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Opelousas (French:les Opelousas) is a small city in and the parish seat of St. Landry Parish, Louisiana, United States. Interstate 49 and U.S. Route 190 were constructed with a junction here. The population was 22,860 at the 2000 census. In 2004 the city annexed territory and population expected to give it more than 25,000 people in total. In the 2010 census, the population was 16,634. Opelousas is the principal city for the Opelousas-Eunice Micropolitan Statistical Area, which had an estimated population of 92,178 in 2008. Opelousas is also the third-largest city in the Lafayette-Acadiana Combined Statistical Area, which has a population of 537,947.
With an area of 7.5 square miles, Opelousas is the most densely populated incorporated city in Louisiana. Founded by French colonists in 1720, Opelousas is Louisiana's third-oldest city. The city served as a major trading post between New Orleans and Natchitoches in the 18th and 19th centuries. Historically an area of settlement by French Creoles, Creoles of color, and Acadians, Opelousas is the center of zydeco music. It celebrates its heritage at the Creole Heritage Folklife Center, one of the destinations on the new Louisiana African American Heritage Trail. It is also the location of the Evangeline Downs Racetrack and Casino.
The city calls itself "the spice capital of the world", with production and sale of seasonings such as Tony Chachere's products, Targil Seasonings, Savoie's cajun meats and products, and LouAna Cooking Oil. Opelousas was the site of one of the nation's two Yoohoo factories until it closed in 2009.
During the tenure of Sheriff Cat Doucet from 1936 to 1940 and 1952 to 1968, the section of Opelousas along Highway 190 was a haven of gambling and prostitution, from which profits he skimmed a take.
As of the 2010 United States Census, 16,634 people resided in the city. The racial makeup of the city was 74.8% Black, 21.9% White, 0.3% Native American, 0.5% Asian, 0.0% Pacific Islander, 0.2% from some other race and 1.0% from two or more races; 1.2% was Hispanic or Latino of any race.
As of the census of 2000, 22,860 people, 8,699 households, and 5,663 families resided in the city. The population density was 3,240.0 people per square mile (1,250.2/km²). The 9,783 housing units averaged 1,386.6 per square mile (535.0/km²). The racial makeup of the city was 69.12% African American, 29.30% White, 0.10% Native American, 0.32% Asian, 0.02% Pacific Islander, 0.30% from other races, and 0.84% from two or more races. Hispanics or Latino of any race were 0.88% of the population. In 2000, 89.1% of the population over the age of five spoke English at home, 9.7% of the population spoke French or Cajun, and 0.7% spoke Louisiana Creole French.
Of the 8,699 households, 32.8% had children under the age of 18 living with them, 33.7% were married couples living together, 26.9% had a female householder with no husband present, and 34.9% were not families; 32.3% of all households were made up of individuals, and 15.0% had someone living alone who was 65 years of age or older. The average household size was 2.54 and the average family size was 3.24.
In the city, the population was distributed as 30.3% under the age of 18, 9.4% from 18 to 24, 24.9% from 25 to 44, 19.6% from 45 to 64, and 15.8% who were 65 years of age or older. The median age was 34 years. For every 100 females, there were 84.0 males. For every 100 females age 18 and over, there were 77.4 males.
The median income for a household in the city was $14,717, and for a family was $19,966. Males had a median income of $24,588 versus $17,104 for females. The per capita income for the city was $9,957. About 37.7% of families and 43.1% of the population were below the poverty line, including 57.2% of those under age 18 and 32.0% of those age 65 or over.
Opelousas takes its name from the Native American tribe Opelousa who had occupied the area before European contact.
The first recorded European arrived in the Opelousas Territory in 1690. He was a French coureur de bois (trapper and hunter). French traders arrived later to trade with the Opelousas Indians. In 1719, the French sent the first military to the territory, when Ensign Nicolas Chauvin de la Frénière and two others were sent to patrol the area, and in 1720, the French established Opelousas Post as a major trading organization for the developing area. The French encouraged immigration to Opelousas Post before they ceded Louisiana to Spain in 1762. By 1769, about 100 families, mostly French, were living in the post. In 1767, Saint Landry Catholic Church was built. Don Alejandro O'Reilly, Spanish governor of Louisiana, issued a land ordinance to allow settlers in the frontier of the Opelousas Territory to acquire land grants. The first official land grant was made in 1782. Numerous settlers: French, Creoles, and Acadians, mainly from the Attakapas Territory, came to the Opelousas Territory and acquired land grants. (Some people confuse the name of this Indian tribe and territory, Opelousas, with that of the Appaloosa horse. But there is no connection; the name for the Appaloosa breed is derived from Palouse, a river named by the Nez Perce Northwestern Plains Indians.
