OPELOUSAS – Nearly three decades ago, John W. Joseph made history as the first black mayor of Opelousas — the state’s third oldest city. What he is thankful for now, he says, is that God “spared” him so he could live to see Barack Obama sworn in for a second term in office.
“Not just a second term — but a second term following a first term of substance,” he says.
Joseph, 79, never really expected a first Obama term, at least not in his lifetime. As a young social studies teacher, he taught lessons covering presidents, their cabinets, and their policies.
“I never dreamed I would see an African American elected as president. I joined many African Americans in rejoicing that I had lived to see it,” he recalls.
A lot has changed for the former educator, who grew up on a farm in Plaisance.
For Joseph, change has meant a different career path than he originally intended.
He wanted to become a lawyer, leading cases for blacks. Walking to school in the rural community as a child, he first witnessed the injustice of “the bus service for the other race.”
“There were times they would throw things out of the bus at the children walking to school,” he says.
He did not like it.
“But we were powerless to do anything about it,” he recalls.
Joseph would go on to make local history in 1986 when he was sworn in as mayor after retiring from the school system as a federal program administrator.
His younger brother, James, who wanted to become a doctor to cure the sick, instead ended up a U.S. ambassador.
Over the years, Joseph has had time to reflect on his life, particularly the path it has taken, which led him to write an autobiography, “From Farm Boy to First Black Mayor of Opelousas, LA.”
He remembers that being a farm boy meant living off the land.
“We were able to eat well, and everything we consumed came from our farms,” he said.
It meant getting up as early as possible for the treks to Opelousas to get the family’s cotton processed, and enjoying the wagon ride aboard soft bundles of cotton.
“I remember vividly that we were leaving the country — the rural area, the farm area — to go to the big city,” Joseph says.
“In my lifetime, I traveled to many big cities. But however, at that time, Opelousas was the only city that I knew of that we traveled to,” he adds.
In addition to being a farm boy, he was a pastor’s son. His father, the Rev. Adam Joseph, headed the Starlight Baptist Church between Plaisance and Opelousas.
“We were role models, and at that time, we had no perception of what role models do. But we were children of the pastor of the church, and our mother was the pianist,” Joseph said.
He was thrilled when the family relocated to Opelousas and electricity and gas became reality. No more kerosene lamps, no more gathering wood for the stove.
When Joseph and his brother were drafted during the Korean War, he remembers his mother, Julia Lee Joseph, worrying about them venturing out. But it was a world that he welcomed, and excelled at as a communications instructor in the army.
Threats on his life came years later from being a mayoral candidate, and vying for the municipality’s top position. An anonymous call led to him finding a gunshot hole on one of his campaign signs: right between his eyes.
He chose to let the sign remain in place. He wanted to send a message, and he did.
“I could have replaced it but I chose not to,” he says.
What kept him going during the campaign? “Prayers and confidence in my abilities,” he says.
While his mother did not live to see him sworn in, his father, who at one time could not vote, was there. What Joseph remembers that history-making day was that he had progressed a long way.
He also remembers thinking: “But John Joseph didn’t do it all by himself. He had a lot of help and support along the way.”
Among those he credits are his wife, Cecile, and his family. “I couldn’t do it by myself, but I had a wife who understood and supported me,” he says.
He also heralds the support of family, friends and neighbors for getting through those days.
When he ran for office in the 1980s, Joseph remembers no black had won a citywide election in Opelousas. They had won only district races. He believes his victory was one for future generations, including the black mayors who have followed.
He said wants to be remembered for opening the doors “for African-Americans in this region” and as someone who “tried to do the best job I could” as the city’s top official.
Joseph remembers being in the classroom teaching when Martin Luther King Jr.’s death was announced.
“He set the stage for many African-Americans, including me,” Joseph says, adding that King was an inspiration to many.
One of those others who King inspired is being sworn in for a second term as president on the anniversary of King’s death, and Joseph says he’s thankful he’s alive to witness the occasion.