Archive for November 6th, 2018

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Phebe Hayes with Emma Wakefield marker.

This weekend I had the opportunity to be a part of a historical event: the commemoration of Dr. Emma Wakefield Paillet. In early April, I met with Phebe Hayes, the founder of Iberia African American Historical Society. She shared with me her passion about a project to correct the history of our town, New Iberia, as well as our state’s history.  Through her research, she found that the first black woman to become a doctor in the state of Louisiana was Emma Wakefield Paillet. Emma graduated with honors from New Orleans University and was the only woman to take the medical exam in 1897.  She not only passed but “with honors, and submitted one of the best papers passed upon by the board.” (April 20, 1897 The Times-Democrat)

The unveiling of a historical marker in downtown New Iberia occurred almost 150 years after Emma Wakefield’s  birth on Nov. 21, 1868.  This momentous occasion was met with enthusiastic cheers.

Back in April, Phebe asked me to write a biography in poems about Emma.  I didn’t know if I was up to the task, but as I researched and studied literary voices of the time, I was inspired and wrote 21 poems about her life.  This book of poems is currently out on submission.  At the ceremony on Saturday, I read four of them.  I was moved by the emotion of the event and choked up on my own words.  I was embarrassed, but I just kept going.  Emma’s voice spoke through me.  I hope these poems will inspire others to learn about forgotten women who, like Emma, rose above poverty, oppression, and grief to become a hero.

Program and button with artwork by Dennis Paul Williams.

The opening poem is based on the African American spiritual Were You There first printed in 1899.

Were You There?

Were you there
when Momma held my hand?
when she walked with me to school?
when she knelt down in the sand?
when white men were so cruel?

Were you there
when babies cried at birth?
when Negroes cut the cane?
when shadows veiled the earth?
when teardrops fell like rain?

Were you there
when we finally broke the chains?
when hollow cries were heard?
when mothers’ sons were slain?
when I could read your word?

Oh, Lord, were you there?

–Margaret Simon, (c) 2018




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