History 2: Creole Immigration

The migration of the Creole population from Southwest Louisiana to California started in the 1940s, when thousands of farmers and sharecroppers made the trek west, first to Texas and then California, in search of economic opportunity for wartime industrial laborers on military bases and in shipyards. Creole –- a complex term involving a complex web of racial and socioeconomic identities– refers to people of mixed heritage, mainly African slaves, Free People of Color, Native Americans and Europeans, especially French and Spanish, who speak a regional dialect of French.

Creole Migration from Southwest Louisiana: 1940-1970

Part of the larger movement of the Great Migration, there was a massive wave of migration from Southwest Louisiana to California starting in the 1940s. Between 1940 and 1945, the total population growth for San Francisco was by 30%, while the African American population growth in SF was by 665%. African American population growth in Oakland over those 5 years was by 341%, Richmond was by 5,003%. (It should be noted that, until the 70’s, Black Creoles were often lumped together with “African American” category.)

It was driven primarily by the rapidly growing wartime industry in shipyards, most notably the Kaiser Shipbuilding Corporation in Richmond, CA. Kaiser actively recruited migrant workers by dispatching recruiting teams to the Midwest and the South, distributing flyers, and paying for one-way train tickets for the laborers moving out west.

Besides the economic incentives, the migration was catalyzed by the desire of black Creoles to escape the oppressive climate of the South defined by not only the racism of Jim Crow laws, but also the religious discrimination by the rural, fundamentalist Protestant church.

Once on the West Coast, community-building owed much to the Catholic church. Churches, such as St. Marks Catholic Church in Richmond, CA where we meet accordion player Andre Thierry in our story, were important meeting grounds for the Creole immigrants in an otherwise largely Protestant and Baptist African American community.

Although the wartime boom came to an end, social inequality in the South and differential economic opportunity still made California an attractive destination for Creoles from Southwest Louisiana. The initial wartime migration paved ways for friends and relatives to follow, well into the 1970s and even today.

Accordion in Louisiana
How did the accordion arrive in Louisiana? Again, there are contested stories — but often the Germans are known as the importers of the accordion to Southwest Louisiana. Equally important are the Acadians from Nova Scotia, Canada, which is where the European Creoles migrated from, who also use the accordion as their central instrument.

Broadly speaking, accordion players of Zydeco – accordion-powered traditional dance music of the black Creoles of Southwest Louisiana — use both the Cajun button accordion, a popular choice for Cajun music, and the piano accordion, as it was the instrument of choice by the King of Zydeco Clifton Chenier himself. Button accordions can have one, two, or three rows of buttons for the right hand, but there is a strong preference in a Cajun music setting for the one-row accordion. In the story page, you can see photos in which Andre Thierry plays both instruments. (You can read more on different types of the accordion on the 101 page, too.)

References/Suggested Readings:
Dewitt, Mark. 1999. “Heritage, Tradition and Travel: Louisiana French Culture Placed on a California Dance Floor.” The World of Music 41(3):57-83

_______. 2001. “In the Cajun Idiom: Mutual Influences of Dance Music Style and Diatonic Accordion Technique.” Musical Performance vol.3 (2-4): 185-214.

_______. 2003. “The Diatonic Button Accordion in Ethnic Context: Idiom and Style in Cajun Dance Music.” Popular Music and Society 26(3):305-30

_______. 2008. Cajun and Zydeco Dance Music in Northern California
Modern Pleasures in a Postmodern World.
University of Mississippi Press.

Jolivétte, Andrew. 2007. Louisiana Creoles: cultural recovery and mixed-race Native American identity. Lexington Books.

Moore, Shirley Ann Wilson. 2000. To Place Our Deeds: The African American Community in Richmond, California, 1910-1963. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Tisserland, Michael. 1998. The Kingdom of Zydeco. New York: Arcade Publsihing.

In search of the California Dream: from Houston, Texas to Richmond, California, 1943 : oral history transcript. Interview conducted by Judith K. Dunning, introduction by Jim Quay ; Regional Oral History Office, The Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley, 1986.