Jim Bradshaw: Pioneering feminist was also booster of Acadian culture
Susan Evangeline Walker Anding, was a leader in the woman’s suffrage movement who wanted more than just a vote. She also demanded a voice in public affairs, which she got and used well.
She was a tireless promoter of good roads and led projects that included the creation of the Louisiana Blood Bank, but her lasting legacy may be that she was one of the first and most effective advocates, decades before the so-called Cajun renaissance of the 1970s, in a movement to raise the image and self-esteem of the Acadians of south Louisiana.
A big piece of that legacy is in the monument she dreamed up: The Longfellow-Evangeline State Park, the first state park in Louisiana.
Remarkably, Susan was not of Acadian ancestry. She was born March 16, 1878, in Opelousas, the oldest of six children of Samuel R. Walker and Mary Elizabeth Boagni.
She was christened Susan Eliza Walker, but she became so enamored with Longfellow’s tale of the Acadian exile that she changed her middle name to Evangeline and used Longfellow’s heroine to promote her many projects.
She was educated in Opelousas schools, at St. Mary’s Academy in San Antonio, and the Academy of the Sacred Heart in Grand Coteau.
She married Allen Astor Anding on New Year’s Eve 1898, and was the mother of five daughters and a son: Mamie (1901), Eleanor (1903), Susie (1906), Constance (1907), Pearl (1909) and Allen (1910).
Even while raising that sizable family, as historian W. Fitzhugh Brundage points out in a book about people who helped maintain cultural identities in the South, “she earned a regional reputation as an irrepressible promoter.” (Where These Memories Grow: History, Memory, and Southern Identity, University of North Carolina Press, 2000).
She was a tireless advocate for good roads and represented five governors (Luther Hall, Ruffin Pleasant, John Parker, Henry Fuqua, and Huey Long) at national conventions of the Good Road Association, which was organized in 1900 to promote a national highway system. Because of that pioneering work, she was the first woman named to the association’s board.
She came up with the idea of establishing a monument to the Acadians in 1925. She thought St. Martinville was the right spot for it, not coincidentally, according to Brundage, because the town was included in a system of national highways that she was promoting.
She used what Brundage called “uncanny promotional skills” to coax “newspaper editors, public officials, and members of the Acadian, Anglo, and Creole elite of southwestern Louisiana” to join her Longfellow-Evangeline Association, urged schoolkids to contribute pennies to a construction fund, and cajoled anyone who would listen into backing her idea.
Her most-remembered, and perhaps most effective, idea was to use young ladies dressed in the “charming costumes of the period when Evangeline lived” to evoke the drama and romance of the Acadian tale.
She chaperoned a group of “Evangeline Girls” to both the Republican and Democratic national conventions in 1928, and took them to Washington in 1929 for the inauguration of President Herbert Hoover, gaining attention for the national park that she wanted.
But then Susan’s health began to fail. She’d been injured in an automobile accident, then some of the wind was taken from her sails by the death of her husband.
Even so, she did not allow her dream to die. She was there when the Longfellow Evangeline Memorial State Park was dedicated 80 years ago, on Saturday, Oct. 23, 1937.
It was not the national park that she’d hoped for, but over the years it has helped to accomplish the goal she set — recognition across the nation of the people and culture represented by Longfellow’s
Evangeline, the heroine she loved and whose name she adopted.
Susan died on Feb. 19, 1948, and is buried in the St Landry Catholic Cemetery in Opelousas.
Her legacy, Brundage says, is that she “wed the relentless boosterism of the era with the emerging interest in promoting Acadian self-esteem.
She prodded Acadians and non-Acadian sympathizers to organize and present their collective history in new ways and to new audiences.”
A collection of Jim Bradshaw’s columns, Cajuns and Other Characters, is now available from Pelican Publishing. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or P.O. Box 1121, Washington LA 70589.