Black History Month
By J. Anfenson-Comeau
Last year, American voters made history by electing their first African American president; 32 years earlier, Eunice voters made their own history by electing their first African American city councilman.
Former city councilman Mike Dupre, the first African American elected to that body, was in Washington, D.C. for Barack Obama’s inauguration.
“It was the most beautiful thing, to witness history being written. I always believed it would happen, but I didn’t think I’d ever see the reality in my time,” Dupre said.
Over 30 years ago, many people didn’t think they’d ever see an African American on the city council of Eunice in their lifetimes.
It was just a few decades since African Americans were allowed to vote for the first time since Reconstruction, and only a few years since the courts ordered parish schools integrated.
Dupre was born in Eunice in 1943; a graduate of Charles Drew High School during the era of segregation, he obtained his Bachelor of Science degree from Grambling State University before returning to St. Landry Parish to teach at Carter G. Woodson High School in Lawtell.
After the school system was integrated, Dupre went on to teach at Central Middle School, and later, at Eunice High School, teaching mathematics.
Dupre’s political career began in 1972 with his election as Eunice’s first delegate to the Democratic National Convention in Miami.
“I was approached by a delegation of people who encouraged me to run for city council member,” Dupre recalled, saying, “I had reservations about it; I tried to get someone else who I felt would do a better job. But those who knew me said we would like to see you run for that position.”
Dupre took on the Ward 2 incumbent Tommy Powell in 1974, the first council race following the 1970 Census and reapportionment on the basis of one-man, one-vote, winning the primary but short of the “50 percent plus one” mark required to avoid a runoff election.
“During that runoff, that’s when the problems became really tough for me; lack of money, plus I was fighting a political machine during that time,” Dupre recalled.
Dupre lost the runoff to Powell by 53 votes.
Dupre took encouragement in the narrow loss, and set his sights on the next election.
Dupre continued to take an active part in his community and attended city council meetings, and when Powell left after winning election as public service commissioner the council allowed Powell’s wife to finish complete his unexpired term.
With no incumbent in the 1976 race, Dupre won, defeating his opponents “by a landslide” in the first primary.
In January, 1977, Dupre was sworn in as Eunice’s first African-American city official, a position he held for 14 years.
Dupre said it was initially difficult being the first African-American councilman. “I was left out on a lot of decision making, I was left out on appointments to boards, I was treated like an outsider peeping in, and not a part of the council.”
In 1982, he became the city’s first Mayor Pro Tem, allowing him to fill in when the mayor was unavailable, a number-two position which began to be rotated yearly amongst the council members. “That was a big thing during that time for a minority,” Dupre said.
As well as being involved in city and parish affairs, Dupre also became involved in state affairs, helping to form the Louisiana Municipal Association’s Black Caucus, of which he was elected chairman and served for 10 years.
“During the LMA meetings, we had our own little set-aside meetings and workshops for minority elected officials like mayors and council members, to brief them on rules governing what you can or cannot do as far as municipal laws are concerned,” Dupre said.
Dupre said that one of his most memorable achievements during his council tenure involved getting funding to improve a drainage canal in his ward.
“Whenever there was heavy rain, it would overflow and flood out the community. You had possums, snakes, you name it. It was just disastrous for us. Getting that fixed was a major project of mine,” Dupre said.
Dupre got the city engineer to draw plans for the improvement of the canal, but the issue was money.
During a visit to LSU at Eunice by then-Governor Dave Treen, Dupre invited the governor to visit the drainage canal.
“It just happened that it had been raining for three days. So we went through my district, and he saw what I was asking for; he asked me to come to his mansion the very next day,” Dupre said.
The governor gave $748,000 to Dupre for the canal project, and to renovate 39 homes in Dupre’s district.
“That was one of the biggest milestones for me. That did all the good in the world,” Dupre said.
Dupre served on the council until 1991, when he accepted a position as assistant to Public Service Commissioner Powell, his former rival.
Dupre’s wife Maxine was chosen by the council to fill out the remainder of his term, making her the first female African American city council member.
Dupre worked in state government for five years in the PSC office, before returning to finish out in the St. Landry Parish educational system, serving as principal of the Eunice Adult Education School for six years before his retirement in 2005.
Dupre didn’t get to enjoy his retirement right away, however. While clearing hurricane debris in the fall, Dupre’s ankle was crushed when a tree limb fell on him.
“I stayed at Opelousas General for about three weeks, and they were talking about amputation,” Dupre recalled.
Dupre’s daughter, Dr. Monacita Dupre, arranged for her father to be transferred to Houston Orthopedic Trauma Hospital, where they were able to save his foot.
Dupre remained in Houston for two years, recuperating, but kept in touch with people in St. Landry Parish. When Elbert Guillory won the state representative seat vacated by Don Cravins, Jr., he asked Dupre to come back to St. Landry Parish and serve as his administrative assistant.
“So that’s my retirement,” Dupre said, laughing. “Here goes Mike Dupre; I’m back in the political arena again.”