ORAL HISTORY IN LOUISIANA
Published by the T. Harry Williams Center for Oral History . Louisiana State University.
Vol. I No. 2 Spring 1993
"I Remember T. Harry!" Alums Tell Us"Remembering T. Harry . . . what a pleasant thing to do!" Ellen Nunnally Owens, '47, wrote us in response to our plea for recollections of our namesake. "I enrolled in the Freshman class at LSU in the fall of 1943 with only a hazy idea of a course of study--maybe speech, maybe math," Owens continued. "By the end of the year I had completed Western Civ. and was planning to sign on for American History in my Sophomore year. Upon completion of that course as taught by Dr. T. Harry Williams, I not only knew that I wanted to major in history but that I also wanted to take every course Dr. Williams taught--which I did."
Owens was not alone in her enthusiastic response. For many LSU alumni, Williams' classes
were a high point of their college experience. Like Lt. Colonel Norman H. Blitch, USAF Ret.,
they tell us that, "when a conversation turns to great teaching, I talk first about T. Harry Williams
and his history classes at LSU. As a teacher of war history, Williams' genius lay in his ability to
be absolutely convincing, as if he personally had been there on the battlefield or looking over the
shoulders of the Generals. It was not just a matter of the histrionic abilities of the man; somehow
he radiated assurance that the battle he described was fought exactly as he described it. Yes, we
really smelled the gun smoke in his Civil War class, and the gun smoke we smelled drove into
our minds the facts and the meanings and the context of that war."
Owens and Blitch are among dozens of people who have written to us about T. Harry Williams
and his influence on their lives, and we're well on our way to putting together our promised
volume of such reminiscences. But we need to hear from you, too! We know there are
hundreds, probably thousands of Williams' former students who remember him just as vividly
and would enjoy reading other's recollections.
We will send a free copy of I Remember T. Harry to everyone who contributes to it. So tell us
your T. Harry stories! Tell your classmates and friends with whom you've swapped stories over
the years about this opportunity. Or send us their names and addresses and we'll mail them a
copy of this newsletter.
Williams' students will also be interested to know that we plan to make tapes of Dr. Williams' classes and interviews available as premiums for donations to our endowment fund. Selected excerpts from Williams' interviews on Huey Long or our own interviews on the history of LSU will be available on audio cassette. In addition we will have video tapes of Williams' last course on the Civil War. Please see page seven for details.
Second Annual Summer Institute in Oral History Offered at Columbia UniversityThe Columbia Oral History Research Office will once again offer its Summer Institute in Oral History from May 30 to June 12. Courses will be given in theory, method, film, audio documentary production, community history, public history and African American history.
Columbia's oral history program is one of the oldest and most prestigious in the country. I
attended their first summer program last year and highly recommend it to anyone, professional or
amateur, who wants to learn more about doing oral history interviews or using oral history
Tuition for the two-week session is $600. For further information contact: Oral History Research Office, Box 20 Butler Library, Columbia University, New York, NY 10027. (212) 854-2273.
Southern Oral History Association's
Meeting Great SuccessThe second meeting of the Southern Oral History Association, which was held in Charlottesville, VA, April 7, was a great success, Cliff Kuhn, interim coordinator, reports. Two past presidents of the national Oral History Association, Don Richie, Associate Historian of the United States Senate, and Terry Birdwhistell, director of the oral history program at the University of Kentucky, were there to lend their expertise. Future meetings will be in the fall in conjunction with the Southern Historical Association's annual meetings. Separate spring sessions are planned as well.
Williams Center director Pamela Dean, who did not attend the meeting, was appointed the Louisiana representative on the membership committee. Dues are $5.00. For more information or to join SOHA, contact Pamela Dean, or Cliff Kuhn, Department of History, Georgia State University, University Plaza, Atlanta, GA 30303-3083.
History of New Orleans
Civil Rights Struggle Published.Righteous Lives, by Kim Lacy Rogers, a history of the struggle for Civil Rights in New Orleans based on interviews with nearly fifty participants, has recently been published. Tapes are deposited at the Amistad Research Center in New Orleans. Look for a review of this work in our fall newsletter.
Don't Miss the OHA Annual Meeting
in Birmingham, November 4-6Louisiana will be well represented at the annual meeting of the Oral History Association in Birmingham, Alabama, this fall. Beatrice Rodriguez-Owsley, UNO, will be talking about her work with the Hispanic community in New Orleans as part of a panel on new immigrants in the South. Paul Steckler, of the Amistad Center, is on a panel on civil rights in archives. Pamela Dean, Williams Center director, and Jo Jackson, university archivist at LSU, will discuss oral history as a compliment to university archives.
Louisiana Boys: Raised on Politics, the award winning documentary on our state pastime, will be
a featured presentation.
