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back to index A Brief Ethnography of Magnolia Plantation: Planning for Cane River Creole National Historical Park

Chapter 2: Methodological Work

Scope of Work

The study goals reflected discussions among NPS staff, including Joan DeGraff, then a DSC planner, and the previous park superintendent, Randy Clement. In late May, 1996, Dr. Muriel (Miki) Crespi of the National Archeology Program in Washington, D.C. and Ms. Allison Peña, Anthropologist at Jean Lafitte National Historical Park and Preserve in New Orleans, met with the staff of the Social Science Department at Northwestern State University (NSU). Anthropologist Dr. Hiram (Pete) Gregory, historian Dr. Ann Malone, and historian Ms. Susan Dollar participated. We discussed the goals and methods of Rapid Ethnographic Assessment Procedures (REAP), which was the originally intended research paradigm, the park data needs, and use of Jean Lafitte’s Cooperative Agreement with Northwestern State University as a mechanism for accessing field assistance.

The group agreed on the need to address these general topics:

  • identification of associated ethnic groups, activities, and settlements relevant to understanding Magnolia;
  • places, or ethnographic resources, in and around Magnolia considered special to peoples’ ethnic history and identity;
  • the ties people perceived between certain places and their own and their groups’ past;
  • ways of life believed to be most related to cultural and natural resources in and around Magnolia;
  • aspects of culture and history park visitors should know in order to understand Magnolia’s qualities and the materials, such as letters and photographs, that would convey the messages; and
  • techniques such as exhibits, cultural events, and music or food festivals that could involve local people in presenting Magnolia’s special qualities to visitors.

We refined these topics during research, an iterative process in which researchers modify their questions to reflect the new information acquired in the course of study; as questions are asked and answered they tend to stimulate new lines of inquiry. Questions were also adjusted to consider peoples’ different ethnicity, age, gender, and relationships to the Magnolia land and labor force. We also asked people what they thought the National Park Service should avoid saying or doing. Additionally, the pivotal role of slavery in driving the traditional plantation and National Park Service interest in interpreting the quarters made questions about this political/labor system essential. We regret the discomfort questions of slavery caused some people.

The National Park Service expected to conduct a Rapid Ethnographic Assessment Procedure (REAP) in cooperation with NSU field researchers. The REAP is an abbreviated intense field investigation that can satisfy the quite specific planning needs and deadlines of the National Park Service (Directors Orders 28 and Cultural Resource Guidelines, Chapter 5: Ethnographic Resources 1997). Its value to the National Park Service had already been demonstrated (cf. Low 1995, Williams 1998). A team approach is essential to the technique (cf. Beebe 1995), but, unfortunately, no such team could be established. Unexpected administrative, scheduling, and other complications prevented the timely development of a research team with coordinated methods, tasks, and priorities. Instead, although the brief time originally allocated to fieldwork could not be changed and the original research topics remained the same the National Park Service researcher and the Northwestern State University researchers conducted two sequential, related, yet somewhat different projects. Funding came from two sources. The Denver Service Center covered the University costs whereas the National Archeology Program paid Dr. Crespi’s field expenses and salary during fieldwork, analysis and write-up.

Project Personnel

Several people contributed directly to this study:

Ms. Allison Peña, Anthropologist for Jean Lafitte National Historical Park and Preserve and expert in community outreach, helped identify consultants in urban Natchitoches and oriented Miki Crespi to the park and the area. She prepared and managed the Cooperative Agreement, CA 7029-4-0014, between Jean Lafitte and Northwestern State University, which was the vehicle for accessing University field assistance. She supported this work from its inception and commented in detail on the several drafts.

Dr. Muriel (Miki) Crespi is a cultural anthropologist and Chief Ethnographer for the National Park Service, Washington D.C. She has studied Latin American plantations and haciendas, conducted research in the United States, and introduced the concept of Rapid Ethnographic Assessment to the National Park Service. She was primarily responsible for developing this research project and conducting Magnolia interviews. She was alone responsible for analyzing data and preparing this research report.

