A renowned Professor at Tulane University in New Orleans, Alcée Fortier was the author of numerous works on language, literature, and Louisiana history. Perhaps his greatest contribution to the field of academia, however, was the recording and preservation of oral tales told by the slaves whose voices had so long been silenced.
If you’ve ever played a game of Chinese Whispers, you’ll know that a curious thing happens to stories over time: they change with every telling, until eventually they barely resemble the original at all.
One man who recognised this was 19th-century Professor Alcée Fortier, the author of many works on literature and Louisiana history. Born in St. James Parish on the 5th June 1856, on the plantation of his grandfather, his paternal and maternal lines both descended from sugar cane planters of French Creole ancestry, who were prominent in the social and political life of the parish and state.
As he matured, Fortier developed a love of languages. By 1880, he had been elected Professor of French in the University of Louisiana (later Tulane University). He was a true and committed linguistic, eventually adding Louisiana Creole, Acadian French, and numerous European dialects to his repertoire.
From Language to Documenting Slave Folklore
As he expanded his vocabulary, Fortier began to develop an interest in the folklore of both Acadians and Freemen, and it was this that prompted his realisation of the changes wrought to the tales because of having only oral records.
The stories, many of which had started in Africa, had been passed down through generations of slaves via the oral tradition, slightly changing with each retelling. To prevent their original forms from being lost entirely, Fortier recorded them. He gathered most of his tales from the slaves he interviewed at Laura Plantation in Vacherie, which still stands today.
The stories he collated he published in Louisiana Creole and English. This meant that while he honoured their heritage with his accuracy and attention to detail, he also made them more accessible to larger audiences and thus cemented their place in history.
A Broader Literary Master
Fortier would go on to do much more besides. An extremely prolific author, he published numerous studies on the French literature of Louisiana and France, dialect studies of Creoles, Acadians, and Isleños, and in 1903, brought out a four-volume history of Louisiana.
A Plethora of Professional and Academic Roles
Not content to limit his achievements to the field of publishing, he was also incredibly active in local, state, and national professional organisations. He held the positions of President of the Modern Language Association and Louisiana Historical Society, a place on the State Board of Education, and membership of both the American Folklore Society and the New Orleans Academy of Sciences.
The Slave Voice: a Legacy Preserved
A bright, intelligent, and enterprising man, it was his foresight and societal clout that helped to preserve the stories of America’s abused and exploited. Whether it was a mere hobby to him or whether he realised that it was something far more important than any of the work he had done before, it is not clear. Nevertheless, Alcée Fortier gave the silenced a voice again, and made sure that it was kept safe until those who had so long been suppressed could embrace their heritage once more.