The OHA is a small group as these things go, but it is known for the high quality of its conference presentations and its conference socializing. So plan on meeting your fellow oral historians in Birmingham in November. Call us at the Williams Center, 407-388-6566, for more information.
"Crossing the Color Line: An Oral Perspective of Integration in Iberia Parish Schools" PresentedStudents from the Iberia Parish High School oral traditions class will present a program on the integration of Iberia Parish Schools using information gathered from oral history interviews. Several of the people interviewed will be on hand for this program scheduled for Thursday, May 13 at 6:30 p.m. in the meeting room of the Iberia Parish Library.
The class, which is a joint project of the school and Shadows-on-the-Teche, visited the Williams
Center last semester to get advice on doing oral history. "Our students have learned a variety of
history gathering techniques this year, more particularly oral history. We chose the topic of
integration for this final exam because the event made an impact on our community, and there
are many people living in New Iberia who lived through the historical event who want to talk
about it," Pat Kahle, resource person for the oral traditions class, reported. Students conducted
interviews with people who were involved with integration on a variety of levels.
This free public program is open to everyone with seating reservations. Please call Shadows-On-the-Teche (318) 369-6446 to reserve a seat. A reception will follow the presentation.
[Shadows Service League Newsletter]
Being Transcribed at UNOBeatrice Rodriguez-Owsley has collected 132 taped interviews with New Orleans area Hispanics from all walks of life. Some have been published in a book on Hispanic American entrepreneurs. But most have languished in the inaccessible condition of so many untranscribed oral history interviews.
But now UNO's modern foreign language program has agreed to provide Rodriquez-Owsley with interns to transcribe these tapes. Students will not only polish their language skills but will also learn a great deal about the local Hispanic community and its history. We commend all involved in this project and hope it will inspire other departments and programs to undertake similar cooperative efforts.
LSU College of Arts & Sciences Funds
New Williams Center ProjectThe Center for Oral History recently received a $5,000 grant from the College of Arts and Sciences to do a series of interviews on civil rights activities in Baton Rouge from 1950 to the early 1970s and to determine their impact on Louisiana State University. The money is part of the College's National Endowment for the Humanities Challenge grant and will cover the cost of both conducting and transcribing the interviews. Mary Hebert, the Williams Center research assistant, will be the principal interviewer for this project, with assistance from Maxine Crump and Donald DeVore, among others. Crump is an experienced broadcast journalist and was a part of the first LSU class to enroll African Americans. DeVore is a member of the history department at LSU.
"This grant will allow us to move out from our coverage of the integration of LSU and the experiences of African Americans on campus," Pamela Dean said. "We'll be able to document the broader context of those events, as well as such things as the university's historic relation to the black community and Southern University. I'm very grateful to Dean Karl Roider and the College of Art and Sciences for this opportunity."
From Bordelonville to Baton Rouge
Quinn Coco RemembersOn September 8, 1992, two old friends, Quinn Coco, former vice chancellor for business affairs, and Dr. Everett Besch, founding dean of LSU's School of Veterinary Medicine, began meeting over coffee and a tape recorder to reminisce about Coco's childhood on Bayou Glaises and his career at LSU. Since that time, the two men have accumulated over twenty hours of tape recorded interviews in which Coco tells Besch his life story and recalls the more than forty years he spent at the university.
Coco, '41, came to LSU as a student in the late 1930s. After graduation, he took a job as a
university accountant, working his way up through the ranks to become vice chancellor. During
his career at LSU, Coco worked closely with many of the university's top administrators and
came to know the university's business in depth. Coco's knowledge was so vast that former LSU
Chancellor Cecil Taylor (1965-1974) nicknamed him "Father" Coco.
What follows are excerpts from the Coco-Besch interviews. We begin with his family and
childhood. Subsequent sections deal with his student days at LSU during the Depression and
how one of his predecessors dealt with hard times at the university.
EVERETT D. BESCH: [We're] in Gonzales, Louisiana, in the home of the Cocos. We've been
talking to Quinn Coco. Okay. What's your full name?
QUINN COCO: My name is Quinn Marshall Coco. And my daddy was Marshall Senal,
S-E-N-A-L, Coco. My mother's name was Inez, though she called it Inez [ee-nez], you know, the
French pronunciation, Inez Quinn Coco. She was from New Roads. My daddy was from
Bordelonville, originally. . . . I was born April 28, 1918, and my birth certificate shows
Bordelonville, but I was actually born in New Roads. . . . I was raised on that bayou and lived
there until, oh, I came to LSU in 1935, '36, and stayed back home for two more years before I
returned to the university. So, all of my young adult life was spent on, in Bordelonville, Bayou
BESCH: What did your parents do in Bordelonville?
