An Embarrassment of Architectural Treasures in De Soto Parish

According to the National Register, De Soto Parish, which lies between the Red and Sabine rivers in northwestern Louisiana, contains the highest concentration of Greek Revival architecture, outside of New Orleans, in the state.

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A perfect example is this beautiful 1850 mercantile in Keachie (aka Keatchie, aka Keachi), an antebellum town north of Mansfield. Keachie’s history is palpable in its buildings.

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The antebellum Baptist Church in Keachie is similar in style to the Methodist and Presbyterian churches in this beautiful town.

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An old farm house sits on the site of the former Female Seminary, which served as a hospital in the Civil War and later burned in an unrelated fire.

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Fort Towson remains

Grant Foreman one of Oklahomas first historians took a photo of the ruins of Fort Towson hoctaw County in 1900 Oklahoma Historical Society

Grant Foreman, one of Oklahoma’s first historians, appears in this photograph overlooking the ruins of Fort Towson in 1900.

Although Fort Gibson in northeastern Oklahoma gets more publicity as “the first fort in Oklahoma,” its sister, Fort Towson in today’s Choctaw County, was established the same year – 1824.

Located close to where the Kiamichi River meets the Red River, the fort served several purposes. One, it was meant to protect the incoming Choctaws, who had signed the first removal treaties that eventually culminated in the federal Indian Removal Act of 1830. Two, it was supposed to stop the violence along the Mexican/American frontier, as Anglo settlers who had been forced out of Indian Territory upon its establishment in 1824 were none too keen on giving up their settlements and didn’t want to share their land with the Shawnees, who had received Mexican land grants. Three, it was charged with stopping Americans from entering Mexican Texas illegally.

The fort was well outfitted and usually held at least 75 to 100 troops. For the most part, the troops’ task was to build roads that connected to Fort Gibson, Fort Smith (Arkansas), and Fort Jesup (Louisiana).

After several acts of violence against the commanders of the fort by Americans just south of the Red River, the installation briefly closed in 1829 but then added more troops and served the US army until the end of the Mexican American War in 1848.

Abandoned by the 1850s, Confederate leaders from northeastern Texas took over the fort during the Civil War to recruit Choctaw and Chickasaw troops. The troops at the fort participated in the battle of Prairie D’Ane in 1864 as part of the Red River campaign.

The fort gradually disappeared due to fires, and because local citizens would “borrow” stones from the fort to build their own places. Eventually, very little remained of the fort. In 1900, eminent Oklahoma historian Grant Foreman took a photo of the fort’s ruins. I took photos of the same ruins about 100 years later.

Today, Fort Towson is an Oklahoma historical park and sponsors a number of special events throughout the year.

Check out the Red River Fort Tour on RRH!

The same ruins that Grant Foreman photographed are even more ruined 100 years later when I took this picture of Fort Towson, Choctaw County in 2000

The same ruins that Grant Foreman photographed at the turn of the century are still there, but have become smaller in the intervening years.

A trip to historic Shreveport

In 1958, Martin Luther King, Jr.  met with community and NAACP leaders to formulate a school integration plan at the (old) Galilee Baptist Church on Williamson Street in Shreveport. Shreveport resident William Hines, who was one of the city’s first African American police officers, gave an oral history to Shondra Houston and her student Senae Hall about his experiences with protecting Dr. King during this historic but also dangerous trip. The interview can be located in its entirety in the Bossier Parish Library Historical Center.

Mr. Hines offered a good description of St. Paul Bottoms, the neighborhood in Shreveport that was mainly inhabited by blacks during the period between Reconstruction and desegregation. A quote from the interview, re-printed below, shares some interesting information about the area when Dr. Martin Luther King visited Shreveport’s Galillee and Evergreen churches.

Shreveport Dr. King meets with civil rights leaders at the Galilee Baptist Church in Shreveport, LA in 1958. Photo courtesy NAACP Simpkins & Brock, LLC).

Dr. King meets with civil rights leaders at the Galilee Baptist Church in Shreveport, LA in 1958. Photo courtesy NAACP Simpkins & Brock, LLC.

Dr. King stayed at the Castle Hotel on 1000 Sprague Street, which sadly, no longer exists. Being an ardent admirer of Dr. King as well as forgotten architecture, I searched around until I found its former location and an image of the hotel while it was still in use.

Shreveport Castle Hotel 1000 Sprague Street from Shreveport Historydotcom

The Castle Hotel at 1000 Sprague Street in Shreveport’s St. Paul’s Bottoms, where Dr. King stayed during his trip to the city.   Historydotcom

“When Martin Luther King came here, I was assigned to offer security for him. I had the privilege of shaking his hand when he first came because myself, Tisdon… We had four black officers and we had to go to Evergreen Church and Galilee to offer security for him. He lived down at the Sprague Street Hotel because blacks didn’t live in the Holiday Inn and all those places. There was a pretty good hotel out on Sprague Street and so that’s where he lived. I gave him security while he was here.”

Shreveport Castle Hotel former site Google Maps

The Castle Hotel is now an empty lot across from the historic Oakwood Cemetery.

I found it odd that I didn’t find a listing for the Castle Hotel in The Green Book, a travel guide published specifically for African American road trippers in the post-war era. Then it occurred to me – maybe the Castle Hotel didn’t pay to have itself listed?

