.50 for haircuts he once gave for 25¢.

The tantalizing music of jazz musicians drew untold numbers of the community, both black and white, to the hall to enjoy the entertainment for nearly two decades.  Among the area bands that played at Good Hope Hall were the Victory Band of New Iberia, the Dawn A
lbert Orchestra of Charenton and the Black Devils of Plaquemine.  New Orleans jazz musicians and their bands came to Lafayette to play on railroad excursions, when tickets were 50 cents one way and one dollar for the round trip.  The seventeen-piece New York City band of Walter Bond played Good Hope Hall when they were on tour.  From Lafayette, they went to Georgia where all were burned to death in a dancehall fire.  Local historian L. C. Melchior recalled that this was the band that had, for many years, backed up such national music figures as Fats Waller, Ethel Waters, Nobel Sissle and Eubie Blake.  Other bands that played the Hall included McKinney's Cotton Pickers out of Detroit, the biggest black band of the 1920's and 1930's, and Fats Pinchon from the New Orleans Absinthe House.  Not as well known at the time, but also a regular fixture at Good Hope Hall was a young up and comer named Louie Armstrong.  The use of Good Hope Hall as an entertainment center declined in the late 1930's, when "Economy Hall" was built on Washington Street for similar purposes.  Ironically, however, that building was razed while the edifice it sought to replace, still stands and enjoys renewed life.

Jazz recitals at Good Hope Hall ended with the beginning of World War II and the building sat dormant during the war years.  Thereafter, it was converted once again into a Catholic Church where Mass in the Mouton Addition was preached each Sunday.  The building was cared for by the various deacons of the Freetown community, the great-grandchildren of the original "free men of color".  The neighborhood remained one of close-knit friendship and acquaintance throughout the first half of the century.


In the early 1950's, Good Hope Hall ceased to function as St. Paul's Catholic Church when the brick "Good Hope Chapel" was built directly behind it.  Good Hope Hall then functioned as a place for wedding receptions and continued meetings of the "Good Hope Society".  In the 1960's and 1970's, the building served a combination of uses including the USL Community Theatre, the Good Hope Printing Company and the Good Hope Cabinet & Carpentry Company.  In 1977 Patrick Prudhomme, a local businessman, who sought to make it a community theater once again, purchased it.  His efforts failed, however, and in 1981 he sold the structure to a pair of young attorneys, Gary Steckler and Glenn Armentor, who sought to make the building their law office.  It has thus been all things to the people of good hope, to Vermilionville and to Lafayette:  a pool hall, a barbershop, a saloon, a dance hall, St. Paul's Chapel, a hospital, a site of weddings and family gatherings, a print shop, a carpentry and furniture restoration shop, an art studio, a vaudeville theater and the trial facility of lawyers.

Today, Good Hope Hall represents the best of both its storied past and its immensely hopeful future.  One of Lafayette's preeminent law firms has grown within its walls and expanded into a major annex, historically designed to match the original building in both materials and appearance, which now brings the building to nearly 11,000 square feet.  Manicured grounds, inlaid brick parking lots, wrought iron fencing and professional landscaping have all added an ambiance that have re-established Good Hope Hall to its former grandeur.  The future holds plans for expansion to previously unimagined proportions.  Massive additions to Good Hope Hall will triple its size by the early years of the 21st century.  A quadrangle-promenade green area enveloping the entire block across Stewart Street from the Hall, replete with bricked walking paths, water bodies, fountains, plantings indigenous to the area and raised staging areas will serve as the site for a centrally located monument to the history and achievements of the "free men of color", of Freetown and of Good Hope Hall.  The base of the monument will tell the entire history of the area, reciting specific histories of community families.  At thirty-seven feet in height, the monument is projected to be one of the tallest in the South, and is expected to become one of Lafayette's main tourist attractions after its opens, as projected, in 2010.  As important will be the large water element and fountain fronting the monument, which will memorialize those tragic African slaves lost at sea, as well as the inlaid brick pathway between Good Hope Hall and the Freetown Monument, which will memorialize the journey of the African slaves to their new home in America.


Finally, plans are in place for a third phase to be added to Good Hope Hall, which will enclose the old building into a “horseshoe” shape that will encompass, at its final completion, over twenty-five thousand square feet of professional offices, sophisticated trial technology and planning areas, conference rooms and libraries, multiple kitchens and common areas, soaring atriums and balconies and additional highly landscaped grounds throughout the area.


Long-term plans also call for the construction of another complex on the block facing Good Hope Hall, also in a “horseshoe” shape, similar in size and scope to the original building, for use as growth area for the law firm, as well as offices for court reporters, private investigators and other law-related services.  In honor of the “free men of color” this future edifice will proudly bear the appellation “Freetown Hall”.


BY: GLENN ARMENTOR

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