COCO: My daddy had, mainly, a general merchandise store, and we also had a cotton gin and a
syrup mill, a moss gin, and a grist mill; we had something for all seasons. In the early years all of
those activities were fairly active, because in the early days the roads were just dirt roads and
people's transportation was by horse, either by horseback, wagon, or buggy. And their range, I
think generally we considered five miles as the range of people's ability to get about. That was in
the early days before the gravel road, or before the automobile became predominant. I worked in
all of those activities as I grew older. And we were paid, and I was paid just like any of the other
laborers by my daddy.
BESCH: Now, what's a moss mill. . . moss gin?
COCO: Moss gin. As an avocation, the farmers, when crops were laid by, they did two things,
basically. Went into the woods as groups of families together and cut stovewood and fireplace
wood, which we called house wood. And they picked moss. They picked green moss, and you
stacked it, put it in a stack in the yard and let it cure. And then after it turned black, lost its gray
color and turned black, then you hung it on the fences, and it dried. And you took it to the people
who bought moss, and they paid for it. Daddy bought moss also. Then we used the moss that
we, that my daddy bought, we processed in what we called a moss gin. It was a big, outdoor
piece of machinery run by a gasoline powered engine and basically it was big wheels with teeth
on it that shredded the moss, and the dust fell out, and you had basically clean moss that we
bailed. And most of it was used in those days by the fine furniture makers. A lot of our moss
went up by rail to Grand Rapids, Michigan, was used in furniture. The fine furniture in those
days was stuffed with moss.
BESCH: Also used to make mattresses.
COCO: And mattresses, yes. We all had moss mattresses, which were remade every spring.
You just took the mattress apart and shredded it again, and fluffed it up, put it back in the
mattress cover, and they had great big needles that they stuck through them to stabilize the moss
in the mattress.
* * *
COCO: The Red Cross was the only relief agency active at that time [of the 1927 flood]. And
they came around and provided families with one cow and one horse. And from that point,
everybody were on their own. There was some relief food. One of the funny things that
happened, one of the food items that was provided was grapefruit, and people thought that they
were big oranges. And as they started eating, they said, "Look at these big oranges." And
somebody yelled, in French says, "Oui, mais ils sont tellement amer." ("They are so bitter.")
[laughter] They thought they were oranges. That's how far, really, you know, backwards we
were, very little contact with the outer world. And in fact, when the drummers came to the store,
that visited with Daddy and sell things, they brought news, in general, from up and down the
bayou. They would say who was sick, this, that, and the other. They were basically people from
around Marksville and Mansura wholesales, and Bunkie. And so, they knew that they were one
of the bearers of good and bad news as they visited the merchants up and down the bayou.
BESCH: Now, the drummers were salesmen?
COCO: Yes. They came out. And we had. . . I remember one, in one instance, a man came by
on horse and buggy and stopped by the store, and he was selling wood ranges, stoves, wood
stoves. Wrought Iron Range Company, I can remember that logo; it was all (?). Anyway, and he
had a small model of the stove. And he was a very interesting man. My daddy thought that he
was very interesting. And they talked and chatted back and forth. And finally, getting close to
the end of the day, Daddy said to him, he said, "I'll buy a stove from you, on one condition, if you
stay and spend the night, so we can talk some more." And he did. He stayed and spent the night.
We bought a Wrought Iron Range. [laughter] And it was in the kitchen when I left home, pretty
* * *
BESCH: How long did your father live?
COCO: Seventy-eight. Seventy-eight years old. He still was running the store, although it had dwindled down to just a kind of a vocation to him, something to do. He ran the store seven days a week. The only time he closed it was to go to Mass on Sunday mornings. And he had a coat and tie hanging up on a hanger in the store. He'd put his tie and coat on and went to Mass, came back and opened the store again. . . . [He was born in] '85. And he, there was no school in Bordelonville for him to go to. He and two of his sisters rode by mule and boarded in Moreauville five days a week; they came back home on Friday afternoon. One week after his third grade, after the third grade, Grandpa told him, "Well, that's enough for you." In those days, the boys didn't go to school, the girls usually got what education was available. The boys had to just stay at home and worked in the fields. So, you either got to come to work in the field or go out on your own. He was about ten years old, and he decided to go out on his own. He went to work for his uncle, my great uncle, who had the store that he took over in later years. Uncle Charlie Bordelon, C.J.B. Mercantile Company. But, and he worked his, he was a clerk in the store at fifteen dollars a month. And, of course, he had a place to stay in the back of the store, and they brought him his food. And he told me that many a month he didn't spend a penny of it; he was very frugal, a very frugal man, very conservative.