Ms. Susan Dollar is a longtime Natchitoches resident with a M.A. in History from Northwestern State University. She reviewed the draft scope of work, conducted individual and group interviews, identified archival materials, and annotated a bibliography of relevant historical works. For this study, she reported to Dr. Ann Malone.

Ms. Dayna Bowker Lee has a M.A. in Anthropology from Northwestern State University and is a doctoral candidate in Anthropology at the University of Oklahoma. She conducted individual and group interviews and identified religious and recreational sites in the heritage area. For this study, she reported to Dr. Pete Gregory.

Ms. Barbara Anne (B.A.) Cohen, a photographer, ceramist, graphic artist, and Cane River native whose family once owned Lakeview Plantation, which adjoins Magnolia, helped identify community consultants, organized group interviews, and shared her insights into the local culture.

Mr. Randy Clement is former Superintendent of Cane River Creole NHP. He helped identified community consultants and relevant heritage sites, reviewed draft materials, and encouraged and supported this project since its inception.

Dr. Hiram (Pete) Gregory is an anthropologist on the faculty of the Northwestern State University Social Science Department and expert on Louisiana’s American Indian archeology and history. He reviewed the draft scope of work and shared his insights about local cultures. He supervised Dayna Bowker Lee’s work for this project and commented on the draft report.

Dr. Ann Malone is an historian, expert in Louisiana plantation systems, and then-faculty member in the Northwestern State University Social Science Department. She reviewed the draft scope of work and shared her insights about the area. She guided Miki Crespi and Allison Peña on an informative tour of major rural churches and supervised Susan Dollar’s work on this project.

Field Research

Field research began in the Summer of 1996 and continued intermittently through the Fall. Miki Crespi spent a total of about 38 days in the field, starting with four days at the end of May and beginning of June, another 12 days between the end of June and beginning of July, six days at the end of August, and seven days at the end of September. She spent several additional days in Natchitoches in December 1996 and made brief trips in 1997 and 1998. Additional information came during interviewing in 1999 on the Oakland component. Crespi also made brief trips in 2001 to review the draft report with community members. Dayna Bowker Lee and Susan Dollar initiated work early in September 1996 and interviewed intermittently until the end of November, each one working for about 30 days and usually conducting interviews together.

Lengthy open-ended interviews were a major research tool. Local diversity (see Figure 2) compelled us to interview a cross-section of ethnic groups, working with white people, including French Creole, black people, and Creoles of color with long-term associations to Magnolia. Although the census categories did not identify groups who defined themselves as being racially and culturally mixed, such as Creoles of color, they had been highlighted through personal experience and publications (e.g., Mills 1977). American Indian people, people of French/Indian descent, and other residents of Kisatchie “hill” communities were considered potential interviewees if time allowed and initial interviewing indicated their importance to Magnolia. Unfortunately, time did not allow systematic interviews of Kisatchie residents, but casual conversation occurred with an Apalachee man and Crespi met with the Clifton Choctaw Tribe after the Magnolia study formally closed.

Our interviewees represented a sample of convenience, rather than a random sample, and took on aspects of a network sample as individuals suggested other interviewees and concurred on several who were thought to be especially knowledgeable about local history. Identifying and personally contacting Magnolia’s black and Creole former residents proved to be a time-consuming and formidable challenge. The last resident laborers had left Magnolia about three decades ago as the rural exodus prompted by mechanization drew to a close. Crespi later learned about several former Magnolia sharecroppers who had remained nearby but could only briefly interview one. Some families had relocated to urban Natchitoches, others moved elsewhere in Louisiana, such as Alexandria. Some went to Houston, Texas, but many left the state for more distant locales such as Chicago and Los Angeles. Initial leads to former residents, including white overseers, came from Magnolia owners Betty Hertzog and her cousin Ambrose Hertzog. B.A. Cohen provided additional leads. Researchers Susan Dollar, who had previously worked with Pete Gregory and Ann Malone, and Dayna Bowker Lee, who also worked with Pete Gregory, drew on contacts among Creoles of color in the heritage area and added others.