After the Louisiana Purchase of 1803, settlers continued to migrate here from St. Martinville. LeBon, Prejean, Thibodaux, Esprit, Nezat, Hebert, Babineaux, Mouton, and Provost were some of the early Creole families. (This use of Creole meant ethnic French people who were born in Louisiana. Later Louisiana Creole was a term applied mostly to mixed-race Creoles of color, descended primarily from African Americans and ethnic French, with other heritage in more recent years.) Other early French Creole families were Roy, Barre, Guenard, Decuir, and Bail. In 1820, Alex Charles Barre, also a French Creole, founded Port Barre. His ancestors came from the French West Indies, probably after the revolution in which Haiti (St. Domingue) became independent. Jim Bowie and his family were said to have settled in the area circa 1813.
In 1805, Opelousas became the seat of the newly formed St. Landry Parish, also known as the Imperial Parish of Louisiana. The year 1806 marked the beginning of significant construction in Opelousas. The first courthouse was constructed in the middle of the town. Later in 1806, Louisiana Memorial United Methodist Church was founded, the first Methodist and the first Protestant church in Louisiana. Five years later, the first St. Landry Parish Police Jury met in Opelousas, keeping minutes in the two official languages of English and French. The city was incorporated in 1821.
European and American settlement was based on plantation agriculture, and both groups brought or purchased numerous enslaved Africans and African Americans to work as laborers in cotton cultivation. African Americans influenced all cultures as the people created a creolized cuisine and music. The long decline of cotton prices throughout the 19th century created economic problems worsened by the lack of employment diversity.
In 1862, after Baton Rouge fell to the Union troops during the Civil War, Opelousas was designated the state capital for nine months. The governor's mansion in Opelousas, which was the oldest remaining governor's mansion in Louisiana, was the victim of arson on July 14, 2016, and the structure was reduced to a chimney and its foundation. The one-story mansion was located on the corner of Liberty and Grolee Streets, just west of the heart of town. An observation tower was removed from the top of the residence in the early 1900s, but the remainder of the exterior was identical to its original construction in the 1850s. The entire roof section of heavy rafters was held in place by thousands of wooden pegs, not one nail could be found in the attic. Plans had been made to restore the building to some of its former splendor. The capitol was moved again in 1863, this time to Shreveport, when Union troops occupied Opelousas. During Reconstruction, the state government operated from New Orleans.
The Union forces led by General Nathaniel P. Banks, who occupied Opelousas, found what the historian John D. Winters describes as "a beautiful town boasting several churches, a fine convent, and a large courthouse," far superior in appearance to nearby Washington, also in St. Landry Parish. Early in 1864, jayhawkers began to make daring daytime raids in parts of St. Landry Parish near Opelousas. According to Winters in his The Civil War in Louisiana, the thieves "robbed the inhabitants in many instances of everything of value they possessed, but taking particularly all the fine horses and good arms they could find." Winters added that conscription in the area came to a standstill, as men could avoid the army by staying within the lines of the jayhawkers. The conscripts who did not join the lawless element stayed home until the state or the army could protect their families."
After the defeat of the South and emancipation of slaves, many whites had difficulty accepting the changed conditions, especially as economic problems and dependence on agriculture slowed the South's recovery. Social tensions were high during Reconstruction. In 1868, in what is known as the Opelousas Massacre, whites killed 27 African Americans in a mass execution; they had been captured in a protest. Whites continued to attack blacks on sight for days. An estimated additional 23 to 200-300 freedmen were killed during this period. This series of murders comprised one of the single worst instances of Reconstruction violence in south Louisiana.
Following this, Opelousas in 1872 enacted ordinances that greatly restricted the freedoms of black Americans. These codes required blacks to have a written pass from their employer to enter the town and to state the duration of their visit. Blacks were not allowed on the streets after a 10 pm curfew; they could neither own a house nor reside in the town, unless they were employed by a white person, and they were not allowed in the town after 3 pm on Sundays. Like the Black Codes, such police regulations restricted the freedoms and personal autonomy of freedmen after the Civil War in the South.