1956 Greenbook Shreveport

The only lodging listings I could find in the Green Book for Shreveport in 1956 did not include the Castle Hotel on Sprague Street.

The only lodging listings I could find in the Green Book for Shreveport in 1956 did not include the Castle Hotel on Sprague Street.

However, I did find other places from the Green Book in Shreveport.

1956 Greenbook Shreveport Esso advertisement 1560 Anna and Pierre

An ad for a new Esso Service Center at Anna and Pierre Streets from the Green Book, a guide for “Negro Travelers,” in 1956

1956 Greenbook Shreveport Esso today

Here’s the old Esso station today (courtesy Google Maps). It really bothers me that this historic area has become so neglected.

The church that Dr. King visited has since moved on to a bigger and more modern sanctuary, but the ca. 1917 building, where the meeting took place, still remains. Galilee Baptist, founded in 1877, is one of Shreveport’s oldest freedman’s churches.

The old church building still stands today Its maintained, though its large congregation has moved on to more modern accommodations

The old Galilee Baptist Church, where Dr. King gathered with other civil rights leaders to plan school integration in the city, is empty but still stands, as of now.

king at smu

Dr. King gave a speech at Southern Methodist University (Dallas) in the same time span. A quote:  “There is a need for all people of good will in this nation to become involved participants, for all too long we have had silent onlookers. But now there must be more involved participants to solve this problem and get rid of this one huge wrong of our nation.”

An historic Death

In the US, death of history is frequent.

I’m not talking about historical events today, even though they have their own share of death and destruction. I’m referencing historic preservation, or to put it more bluntly, the complete and utter lack thereof.

I found myself driving through southwestern Arkansas just this past week, filled with the peculiar anxiety always reserved for the things I hold most dear – old, abandoned buildings that have historical significance but have been neglected and forgotten for new and shinier places. Each time I re-visit a ghost town or some abandoned place that I’ve previously chronicled, my nerves get edgy, as I am scared to discover that another piece of history may have been destroyed.

My fears were confirmed in Fulton, Hempstead County, Arkansas. I have a major soft spot for this little town, which has so much history behind it. It sits right alongside the Great Bend of the Red River, and its levees are still tall and sturdy. Since its inception, Fulton served as a major crossroads. First, it was the river crossing for people headed to Mexican Texas. Then, it was mentioned as the terminus of the first proposed transcontinental railroad (Cairo & Fulton RR). By the 1920s, the Bankhead Highway cut a path right alongside this once very important town.

The lone commercial building that still stood in Fulton, Arkansas…

There are only a handful of reminders that point to this hamlet’s history. There’s the railroad bridge, rebuilt after the flood of 1927. Then there’s the water well, now ensconced in a derelict wooden building. You can still see the steamboat docks and moorings on the eastern bank of the Red River, too. And lastly, a lone commercial building, probably built around the turn of the 20th century, stood in a dilapidated state across from the post office.

When I visited Fulton in August of 2015, I discovered that this beautiful old building had been razed. The facade, with its tin cornice, was nowhere to be seen. All foundations, bricks, wood, shingles… everything had been bulldozed. All that sits there now is an empty, gaping maw.

… is now gone.

I don’t know if anyone in Fulton cried when it went away, this last vestige of a once-important town that the interstate unceremoniously bypassed. But I did. I cried bitter, bitter tears over this death.

The building was in a horrible state, for sure. The back had caved in, and its crumbling walls – whatever was left of its walls – exposed the interior to the elements. But the front part of the building was in good order. It could have been sheered off and then braced. It could have been simply a gateway that stood to frame the levee… anything rather than just some other damned hole in the ground.

You may wonder, what if the property owner didn’t have the money to do all this? The building was a hazard and could have well exposed the owner to lawsuits if someone trespassed. These are all good arguments. But, here’s the thing – we cannot keep letting private property rights and obligations get in the way of historic preservation. This country, these states, this town need programs that allow for the reclamation of history. Let eminent domain take over, if it has to. Compensate the owner and then preserve the building, through federal and state grants. Don’t tell me this country doesn’t have the money, either. We’re the richest country on earth. We just allow our wealth – oil wealth, coal wealth, manufactured wealth – to remain in the hands of the oligarchy who provide mere snippets to the rest of us plebeians,and that’s why we think our country is bankrupt. Believe me, we’re not. If we were, we wouldn’t be able to fight all these wars over which our plebeian sons and daughters get killed.

We’re a nation that loves private property. I get that. I also get that it has been, historically, a detriment for most put-upon people. Native American tribes understand that all too well. So do African Americans, whose ancestors were forced into perpetual slavery and were not even considered fully human. Women get it, too – for centuries, they were their husband’s property and as married women, could not rightfully claim property of their own unless it was specifically bequeathed to them.

And you know what else is put upon? Our heritage. That little building in Fulton was a fantastic link to the past – our shared past, warts and all. And we simply have to stand back and watch our history get destroyed, one building at a time, because we’re not allowed to own that past. And then we scrape up all the money we can to visit Europe, so that we can marvel at their old buildings. Am I missing something here?

Published in: on August 8, 2015 at 8:31 pm  Leave a Comment  
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