Celebrating Central Louisiana's black history
As the month of February comes to an end, so does Black History Month. Central Louisiana has been and continues to be shaped by many African Americans.
Here are just a few of the many who have made an impact:
Jeff Hall made history in 2018. His election as Alexandria mayor made him the first black mayor in the city’s history. A former Cleco executive, Hall also worked for the city for several years and served in the state legislature. He credits hard work and education for putting him in the position he is today.
“You have to prepare yourself,” Hall said. "You’ve got to have the tools to deal with things. You don't always know the plan God has for you. But there's a plan. And when you identify it and recognize it, you go to it, regardless of the obstacles and things that are there. You get it done.”
Across the Red River, Clarence Fields has also made history as the first black mayor of Pineville. This year, he was also inducted into the Louisiana Political Hall of Fame. Serving as Pineville’s mayor for more than 20 years, people know Fields as an outstanding leader.
“I was about representing all people, and that's all I want a legacy of,” Fields said. “How I was able to carry myself and how tremendous it was to be of service to the people who put me in office and gave me this opportunity.”
In January of 2004, Daren Coutee served as the first African American chief of police for the City of Alexandria. Coutee served as chief for six years and retired after an almost 40-year law enforcement career.
Even more history was made at APD this week when officer Lilly Evans was named the first African American woman to achieve the rank of captain.
On the subject of ranks, a Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries lieutenant colonel recently retired after 28 years. Lt. Col. Peter Oliver of Avoyelles Parish began his career in 1991. He was the only black man in his class of 26. Oliver moved up the ranks and was named the first black sergeant, the first black captain, the first black mayor, and the first black lieutenant colonel with LDWF.
Another black icon is Col. Katrina Lloyd, who features a long list of accomplishments. Col. Lloyd is a graduate of Grambling State University where she earned a bachelor of science in nursing. She has served in a number of leadership positions throughout her career.
Lloyd became the battalion commander for the Louisiana State Medical Command and the full-time state surgeon for the Louisiana Army National Guard, all while serving as the state’s medical command administrative officer.
Col. Lloyd is the first African American and the first woman to hold any of those positions, and she is only the second African American to earn the rank of colonel in the U.S. Army National Guard.
“Seeing my nieces and nephews saying, ‘Oh, my God, Nanny, to see you doing this, or I just saw you speaking here, or I just heard you.’ And just to watch their faces and making sure that they know that they can do whatever it is that their minds conceive that they can do,” Lloyd said.
A Cenla sports icon and hall of famer, the legendary coach of Peabody High School’s basketball team, Charles Smith, began teaching in 1971. Interestingly enough, his first set of students included Pineville Mayor Clarence Fields and his wife, Rosa Fields.
In 1975, Smith transferred from Pineville to Peabody where he began his coaching career. He has gone on to become one of the most victorious coaches in the State of Louisiana and is a Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame inductee. He said his motivation was rooted in him from his mother who was also an educator.
“And I try to be a mentor to the young kids - both black and white,” Smith said. “And through basketball, I've been able to help shape and mold these young men by making them a productive member of society.”
In loving memory of two more historical figures: Louis Berry was the second African American to practice law in the state and the first in Alexandria. Berry was instrumental in improving the living conditions for the black community in Alexandria before his death in 1998.
Johnnie Varnado was the first African American president of the Central Louisiana Chamber of Commerce. Varnado was the owner of Kazette Enterprises, a computer repair company that later turned into a business consulting service. Varnado is remembered by her loving family and her youngest daughter who says she inherited her mother’s greatest gift and passion – a love for Christ.
So, as we wrap up the month of February, we say thank you to those who have and will continue to pave the way!