Historically Speaking: Who was Celia Harper?

By Jessica Gorman

Most people have probably never heard of Celia Harper before. A Shreveport Times article published 3 July 1887 reveals Mrs. Harper’s significance in Minden history. On 1 July 1887, she became the first black woman to own property in what was then the town of Minden. 

Celia Harper’s headstone gives 18 November 1854 as her date of birth. As evidenced by different records, her father was John Lasur/Laseur/Lacier. Her mother was Phoebe Alexander who was married to George Alexander. 

In the 1880 U. S. Census, Celia Laseur is recorded living with her eight year-old son, Jetty, and her five year-old daughter, Theo. Later that year, on 23 December 1880, Celia married Charles Harper. So far, I haven’t learned much about Mr. Harper, but in 1900, Celia is identified as a widow on the census indicating that he died sometime between December 1880 and 1900. It is likely that he died before July 1887. 

As previously mentioned, on 1 July 1887, Mrs. Celia Harper, purchased property in Minden. The legal description of this property identifies it as the south half of Lot No. 2 “fronting on the parallelogram.” It was purchased for $250 “cash in hand.” This transaction was witnessed by Isaac Sylvestine and Willis Ford. Willis Ford was a black man who served as police juror for Ward 4 in Webster Parish in the 1870s. It was at this location that she operated a boarding house. On 31 March 1894, she purchased the adjacent northeast half of Lot No. 1 “with all buildings and improvements” for $225 cash. This transaction was witnessed by J. H. Tillman and J. R. Miller.

The location of Lots No. 1 and 2 can be determined using the Williamson Jones map of the Town of Minden. These lots were located at the corner of South Broadway and what was then known as Putnam. Putnam is now Pearl Street. The property purchased by Mrs. Celia Harper wasn’t just in Minden, it was practically across the street from the courthouse built in 1872. 

It is not known exactly how long she operated the boarding house, but a row of stores was later built here along Broadway. Those stores were torn down to allow for construction of the Minden Civic Center. 

This was not the only property owned by Celia Harper. The will of her son Jetty, dated 1938, states that he, and his sister Theo, had inherited property from their mother in both Minden and Shreveport. More research is needed concerning this other property.

When researching, it is important to pay attention to the details. While I was interested in learning more about Mrs. Harper, I soon realized that there was also a story to tell about each of her children. 

The 1880 U. S. Census identifies both children as mulatto while their mother is listed as black. This would imply that the children had white fathers. It would be easy to make assumptions about the paternity of these children, but we should always avoid making assumptions about the events of the past. It is important to remember that we must consider what evidence we have and what it is telling us. And, to consider that evidence without adding our own embellishments.

Both children were born after the Civil War, Jetty about 1872 and Theo about 1875. This was before their mother’s marriage to Charlie Harper. They are identified by different surnames, implying that they not only had different fathers, but that it was no secret who their fathers were. 

With the exception of the 1880 U. S. Census, Jetty is consistently identified as Jetty Burson. His father cannot be identified with any certainty, but the Louisiana Death Index indicates that his death certificate names Fate Burson as his father. Information on a death certificate is, of course, typically provided by a surviving relative. Jetty Burson not only knew who his father was, but this information suggests that this his name was also known by other family members. 

In the case of Theo, she seems to have, at some point, taken the surname of her step-father, Charlie Harper. She is identified as Theo Harper both in the 1900 census and on her marriage license. However, the 1880 census, as well as the California Death Index, do provide a surname for her father, Chaffe. The California Death Index provides a surname but no given name for her father. The 1880 census identifies her as Theo J. B. Chaffe. So, just who was her father? We may never be able to say for sure, but the census also provides another piece of evidence. The birthplace of Theo’s father is given as England and, as we know, several members of the Chaffe family immigrated from England. So, it would seem that while not directly identified, the father of Celia Harper’s daughter, Theo, was a member of the Chaffe family who was born in England. 

I hope to learn more about the lives of Mrs. Celia Harper and her children. I feel that they have a story to tell. Especially, considering the surprising realization that I have had about her children. 

This column is intended to share snippets of Webster Parish history. Please direct any questions or suggestions to dorcheatmuseum@yahoo.com or visit us at the museum. 

(Jessica Gorman is the Assistant Director and Archivist for the Dorcheat Historical Association Museum in Minden and is an avid genealogist.)

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