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Bobtown: Robert Celestin and a Louisiana Township

The Purchased of “BOBTOWN” text, prepared by Ethel “Sally” Celestin Dillon in 1996 showing Robert Celestin's purchase. TBC.RCHIn 1887, after Reconstruction, a black man named Robert Creecy purchased a parcel of Canebrake Plantation land in Louisiana from Florestan Waggenspauch. Creecy sold half the parcel to another buyer, while retaining ownership of the remaining land. In 1898, Creecy's son-in-law, a 25-year-old black man with indigenous ancestry named Robert Celestin, purchased the half parcel of land back, and Creecy and Celestin jointly owned the land going forward. On documentation, both signed their name with “X” as neither could read or write. Celestin and Creecy cleared the fertile and somewhat marshy land, began to build homes, and declared their township Bobtown, named after their shared first name of Robert.

People often said it took five men to build Bobtown. After Celestin’s wife died in 1921, he divided up his land among his twelve children as they came of age. Celestin, the beloved family patriarch, died in 1952. Bobtown emerged into a community of relatives that consisted of the Celestin and Creecy families’ houses, a family-owned store, the Morning Star Baptist Church, and two taverns, one of which was called Johnny’s Bar. It was built around a tree which extended through the bar’s roof, and also included a barbershop. There was one main circular road through Bobtown that connected these structures. 

The photographer Roland Charles was born in New Orleans in 1938, one of eight children born to his mother, "Sis" Gertrude Celestin McPherson. Charles grew up in Bobtown with his grandfather, Henry “Bud” Celestin, Robert Celestin’s oldest son. After joining the U.S. Airforce, he moved to Los Angeles to pursue photography professionally and to later open his own gallery, the Black Gallery, in Crenshaw. The Bradley Center houses the Roland Charles Collection, which includes a Bobtown and Louisiana series spanning the years 1937 to 2006. It consists of photography, exhibit and research materials, ephemera, and audiovisual materials, and documents members of the community, activities, and the dilapidated but mesmerizing landscape of southern Louisiana. It captures Charles’s efforts to reconstruct the history and genealogy of Bobtown while also immortalizing a community of kin at risk of disappearance. It includes several interviews with Celestin relatives, research and grant files from Charles's Louisiana exhibits on Bobtown, and images of nearby New Orleans, Marrero, Houma, and the Grand Caillou Route.

Locals that appear frequently in the series are “Aunt Lulee” Beatrice White Bolden and Willie “Putt” Bonvillian. Aunt Lulee made national news when she voted for the first time in her life at age 107, and lived to be 110. Willie “Putt” Bonvillian married Florence Celestin in 1923. Bonvillian was considered the “wealthiest” man in Bobtown owning A portrait of Robert Celestin. TBC.RCHseveral businesses and employing residents in farming and sharecropping. He owned the biggest general store in Bobtown, and built several establishments to attract residents, housing government soldiers, building a dance hall and baseball field, and hosting the first movie show in a tent. Oscar “Papa” Celestin, a cousin of Robert Celestin, came from a family of cane cutters in Assumption Parish before moving to New Orleans, where he became a jazz legend with the Tuxedo Brass Brand, performing regularly at the Paddock Lounge and occasionally with Louis Armstrong, who nicknamed him “Papa.” He visited Bobtown and his cousin when his schedule allowed. State representative and civil rights activist Avery Alexander was born near Bobtown on the Bayou Grand Caillou, and also visited often.

Roland Charles documented the Celestin Family Reunions between the years 1989 and 1998. The program consisted of a family church service in Bobtown, and then the actual reunion event with entertainment, cake, and socializing at the Armory in Houma. Although many relatives moved away from Bobtown in search of better economic opportunities, many returned for family dinners and the reunion. There are also exhibit prints from Charles’s 1997 exhibit "Bobtown: The Legacy of Robert Celestin.” Charles described it as a 25-year photographic journey through a 100-year-old African American community of French and indigenous ancestry. It is a visual narrative of a black family village struggling on the fringes of rural contemporary southern culture, where they face the realities of daily living, children maturing, adults aging, and the ever-expanding family graveyard.

Today, Bobtown sits astride Highway 57, the Grand Caillou Road. It is an hour's drive from New Orleans and about ten miles south of Houma. A few families still reside in Bobtown, but most have moved to larger cities for better job prospects and protection from hurricanes.

Portraits of Aunt Geneva Clark while she holds a framed photograph of Robert Celestin, her father. TBC.RCH
Portrait of Aunt Lulee (Beatrice White Bolden), daughter of Robert Celestin, stands on her porch. TBC.RCH
Johnny Bolden is cutting one of his best friend’s hair with Roland’s uncles Octave, Charlie, and Tiny (Charles) looking on while at Johnny’s Barbershop. 1979. TBC.RCH
Young Bobtown locals play basketball in the Bobtown’s main circular street. TBC.RCH
A group looks at photographs from an album while standing in the street. TBC.RCH
Bobtown as viewed from the side of the main road. TBC.RCH
A funeral in Bobtown. TBC.RCH
A view from a shed. TBC.RCH
Two locals relax on the porch. TBC.RCH
A group portrait of Bobtown children. TBC.RCH
A resident hangs her clothing to dry along the fence in the front yard. TBC.RCH
A family portrait. TBC.RCH
The cemetery in Bobtown. TBC.RCH
Morning Star Baptist Church, the Family church, co-founded by Robert in 1911. Two of his sons, Thomas and Jonathan, were ordained as Baptist ministers. 1994. TBC.RCH
The exhibit pamphlet for “Bobtown: The Legacy of Robert Celestin.” TBC.RCH
A group poses for a Celestin Family Reunion portrait. 1994. TBC.RCH
“Hot Buddy” (Joseph Celestin), Uncle Dan’s and Aunt Noon’s son, cooling out, after work, 1983. TBC.RCH
Oscar “Papa” Celestin, photographed by Ray Avery. TBC.RCH
The Purchased of “BOBTOWN” text, prepared by Ethel “Sally” Celestin Dillon in 1996 showing Robert Celestin's purchase. TBC.RCH
A portrait of Robert Celestin. TBC.RCH
Roland Charles poses with a colleague in front of his exhibit at the Louisiana State Museum. TBC.RCH
Roland Charles stands next to the stop sign in Bobtown. TBC.RCH
A member of the Trosclair family looks out from her window. 1983.
Willie Bonvillain Sr. and “BOBTOWN” text, prepared by Ethel “Sally” Celestin Dillon in 1996.

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