As an award-winning broadcast reporter, Darla Montgomery has worked her way through the TV hierarchy to now support and represent Creole reporters who are following in her footsteps.
Who is Darla Montgomery?
Darla Montgomery is a native of Opelousas, Louisiana and has been on the air in Acadiana since 1992, both anchoring and reporting. Darla is an Associated Press award winner for spot news, feature reporting and public affairs. Her public affairs award recognised a half-hour documentary chronicling the life of an Acadiana priest and his mission in Haiti. Darla attended the University of Southwest Louisiana from 1980 to 1985, majoring in broadcast communication.
“I grew up listening to zydeco music, and we had dances on the porch or at a relative’s home. My grandmother was a Comeau from Opelousas and there were 12 children. A very large family. Her father was a sharecropper for some time, while her mother was more of a cook and a maid, so she would clean houses, as many people did.”
Darla says one of her favourite aunts, her grandmother’s sister, was Anna Comeau. Anna worked for a Jewish family who moved to New York, so Darla grew up eating a lot of different cuisines. “I had grape leaves and eggplant and those types of things. Of course, the cuisine was mixed with Creole culture, so it was flavoured and seasoned a little differently.”
She also grew up eating smothered okra, which is very creole, and gumbo, which has roots in Africa. Darla says: “Our lives centred around cuisine, music, and culture. Everyone knows how to cook, and if you don’t, there’s a problem, from these parts.”
Darla’s grandmother was a seamstress, while her grandfather was an upholsterer. She says that they were so exceptional at their jobs that they had clients from all races and ethnicities. “It was very common for my grandmother to entertain white people in her home because she did work for them, and they became regulars and members of the family.” Darla describes her upbringing as very cultured: “I’d say it gave me an appreciation for people. I did not really recognise colour until I was in high school.”
Schooling and hard choices
A former pupil of the Academy of the Sacred Heart, one of the oldest schools in the country, Darla enjoyed meeting girls from all over the world during her time there. “It began in my grandparents’ home with meeting so many people and accepting people and being excited about that. Learning about life from them. Then, going on to Sacred Heart and meeting these girls who spoke different languages and who were just so interesting and wonderful.”
Darla is one of five children, and although her mother worked as a school teacher and her father had a government position, money was tight when growing up. “They weren’t hiring black electrical engineers then, so my dad got whatever job he could. The money was tight at the time, and we were five children. To have us all in private schools was expensive. In my senior year, my mother said, “I’m sorry, girls, we have to leave the school. Only one of you can stay.” After seeing her sisters’ faces and their disappointment, Darla decided to give up her place, despite looking forward to graduating as a senior.
She said: “It’s a big deal at the school, because you dress all in white. You walk under this incredible row of oak trees that seem to embrace your accomplishments. I didn’t get to do that. You get a very special ring with the Blessed Virgin Mary on it, as well. It’s a gold ring. Only one of its kind.” Darla’s love for her family is evident: “But it was okay, because my sister’s happiness, my mother’s sacrifices, and letting Mom know we were going to be okay. This was just going to be another cultural experience, the public-school system.”
Although Darla found adapting to public school a challenge, she says it did prepare her well for college. “When I walked into the public school, there were a lot of pregnant girls. There was a lot of language that I wasn’t accustomed to. It was definitely another experience. It actually prepared me very well for college life, because everything I experienced in school became part of my college experience, which was another wonderful time.”
After finishing college, it took Darla seven years to find a job. Eventually, Maria Placer, the first female anchor in Lafayette, gave her a chance. “She was a brilliant woman, and I do not say this because she’s no longer here, she’s still with us. She’s brilliant, and really brought integrity to journalism, and also as a mentor. If she saw someone’s talents and knew of their abilities, she definitely developed it and helped you move on. She devoted her life to TV.”
Darla says her Creole culture plays a big role in her career, and she believes it has given her an advantage over people who are not from the same parts. “I mean that in terms of just being known and trusted. That’s very important, to gain the trust of your viewers early on, obviously. I was raised that way, to be inviting, and sincere. It’s just a southern cultural thing. It’s not necessarily that everyone you meet is your friend, but you extend that and still have the wisdom and the discernment to know when someone has different values and opinions.”
“Maria told me I have the ability to listen with my eyes and people feel that. That’s how I was raised. That’s the reason why, I think, when you meet Creoles at an international level, there’s a connection.”
Darla credits her parents for encouraging her to embrace her heritage. “I have realised a lot of my dreams in my career have fulfilled my parents’ wishes, which was to follow your passion, and to achieve and to not sell yourself short because of what the world may say. It’s always been about what I can bring to the table and what I do.” Darla says she’s very happy: “I actually went beyond what I thought I could. My mentor and my mom, they both pushed me to realise my value not just career wise but just even as a person, as a woman, mother, wife, et cetera.”
Darla started at her current TV station in 1992, and is now the co-anchor, or one of the main anchors for the five, six, and 10 o’clock newscasts. She says: “When I started here, I was hired as office personnel. I answered the phone in the newsroom, that sort of thing. I wasn’t here a month before I got promoted to reporter. I think it was shortly, six months after that, I became weekend anchor. Then I did that for two years, and I became the morning anchor. I did that for five years.”
Her passion has gone from building her career to wanting to help others do the same. “I kind of do that already, but it’s free. I love helping. There are a lot of young reporters who now start and they feel that they can have my job today. They think I’m just reading the news. It’s so much more than that. But then, there are others who come on board and are like little sponges, and they spend every moment with me that they can, and they’re absorbing and wanting to learn and be better and perfect their craft.”
Despite facing great challenges – she says it’s a very male dominated profession – she’s pleased to see more black reporters on the air: “I find that I did face some discrimination, in the beginning, because if a black person was hired and they were fired, or they left, whatever the situation, they were replaced by another black person. There was only ever one black person on air at a time. Now, we have many.”
So has she accomplished everything she wanted to? “Yes! And I would not change anything. It was, and still is, a learning experience, and I think, no, I know that when you stop learning, you stop growing. You stop living. I never felt like ‘I made it, I’m at the top and I’m the best thing ever, and this is great’. It’s like, “Okay, what’s next? What am I going to learn today?”.