In 1880, the railroad reached Opelousas. In the late 19th century, New York City social services agencies arranged for resettlement of Catholic orphan children by sending them to western rural areas, including Opelousas, in Louisiana and other states. At least three Orphan Trains reached this city before 1929. Opelousas is the heart of a traditional Catholic region of French, Spanish, Canadian, and French West Indian ancestry. Catholic families in Louisiana took in more than 2,000 mostly Catholic orphans to live in their rural farming communities.
In May 1927, Opelousas accepted thousands of refugees following the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 in the Mississippi Delta. Heavy rains in northern and midwestern areas caused intense flooding in areas of Mississippi, Arkansas, and Louisiana downstream, especially after levées near Moreauville, Cecilia, and Melville collapsed.
More than 81% of St. Landry Parish suffered some flooding, with 77% of the inhabitants directly affected. People in more southern areas of Louisiana, especially those communities along Bayou Teche, were forced to flee their homes for areas that suffered less damage. By May 20, over 5,700 refugees were registered in Opelousas, which had a population of only 6,000 people. Many of the refugees later returned to their homes and began the rebuilding process.
During the tenure of Parish Sheriff Cat Doucet from 1936 to 1940 and 1952 to 1968, the section of Opelousas along Highway 190 was a haven of gambling and prostitution. Doucet told historian Michael Kurtz that, with the return of Earl Long to the governorship in 1956, Doucet could bring back brothels and casinos and get a take of the proceeds.
The annual Yambilee Festival in Opelousas began in 1946. The harvest festival took place on the last weekend in October. Activities included agricultural competitions, carnival rides, pageants, and parades with floats. John F. Kennedy once attended. The festival has since been cancelled.
Since 1982, Opelousas has hosted the Original Southwest Louisiana Zydeco Festival. Usually held the Saturday before Labor Day at Zydeco Park in Plaisance, the festival features a day of performances by Zydeco musicians, with the goal of keeping the genre alive.
Additional annual events include:
Opelousas is home to several public and private schools. Opelousas has many public high schools, which are Opelousas Senior High, Northwest High School, and Magnet Academy for Cultural Arts. Opelousas Junior High serves as the area middle school. The city has seven public elementary schools. It is also home to one of the campuses of South Louisiana Community College.
The private schools are religiously based, including Opelousas Catholic School, Westminster Christian Academy, Apostolic Christian Academy, New Hope Christian Academy, and Family Worship Christian Academy.
Opelousas is part of the Lafayette television and radio markets.
The city is home to KOCZ-LP, a low power community radio station owned and operated by the Southern Development Foundation. The station was built by numerous volunteers from Opelousas and around the country at the third Prometheus Radio Project barnraising.
KOCZ broadcasts music, news, and public affairs to listeners now at 92.9. It was originally on 103.7, but had to move due to a full-power station being licensed to 103.7. Opelousas is home to The Mix KOGM 107.1FM, which is owned by KSLO Broadcasting, Inc.
There are two TV stations based in Opelousas, KDCG-CD (Class A Digital) TV Channel 22 and K39JV, another low power on channel 39.
The primary industries in Opelousas are agriculture, oil, manufacturing, wholesale, and retail.
The horse racing track Evangeline Downs relocated to Opelousas from its former home in Carencro, Louisiana, in 2003. It employs over 600 workers.
Opelousas is also home to Tony Chachere, a Louisiana spice company with a worldwide reach. The company makes a variety of seasoning blends, sauces, marinades, and other products.
In September 1999, Wal-Mart opened a large distribution center just north of the city. It is generating an $89 million impact per year to the area, employing over 600 full-time workers.
Musician Billy Cobham recorded a song called "Opelousas" on his 1978 album Simplicity of Expression - Depth of Thought (Columbia Records JC 35457).
The 1980s synthpop musician Thomas Dolby speaks of Opelousas in the first person in the song "I Love You Goodbye" from his 1992 album Astronauts & Heretics. The folk-rock singer Lucinda Williams mentions Opelousas in the song "Concrete and Barbed Wire" from her critically acclaimed album Car Wheels on a Gravel Road. Singer-songwriter and comedian Henry Phillips mentions Opelousas as one of the venues in his song "I'm In Minneapolis (You're In Hollywood)"'.
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