* * *
Coco: Water wells were square wells, with a square frame. They were about three to four feet
square. The water table was very shallow, so. . . maybe twelve feet deep. And they dug it by
hand, shovel, put a bucket down in the bottom to the fellow digging and hauled it up. And those
wells served as the refrigerators. If you had a little bit of beef meat, you put it in a jar and put it
on a string and dropped it in the well. If you had a watermelon you wanted to cool, you put it in
a sack and dropped it in the well. And at times, the string or the rope broke. And in our
neighborhood, I was the well diver. [laughter] I'd go down in the well, retrieve the jar or the
sack of watermelon and bring it up, and people kept drinking the water, you know. [laughter]
And we had cisterns too. But the cisterns, towards the end of the summer, were just about dry,
and so you had to be very careful in how you used the cistern water. And as you drew it, it had
wiggle tails in it, you know. And you had to kind of strain those things out. I just kept thinking
that if in today's time, we were subjected to that kind of water, we'd probably die. It would kill
you right off.
BESCH: Well, we were survivors.
* * *
BESCH: [You graduated in] 1935. What did you do after you graduated from high school?
COCO: I guess it was about 1933 or so. I had a first cousin who was in LSU, and I came to visit
him, I guess it was in the summer of 1933, I know it was not in a regular session. And he lived
in a green, wooden dormitory, somewhere back of where the Pentagon Barracks are now. And it
was just a great big room with cots on each side and a bathroom on one end. And I stayed with
him then; I thought that was pretty neat. And so when I graduated from high school, I decided to
come to LSU. I came to campus scared as hell, really. I was a real country boy. I was sitting on
a bench in the Pentagon Barracks, and somebody came up to me and said, "Are you a freshman?"
I said, "Yes." I still had my hair, and he proceeded to clip it off. . . .
I had a job, a custodial job in the mechanical engineering building, which they called the steam
building. I can't remember the name of my co-worker, but our job was to go in every afternoon,
after classes and clean up, sweep and clean all the debris out. And if we didn't do a good job, if
we were worried about something, we knew about it the next day. The supervisor came in and
said, "No more of this stuff. You fellows shape up, do it right, or somebody else is going to get
the job." And we were scared.
BESCH: Did you get paid for it?
COCO: Yes. Fifteen dollars a month. And my daddy sent me fifteen dollars a month. And that was to take care of all expenses except room and tuition. Tuition was twenty-five dollars. Room rent was eighteen dollars a semester. And then the sophomore year, they went up to twenty-seven dollars a semester. Everybody raised hell, [laughs] pretty damn big(?). And there were some awfully poor people in school. And, of course, there was no aid other than student work in those days. . . . We had a fellow by the name of, first name was Keith(?) from Oak Grove. And his daddy had a store like my daddy. And this was in '35. And he found out that his daddy had lost the store, had to close the store. And he said, "I'm going to have to go home." I said, "Well, maybe next year or so you will be able to come back." And never come back. And he never did, as far as I know, he never came back. But he cried. He was just so upset. He cried because he, you know, he wanted an education. People struggled for an education. . . .
[Can I tell about some others] from people from Bordelonville who were in school. There was
Louis(?) Mayeaux. . . . And Alfred Firment, F-I-R-M-E-N-T. And both of them worked at Cozy
Corner, which was a restaurant at the corner of Chimes and right where it turns down the hill.
There's a laundry mat there now, but there was a wooden building, Cozy Corner. And it was
built at street level, which means that the back of it was pretty high off the ground. And they
were [living on] a shoestring; everybody was on a shoestring in those days. And since they
worked there, they asked the owner if they could build a place to stay under the restaurant, and
that they would be able to. . . they would work at night in addition to their regular daytime
chores, assignments. And he said, yes. And so, they just boarded up a place under the restaurant,
put planks on the floor, basically just to walk on, basically a dirt floor and put bunks in it. That
was it; they stayed in that -- they slept there. They would study and wash up upstairs. But that's
where they stayed to save that eighteen bucks a semester in room rent. But it wasn't a very
healthful place. You know, it was windy and cold, no heat, no water, nothing at all except bunks.
* * *
BESCH: Let's start out with Himes, H-I-M-E-S, "Tighty" Himes. What was his first name?
COCO: "Tighty", you know, I don't know what his real name was. . . . He was, I guess, the
business officer, the chief business officer, manager or treasurer or whatever it was. He started
out on the old campus, and we talked about the student bank which had its roots then.
In the early days of the university, it was run as a military school patterned after West Point, I guess. And the students were not allowed to have any money in person. All monies had to be deposited with the university in the student bank. When students needed money, they had to go see Mr. Himes personally and state the reason for their need. He kept very detailed records. If you went in, for instance, and said, "I need twenty-five cents for a pair of socks," he would look back and said, "You got twenty-five cents for socks last Saturday. You don't get any." You know, it was that tightly regulated. . . . And Mr. Himes also was the person that you went to see if you were an instructor, was on the academic staff, and needed chalk. He issued chalk one stick at a time, and you had to bring your stub in to get a new piece of chalk. And the same thing with pencils, he issued those individually, and you had to bring your stub in for him to look and see whether it was really short enough to require replacement. [laughter]