By Jessica Gorman
History isn’t always pleasant. We tend to avoid the unpleasant, and when confronted by it, it can be difficult to know how to respond. So, how do we handle the uncomfortable parts of our history? I’ve been pondering this question for some time, deliberating whether to share this information and if so, how to do it appropriately. Ultimately, I decided that it is a prime example of why we need to consider how we deal with the unsettling parts of our history.
If you have heard the name Ben Earl Looney, you know that he was a famous artist. He was born in Yellow Pine in 1904. His family later moved to Minden where he graduated from Minden High School in 1922. He went on to attend Centenary College and Louisiana State University. His art studies took him to the Corcoran Art School, the Summer School of Art in Maine, and the Art Students League of New York City. He served as head of the art department at Columbia Grammar School, Trinity and St. Agatha Episcopal Schools, and the Cambridge School. He was a faculty member at the Ringling School of Art. In 1933, he returned to LSU as head of the first art department at the school. He later became director of the Greensboro Art Center and was then named assistant state art director of North Carolina. His work has been displayed across the country including at the Smithsonian. I could go on, but that is not the point of this article.
Locally, despite his extensive accomplishments, Ben Earl Looney is considered a forgotten artist. That is not by accident. By the mid-1940s, he had returned to Minden and was head of the arts department for the City of Shreveport’s recreation program and teaching at Southfield School. During this time, an investigation had been opened by the City of Shreveport, the juvenile court, and the state police in response to allegations of immoral conduct against Looney. Mayor Clyde Fant had instructed investigators “to go the limit” in their investigation. Ben Earl Looney was arrested in March of 1948 and charged with contributing to the delinquency of juvenile boys. It was described by investigators as one of the worst cases they had ever seen. Looney plead guilty to nine of eleven charges of contributing to the delinquency of juveniles through indecent behavior and was sentenced to 10 years in the Louisiana State Penitentiary. Minden newspapers were silent on his arrest and sentencing.
Ben Earl Looney only spent three years in prison. He was paroled on 18 August 1951. After his release, he made his home in Lafayette where he continued in his artist pursuits. He died of Parkinson’s Disease in 1981.
It has been implied that Looney was “forgotten” by the people of Minden because they did not agree with his lifestyle. In reality, it would seem that Minden deliberately dissociated with the artist based on these horrific acts.
How do we reconcile the professional accomplishments of Ben Earl Looney with the reality of his personal life? As a community, we must consider how to handle the potentially ugly parts of our history. Today, our increased access to information makes it much more likely that events that were once “forgotten” will once again be “remembered.” It is important to recognize that no matter how much we know, there will always be more that we are not aware of. How do we respond when confronted with these events?
(Jessica Gorman is the Assistant Director and Archivist for the Dorcheat Historical Association Museum in Minden and is an avid genealogist.)