His smile is as infectious as his wit is quick. His opinions are both direct and unapologetic. A man of broad talents and unusual experience, to say the least, he is currently, “Mayor Donald Cravins” of the Creole city of Opelousas, Louisiana. Who is he and what do you know about him? Who really is Donald Cravins and why is his story a memorable one, today?
After the American Civil War many families of these “free people of colour”, or Creoles who had fled to Texas and Veracruz, Mexico in fear and hopelessness, during the terror of “Reconstruction” had mostly met new disappointments there, too. Eventually, with the triumph of Civil Rights, many were to return to St. Landry Parish, where a new, enforced democracy of Civil Liberties was increasingly guaranteed. This is where Donald Cravins, the child and the adult was to grow up, ponder and measure his limitations, while planning his aspirations. It is also the sociological “soil” out of which grew his drive to rise above it all, by means of education and a genuine work ethic inspired by his own father and mother’s sacrifices, personal integrity and yes, humiliation. One is immediately struck during his interview by May or Donald Cravin’s very candid, loquacious and equally, welcoming nature. His faithful partner and wife, Pat, sits quietly and loyally next to him, as a Queen would her royal consort. Mayor Cravins, is indeed, a Creole patriarch who, quite good-naturedly, laughs at his own children’s characterisation of him as an occasional “grumpy old bastard” – when he challenges their views with counter arguments.
As he ponderously opens up, again confronting both his own familiar, but unresolvable emotions (yet, clearly untarnished by any corrosive hatred) in relating his memories of his father’s most painful experiences while growing up in post- Reconstruction and the American Civil Rights-era, Louisiana. The reader is warned in advance, that some of these reflections are quite painful, but are essential in communicating the psychological, sociological and political climate of that time. It was a time during which a then, young descendant of “free people of colour” – un Creole de couleur, Donald Cravins was to evolve, and emerge as a remarkable man. Now, officially a senior citizen, and ‘perfectly seasoned’ by life’s experiences and the sweetness that work, education and success bestow upon the industrious, Mayor Cravins remains iconic. He is an unapologetic, bluntly outspoken, but dignified, humorous, and highly respected living leader. In spite of experiencing and witnessing incredible injustices, he remains happy to have witnessed this period, even as he, himself, transcended and survived it.
Born in 1948, Donald Cravins Sr., was neither the eldest, nor the youngest of the nine children of Armas Cravins and Edmonia Guillory. His mother, was a direct descendant of the famous inter-racial couple, Gregoire Guillory, a son of an Alabama Creole-metis, “coureur des bois” and his beloved wife/partner, Marguerite, of Louisiana jurisprudence fame. Armas, May or Cravins’ father, was raised by a family of apparent German origin, recalls Donald. This he deduced from the family’s surname. Mayor Cravins’ family was not a sharecropper family. They had their own farmlands which remain under successful cultivation today. Like their neighbours, without regard for the “colour line”, the Cravins were open-hearted and generous in supplying or sharing whatever was necessary to offset any deficiencies of life. Material symbols of wealth, Mr. Cravins informs us, were not common to anyone in those days in rural St. Landry Parish, in Bois Mallet.
Regarding his family’s lifestyle, then and now, Mayor Cravins has this to say: “I mean we cook and we cook and we cook, and then cook, and then we drink a little bit; but I mean it’s just a day that we just invite people. Ahhh back when our parents were living, they were here, and they just come and we invite everybody, it doesn’t matter, if they have company at their house, and that’s just kinda the way we like to do things”. Unknown to himself, this same open-hearted hospitality to family and anyone else who happens upon such Louisiana Creole family gatherings, is a trait and tradition also common among the Seychelles Creoles of the Indian Ocean; a fact, observed by Editor of Kreol, International Magazine, Ms. Georgina Dhillon.
Georgina conducted the initial field interview with Mayor Cravins and his talented wife, theatre aficionado, Ms. Pat. Needless to say, to anyone familiar with Louisiana’s Creole and Cajun culture, Mayor Cravins’ words and customs come as no great surprise! It is with words which convey an abiding reverence and deep love for his father, which Mayor Cravins offered the following concerning his parents, his unassuming role models. “My dad was a farmer and a construction worker. He was my best friend, he was a guy that I loved with all of my heart and he was my role model, and for many men they can’t brag about their dads”. He pauses pensively, and continues emotionally: “…my mother was a wonderful sharp woman and I loved her dearly and she was a rock, but my dad-and we were nine children-he spoiled me like hell, he spoiled the hell out of me. I mean he was my guy, and he was a disciplinarian; …but he didn’t have to discipline me too much and one time I heard him tell a guy, tell one of his friends, -I would always follow him around- and he said,… ‘if you spoil them they’re always going to want to please you’.” And, of course, having been born into a world replete with virtually unlimited choices, opportunities and privileges, the mayor’s own children, as do any family members close to great people and personalities, may sometimes take for granted that the world which they enjoy, was also forged through the legislative contributions of their own father, as a former Louisiana State Senator.
