"Sherry T. Broussard knows how to tell a tale. Her words are delivered crisply and deliberately.
So it was somewhat of a challenge for the natural-born storyteller to not rely simply on words -- but, rather, photos -- to tell the history of the black community in and around Lafayette.
""Oh, my,"" Broussard said, ""I would hit my word count, and I would be devastated, because I couldn't tell more of the story.""
But, in the end, Broussard was able to tell the collective stories of many families and generations who have often been overlooked in the pages of history.
Her recently published pictorial history book, ""African Americans In Lafayette and Southwest Louisiana,"" contains nearly 200 photographs that paint a historically accurate portrait of the people who have called Acadiana home for generations.
""The terms African Americans and black are used in the book to refer to the unity of the people in the area,"" Broussard wrote in the book's Introduction. ""The focus is on the culture, rituals and customs ""» that captivates and stirs the soul.""
Broussard retired from the University of Louisiana at Lafayette in December, after more than three decades as an educator and academic librarian in public and private schools and at the university level. She holds three master's degrees, her last obtained in 2004 in reading and storytelling from East Tennessee State University in Johnson City, Tenn., the only such degree in the nation.
During her years as an educator, she produced black history and cultural programs for schools, churches and libraries. In 2001, a friend urged her to found the Bayouland Storytellers Guild of Southwest Louisiana. From there, she would spend the next three summers traveling to Tennessee and learning the art of storytelling from masters around the globe and even took part in sessions at the acclaimed International Storytelling Center in historic Jonesborough, Tenn.
Encouraged to collect the history of blacks in the Lafayette area, Broussard presented a book proposal last year to Charleston, S.C.-based Arcadia Publishing. It was, Broussard said, ""overwhelming accepted.""
The 128-page book, Broussard quickly learned, had to be completed under a strict six-month guideline. Pages could include one but no more than two photographs. Cutlines for each photo could be only a small paragraph, so brevity and concision were important.
""Limiting my words - that really was the biggest challenge,"" she said. ""I would be so captivated talking to the people about their pictures and certain aspects of the lives, I would write and write and not pay attention to the word limit, but I learned to be concise, while still being factual and honest.""
Since there was no defined clearinghouse for historical photos of blacks in the region, Broussard spent weeks visiting homes, families and churches to collect the needed photos. She ended up with hundreds of photos that had to be edited down to the 190 permitted by Arcadia.
""Our history, it's from here and there and almost everywhere, but you have to find it,"" she said. ""I was lucky. I've lived here for years and people knew me and trusted me to tell their stories and entrust me with their photos. I will be always be grateful for that. ""»
""I've always had a focus on black history and a lifelong love of black history. It gave me an edge for the book. I had always done a lot research and do annual programs to celebrate Black History Month, so I knew how to approach the book.""
Broussard was still employed at UL during the months it took to complete the book.
""It was quite a challenge to do this book,"" she said. ""I was up until the wee hours of the morning, and I was doing research and scanning photos.""
Her book has had a welcome reception, and Broussard has held 14 book signings since it was published, including one in Houston with one set for this fall in Atlanta.
""It has been so overwhelming, really,"" she said. ""I've been called a celebrity, which I am not, but it is so nice it's been received so well. I love that the book shows the importance of the community. It's past history and present history.""
The book is divided into six chapters: The Glorious Church; Education Heroes and Schools; Then And Now; Community Action; Against All Odds; and Movers, Shakers, and History Makers.
Among the many photos are historic schools and churches; scenes from the first black Mardi Gras parades; the first graduates of St. Paul High School; well-known musicians; a photo of President Bill Clinton with John W. Joseph, the first black mayor of Opelousas; and Christiana Gordon Smith, the first black graduate of the University of Southwestern Louisiana, the current UL at Lafayette.
Although the book -- with its limited cutlines -- doesn't delve into in-depth historical analysis, the history still runs deep and broad.
""People like the pictures, and, you know, they're drawn to read it, too,"" Broussard said. ""I hope it makes people more interested in history and others to do more research and to tell more stories. I hope it sparks an interest in getting others to tell and share stories. ""»
""I've heard from a lot of people - and it's really one of the nicest things - that they've found pictures of themselves or a relative or a friend that they've never seen before and they've learned about a piece of their life they never knew about before this little book came out.
""In a way this book is a way to keep storytelling alive, and storytelling really is one of the oldest art forms, however it's done, through words or through photos or both.""
Broussard concludes the book's Introduction with an knowing wink to the past and an optimistic nod to the future.
"" 'African Americans In Lafayette and Southwest Louisiana' tells part of the history of some citizens, but the story is immense and constantly evolving with contributions of African Americans ranging from business to the arts and outlets from festivals to zydeco music, ensuring that the black community will continue to enrich Louisiana, America, and the world.""
Last week, as she looked back on the success of the book, Broussard said, ""I wanted something from home that had that power to touch people who grew up here or had relatives here and who had those Louisiana roots that have spanned all across the United States.""
And, as the true and trained storyteller she is, Broussard said, ""I just wanted to tell the best story I could tell.""
News Leader, Mark A. Stevens