Setting the Stage for the Chitlin’ Circuit: Thibodaux History and Culture

Hannah Robert and Jennifer Marts podcast editor & staff

Thibodaux, Louisiana, formed as a trading post between New Orleans and Bayou Teche in the late 1700s. This area, rich in cultural traditions, was a melting pot of races and nationalities. It was this mix of African, French, Spanish and Creole cultures that made South Louisiana a rich backdrop for innovative music, according to Curtis Johnson’s Glimpses of Black Life Along Bayou Lafourche

Today, Thibodaux is a modern college town, but in the 1940s and 1950s it was segregated. While this division caused much pain, it also paved the way for this small city to cultivate and protect a new sound being explored by Black musicians, according to Johnson’s book. Thibodaux, with its location between Baton Rouge and New Orleans, became an easy and welcoming stop along the Chitlin’ Circuit, a series of venues for Black performers. 

“Everybody wanted to play in Thibodaux because if you played Thibodaux, you were the top of the line."

The rich Black culture and community of Thibodaux fostered the musicians on the Circuit.

In the community, Black children in Thibodaux attended C.M. Washington High School, the only Black primary and secondary school in the area. Pioneered and named for Cordelia Matthews Washington, the school opened in 1902. 

“I had to make a round trip of 70 miles a day because I decided I wanted a high school education,” says Marilyn Marts, a Larose South Lafourche native. “It was such a long trip to and from school, I tried to do some of my work on the bus.”

While the school was segregated, it was known for excellence.

“In each of her students, Mrs. Washington inspired a sense of pride and commitment to service,” says Ronnie Winston, a Thibodaux police officer who attended C.M. Washington High school and was quoted in Glimpses of Black Life Along Bayou Lafourche. “We felt like it was a family, it wasn’t just like going to school. She made you feel like you were part of something. She encouraged us to excel. She encouraged people to do the best they can.”

Thibodaux also boasted a vibrant spiritual community, from which the songs and music developed. Churches like Allen Chapel, Calvary United Methodist, Moses Baptist and St. Luke Catholic Church created opportunities for the Black community to commune and enjoy music like gospel, jazz and the blues together. 

In Spirituals and The Blues, African American theologian James Cone says “…the blues and the spirituals flow from the same bedrock of experience, and neither is an adequate interpretation of Black life without the other.”

Margie Scoby, a local historian, founded the Finding Our Roots African American History Museum to preserve and share these stories and history.

“We all have the blues one time or another. They [Chitlin’ Circuit performers] just knew how to convert it into a song.”