We conducted interviews of from one to three hours each with a total of 39 individuals: 16 black, 14 French Creole and other whites, 8 Creoles of color, and 1 Clifton Choctaw person. Many interviews were audio taped as well. The locales for these interviews varied. Some were conducted in the city, others in Derry and Cat Island, and a few at Magnolia, Cloutierville, and Alexandria. More casual discussions lasting from about 20 minutes to an hour were held with nine more individuals, four white, three black, one Creole, and one American Indian (Apalachee). A few briefer telephone interviews were conducted with white individuals who lived in Shreveport, a black resident of Derry who we were unable to meet personally, and a black former Magnolia resident now living in Houston.

Group interviews were conducted as well, resulting in contact with another 14 people. Four groups of Creoles of color met in Derry, Isle Brevelle or Cat Island; two groups had three people each and one had five participants. One group of three black people from St. Andrews Baptist Church met in Derry. Taken together, considering only extended individual and group interviews, we contacted and formally interviewed 53 people: 19 black, 19 Creole of color, 14 French Creole or other white, and one American Indian. Several individuals were interviewed a few times. To orient interviewees to the NPS, before park brochures had been prepared, we distributed copies of the National Park Service Map and Guide showing the location of Cane River Creole NHP and examples of brochures from other plantation parks and parks celebrating African Americans.

Crespi focused on French Creole and other white people and on black people directly associated with Magnolia. White people included the Hertzog family at Magnolia and kin in Alexandria, and former residents of neighboring Lakeview Plantation. In urban Natchitoches she interviewed former overseers or supervisors and their family, and several businessmen and preservationists. Crespi interviewed black former Magnolia tenant laborers, one black sharecropper family working on “halves,” and one Creole of color sharecropper working as a “renter,” or on “a fourth,” some now living in urban Natchitoches or Alexandria. Most interviewees were also asked to indicate places of importance on a schematic map of Magnolia. On several occasions she also walked the quarters area with former residents who had been born and raised there. She visited the Kisatchie Hills to meet with a representative of the state-recognized Clifton Choctaw Tribe and incorporated her findings here.

Dayna Bowker Lee worked in tandem with Susan Dollar to identify and interview individuals and groups, primarily in the National Heritage Area from Cat Island in Derry, Isle Brevelle, and Cloutierville. This represents part of Magnolia’s larger social context. Creoles of color were especially important, but they also interviewed white people and black people. They asked interviewees to identify the locales of particularly important religious and educational facilities, ferry landings, and recreational sites, especially bars, race tracks and baseball fields in the heritage area, and schematically mapped them (see Figure 3). Dollar also worked in the Cammie G. Henry Research Center at the University where she reviewed, photocopied, and annotated relevant archival materials. They met once briefly with Crespi in early September and briefly with Crespi and Peña later that month. All four communicated through occasional telephone calls and e-mail. Lee and Dollar sent Crespi a brief summary of their interviews and, starting in November, draft transcriptions of interviews. By early 1997, draft transcriptions of all audio tapes were completed and sent to Crespi for use in preparing the subsequent draft planning report. In 1999, Crespi submitted a draft to the planners at the Denver Service Center, to the park and to others (NPS 1999b). This report refines and slightly expands the draft.

Community Review

In February 2001, Crespi sent interviewees copies of the final draft report for their last review and comments. Visiting Natchitoches from February 23 to March 2, she reviewed the draft on-site with several black families, the Hertzogs and other white families, and a few individual Creoles of color. The reviewers suggested additional nuances that were not clearly evident before, shared new insights and recollections, and corrected some names, maps, and dates. They also supported the impressions and conclusions conveyed by the draft. During another brief trip in July 2001, Crespi toured the Magnolia Big House and revisited the quarters with several former residents, further enriching her understandings. She greatly appreciated the interest and support shown by the Magnolia community and, in common with her anthropological peers, reaffirms the importance of working in tandem with the people who generously share their lives with the cultural researchers who come into their midst and leave, changed, in many ways, for the better.

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