Mayor Cravins has two famous sons and one daughter. Donald Cravins Jr., a trained lawyer, political leader and currently Chief of Staff for U.S. Democratic Senator, Mary Landrieu of New Orleans; and youngest son, shooting star, Zydeco musician-chanteur, Dustin Cravins. They also have a beloved and equally accomplished daughter, Denni Cravins, who has carved her own successful path in the world of public relations and communications.
Pat and Donald Cravins are also proud grandparents who nurture and love their grandchildren. They are Ms. Pat’s self-testified, “greatest accomplishments” – along with their children, too, of course! Regarding his personal work ethic, his recollection reveals both his empathy and compassion for his father. However, they also reveal the gruelling climate of discrimination, as well as, his (and our shared,) unfathomable emotions and inability to comprehend such irrational and inhumane attitudes of the times. In his own words: “I was in college 4 years and I stayed at the university but I came home every weekend to help him in the farm.
“When I really realised what my dad had gone through in life, was when I graduated from high school and I went to work for him in the plants, at the chemical plants….discrimination was rampant, and I couldn’t even envision what he had gone through 15-20 years before me, to be able to put up with that bull, I mean even then I couldn’t figure it out! Because even back then they spoke to black men like they were children, and I will never forget the first job I went on. There was some elderly guy who was riding in a truck with us, and this white superintendant got out of his truck-we couldn’t ride in the front-and he called Leroy and said: ‘Get your ass out of the truck and go and put up the garbage!’ I said how demeaning can that be! Nevertheless, I learnt something just 3 or 4 years ago about my father that really brought me to tears. What made him retire was that he got into an “accident” at a plant. A guy came by my office to tell me about it because, (as he said): ‘I didn’t really want you to know that…they broke his leg’. He was probably a sixty to seventy year old man.
“There was ambulance on the job that they called, but, they wouldn’t allow him to ride in the ambulance; because they didn’t let black folks ride in the ambulance and they had to load him in the back of a truck to take him to the hospital. He said that it started raining and he said, (the man who had informed him of his father’s “accident”), ‘I covered your father with my jacket…’ and I tell you, that really devastated me to hear that. It only reinforced with me how much of a man he really was, and he never said that. “I mean he grew up…; he never talked about his dad, and I know you” (turning to his wife), “said something earlier about not talking about dad’s dad. He never spoke about his father, and I don’t know what happened, and he was raised by a family of German descent.
“I know because their names were… and they were really really good to him, and they treated him nicely. I mean they were friends for life, and it was a different kind of relationship. He was a 6 year old kid, never went to school. I don’t think he ever went to school-smart man and uh, they took him in, and pretty much raised him. But, of course, his mother was living, because she lived with us in later years after he got married, and we took care of her until she died. I mean she was a grandmother, she smoked a pipe, but he never spoke about his life. He never would, and he never did. He was the kind of guy, he would never tell you what to do, he called me, ‘Tolley’. He would say, ‘If I was you….’ if I ever wanted to ask him something, and I would say, ‘What do you think?’ ‘Well, if I was you….’ -which meant, ‘that’s what I would do!’”
When asked what made him run for the office and what was his father’s reaction, Donald replied: “I never forgot what my father told me when I decided to run for office, and my mother simply said, ‘Oh, no, you shouldn’t do that!’ because of what had happened to her brother who had run f or office. That was in the 1960’ s, and he had almost won the election, and then, he died right after! When I told her I wanted to run for State Senate, she said, ‘I don’t believe you should do that’. But, I knew I was going to do that anyway, and then I told my dad, he said, ‘If I was you, I’d run but don’t tell your mother I told you that!’ “So, finally, she said, ‘Well, it’s alright if you want to run, but make sure you get yourself a physical!’ And, I said, ‘Okay, I’m gonna go do that!’
“So, I went and got a physical and then, I went back to her and said, ‘Doctor says I’m fine’. She smiled and said, ‘Well, I knew you would say that’. Anyway, they became my big cheer leaders, so the rest is kinda history. But, I really had an appreciation of what she had to go through raising nine children in the Jim Crow (aftermath) times of history.” When asked about his greatest achievement during the service as Senator, mayor Cravins paused for a second, and then, replied: “My greatest achievement let me tell you, may not be significant to anybody else, but it is significant to me, in terms of my career; helping people in the area to get jobs, (was) secondary. There was a prison called Tallulah prison and it was a youth prison for children-where they brutalised the kids! … I visited that prison for some years and I fought for many years to close that prison, because what they did to our children.
