History: A single word encapsulating the entirety of mankind’s existence.
Interpretations of history differ with an individual origin and upbringing. A historical event means something different to a child than it would to his parents. Nothing better exemplifies the dynamism of history than the LSU Rural Life Museum’s controversial statue: Uncle Jack.
Uncle Jack, nestled between the museum’s church and cemetery, depicts an elderly, African-American man tipping his hat. Jackson Lee Bryan, a successful cotton planter and banker, commissioned the statue in 1926. It was erected in Natchitoches a year later. Bryan, whose family owned slaves, dedicated the statue to the African-American slaves who played an integral part in the building of Louisiana.
The statue’s plaque reads, “in grateful recognition of the arduous and faithful service of the good darkies of Louisiana.” After its construction, national media outlets rushed to Natchitoches to cover the statue. The New York Times praised the statue as a progressive symbol of a new South. National Geographic labeled the statue as a major tourist attraction: “A visit to Natchitoches was not complete without a visit to the statue.”
Though viewed nationally as an honorable memorial to African-Americans in the 19th century, in Natchitoches, the white community was initially unsupportive. At the time of its erection, Uncle Jack was Natchitoches’ only statue and the white community did not want the town’s only statue to be of an African-American.
As the cultural revolution of the 1960s raged, the interpretation of Uncle Jack changed. Throughout the decade, the statue was a target of vandalizations and African-American protests.
African-Americans viewed the statue as racist as it depicts the elderly man as subservient, said LSU Rural Life Museum Director David Floyd.
“In the 1960s with the Civil Rights movement, a new generation began to look at the statue in a different way,” Floyd said. “They saw it as a way of putting down African-Americans. Even the name was seen as derogatory.”
The City of Natchitoches removed Uncle Jack in 1968 to avoid addition racial unrest. The removal occurred in the middle of the night. For the next four years, the statue was stored at the Natchitoches Regional Airport until it found a new home at the LSU Rural Life Museum.
Then-LSU Chancellor Cecil G. Taylor and Director of the LSU Ag Center Johnny Cox learned about the statue’s location in 1972 and contacted Bryan’s daughter, Jo Ducournau, about loaning Uncle Jack to the University. Ducournau received other requests for the statue from the Smithsonian Institution and Natchitoches to return it to its original location, but ultimately decided to donate Uncle Jack to the University.
“You have to have some type of informational background of what it really means,” Floyd said. “The symbolism is a strong thing and it changes. It can be reckless at times.”
Uncle Jack stood outside the Rural Life Museum welcoming arriving visitors until 2009 when Floyd decided to move the statue inside the museum. According to Floyd, African-American state legislators called the Rural Life Museum and demanded that the statue be destroyed. The move also allowed the Rural Life Museum to provide context for the statue and tell the story of its evolving interpretations.
Uncle Jack remains controversial today as it represents a vital but contentious part of Louisiana history.
“It’s a struggle to understand the past,” Floyd said. “It’s one of the things historians have a hard time with. The past doesn’t have audio and video. It has paper and photography, and that’s about it. You have to find out what is the truth. Humans are a complicated species, so the truth has different shades.”