- "Art had almost left them":Les Cenelles Society of Arts and Letters, the Dillard Project, and the Legacy of Afro-Creole Arts in New Orleans*
[I]f judged in terms of the unfavorable circumstances under which it was produced, and if elevated in the light of the literature of the population of the state as a whole during that period, the Negro's contribution to literature in antebellum Louisiana would reflect credibly upon any group.-Charles Barthelemy Roussève (91)
In June of 1942, in New Orleans, a group of intellectual and artistic African Americans, led by poet and historian Marcus B. Christian, held an art exhibit at the YWCA. The name of this sponsoring group was Les Cenelles Society of Arts and Letters, and according to their mission statement, this art society formed in 1940s Jim Crow New Orleans in order to "stimulate creative work among Negroes in all arts," to promote the "further development of Race literature and folk-lore," and perpetuate "the best traditions of culture among Negroes in Louisiana" (Les Cenelles, Mission). That a group of black Southerners held an art exhibit in the Deep South in the midst of Jim Crow suppression of black expression is as extraordinary as the group that sponsored the program. Aside from a single mention of Les Cenelles in a 1991 article in the journal Louisiana History, and in Chance Harvey's The Life and Selected [End Page 55] Letters of Lyle Saxon (2003), the group is largely neglected by contemporary scholars. In fact, Les Cenelles has essentially been forgotten. Yet this group and the work of its members shed new light on a period of intense literary activity in New Orleans and contribute to a further understanding of the venerable tradition of African American literature there. Additionally, Les Cenelles, and its stated mission and goals, further illuminate the ways black New Orleanians navigated the social restrictions of Jim Crow Louisiana to accomplish their goals.
It is unsurprising that a group of like-minded men and women would want to meet and share their common interests. Les Cenelles was not unique in the sense that it was one of several African American literary and arts societies formed in the early twentieth century (McHenry 23-24, 141-49, 251-66). However, Les Cenelles focused on local black artists and their longstanding contributions to Louisiana's creative legacy. Les Cenelles members looked to New Orleans's Afro-Creole population as the pinnacle of African American artistic achievements and used the example of the Afro-Creole as a model for artists who sought to effect social change. Les Cenelles planned to continue that artistic tradition while rewriting the history of black New Orleanians, creating an established and often idealized image of Afro-Creole literature and artistry.
Les Cenelles Society of Arts and Letters survived for only a few years, yet during its brief existence the group organized at least one art exposition, published a collection of poetry, and hoped to open a center for black artists (Les Cenelles, Untitled). There is no scholarly work available on the subject of Les Cenelles. However, numerous journal articles and monographs discuss and analyze the African American contributors to the Louisiana branch of the Federal Writers Project as well its director, Marcus Christian. Although little material exists on Les Cenelles Society of Arts and Letters, the archival information available provides an understanding of their mission and goals, offers a glimpse into the member's personal lives, reveals the often-hostile environment in which these writers worked, and leads to a deeper understanding of the creative milieu that produced Les Cenelles.1
Shortly after their formation, the burgeoning arts society received attention from New Orleans's African American newspapers (ibid.). The founder of Les Cenelles, Marcus Christian, was the supervisor of the "Negro Division" of the Louisiana Federal Writers' Project (FWP); and in 1943 he received a Julius Rosenwald Fellowship to research African American history in Louisiana. Later in life, Christian held the post of special instructor in English and history at the University of New Orleans. Other Les Cenelles founders included Dillard University graduate Clarence Laws, a civil rights advocate and the industrial...