“They raped them, they beat them, they put them together so they could beat them, and every year I would introduce a bill to close it, and every year the state of Louisiana would put up the fight that it was an economic development initiative! The day when the lives of children and people become an “economic development initiative” and have suffered (for it), is a day that I don’t think we need in our society. I kept doing it and kept doing it until eventually we closed the damn thing! “But, not only did we close the prison, we used our clout to travel and see what other states were doing, and to see how they were treating their juveniles, and we reduced the number of incarcerated juveniles from 1,700 to 400 because of the legislation that we were able to put together. It took a lot of work, a lot of effort; and I’m talking about years of work. And, I am just talking about finding a common ground for us all to agree that we could give our children a chance. Did it do any good? I don’t know. However, I know I feel good about it, because I think that some kids might be doing better. Because we said, there is an alternative to incarceration; we’re going to use a therapeutic model. We can examine all the issues and address all the issues that it took for you to get there, in an effort, to make you into a better person. That’s the one thing I think (is important). Now, all the other stuff? “Now I did some nice things that I really, really enjoy.
“And, one of the other things is that, we used to give medicine to people that couldn’t buy it. We actually worked a deal with the pharmaceutical companies. We found out that they were giving billions, millions and billions of dollars of medicine away because they do it for trials and all that other stuff, for promotions, because they make so much money; and we found a way to manoeuvre and get people their medicine. One day, I was in a grocery store, and this little old man and this little old lady were shopping to buy groceries, and they walked up to me and said, ‘Senator Cravins, we just want to tell you how much we appreciate what you did’. And, I said, ‘What did I do?’ and they said, ‘You got our medicine!’ They were paying about $500 a month for it, and …, I started crying when I left. I said (to myself) had it not been for the fact that we got their medicine, they wouldn’t be buying groceries. That’s what makes me feel good. I remember the famous and controversial Governor of Louisiana, Edwin Edwards, while attending a recent life-time achievement honorarium in Lafayette, which paid tribute to me for the many years of honourable service and he described me as: ‘… gentlemanly’. The former Governor also added: ‘…even when he couldn’t get everything he wanted…! I suppose that tells you a lot about my approach to people and politics’.”
On the question ‘what is happening in the African- American community today’, Mayor Cravins replied: “The African-American community in America is a travesty, and to see all of those things transpire, is to look back and say have we really made any progress, and I would tell you tonight that the answer is probably an unequivocal NO. We’ve done nothing, because even though you have an African- American president, look at what’s happening in the black community. Tonight, you are going to have ‘murder running rampant and violence is going to run rampant’ – no matter if it’s in Opelousas or Chicago. It doesn’t matter. Or, New York! So, have we really made any progress? I don’t think so. We are a community in decline, and we can blame it on anyone we want. But, at the end of the day, we need to take a real close look at ourselves”.
Do you think this is going to change?
“Ohhh, I think it’s going to change! I’m not so optimistic that it is going to change in my lifetime, because if you look at what has happened in our community over the last 20 years. I mean 25 years ago, we were still a pretty solid community. But now, what we’ve done is taken the poverty, and some of which is self imposed, and we make it synonymous with crime! Well, in our generation, if we had taken that view, we’d all be in the penitentiary! “We would have all died in the pen, because we were all poor! My dad, my mother never woke up in the morning and said, ‘Oh, we poor, let’s go rob the store! Oh, you poor, let’s go and
hijack somebody!’ No! We now use poverty as an excuse for crime. And, you’ve had such a break down in the community that I don’t know how you recreate that. How do you recreate that; train people to be responsible? How do you go back and re-train people to be conscientious, how do you go back to have people become just?”
It’s a culture?
“It’s a culture, yeah, of corruption. And, I call it a culture of corruption-a culture of despair-I guess, would be a better term, and how do you change that? So, you have a black president-woopti do! Is he supposed to just wave a magic wand – I don’t think so.”
At the end of the interview we asked where does Mayor Cravins see himself in a few years from now. His swift reply was: “Oh, I see myself retired, kicked back and the hell with that! – Well, it will not happen!”The life of Donald Cravins Sr. remains both an inspiration and attestation to the honour of his parents, his people-les Creoles de couleurs-their values, faith and work ethic. His life and work are a testimony, also, to his love of democracy, and her tremendous power.
To those of us who are Louisiana Creoles of genuine faith, his life also provides a glimpse of God and His awesome providence in the lives of those who adhere to integrity. By today’s logic, it is a paradox that the unjust world of Jim Crow and its Reconstruction-era destructiveness and legally-imposed suffering should have produced so many successful, law abiding and principled men and women of the calibre of Donald Cravins Sr, across the American South. For Donald Cravins, the sum of all of his experiences, good and bad, resulted in an ambitious, but most admirable choice, against so many odds, to bring America’s new democratic ideals and opportunities home. He brought them to Opelousas; to his own family, to his local community, the elderly and certainly, to the hundreds of unknown youth, whose lives have been forever changed by his legislative work and legacy.
One of the greatest gifts Mayor Cravins was able to give his father and mother, who lived to see their son’s unexpected rise to political and social prominence and power, was the passage of pieces of legislation, so longed for by his father. This legislation continues to benefit his community and that of the larger community of citizens, of unknowable numbers, across the region and the State of Louisiana. And, now, you know something more of Mayor Donald Cravins, of Louisiana. And, perhaps, through this narrative of both history and the struggles of the Creoles of Colour, we can learn something more about ourselves, too.