- Associated Press - Sunday, October 22, 2017

HOUMA, La. (AP) - Earl Theriot graduated from St. Lucy’s Catholic School in Houma in 1954 at a time when segregation was still a stark reality across the U.S.

He once sat at a lunch counter where he was denied service because of the color of his skin.

Decades later, he is using his talent as an artist to preserve the stories of black men throughout history, hoping the next generation will realize the importance of the past.

After graduating high school, Theriot decided to accept a scholarship at a school in Wisconsin where he would receive free room and board. But when he arrived, he quickly learned that he was one of only three black men on campus, Theriot said.

After the first year of feeling alienated, he came back to the area and graduated from Xavier University in 1959 with a degree in art education.

But the country had other plans. He was called to serve in the Army for two years, and then his service was extended for eight months during the Berlin Crisis.

Theriot said he never ended up becoming an art teacher. Instead he worked for the Illinois Department of Public Aid in Chicago for 30 years where he settled down and built a family.

During that time, he’d paint smaller landscapes here and there, inspired by photos from his travels through the country.

The landscapes show a just a small snapshot of the places he has traveled - a roadside market in Jamaica, a lighthouse on Lake Michigan and his son fishing on Bayou Black.

When he retired, he and his wife Sue moved back home to Houma. Now, Theriot fills his days with going to the gym and stopping by the Finding Our Roots African American Museum to paint.

With each portrait, Theriot said he hopes to bring attention to the everyday people who lived through slavery by creating portraits of slaves who worked the local fields.

One painting he’s working on depicts a sharecropper, a man who lived in a small house on a large farm, but didn’t own any of it, Theriot said. Another is a young boy carrying a bucket of water in a field.

Both were inspired by photos found hanging on the museum’s walls.

When the museum opened in February, Theriot had just completed a mural on the back wall, inspired by stories of slaves being taken away from their homeland.

The mural depicts a ship sailing off into the ocean, with a multi-faced Africa saying goodbye to the ship and greeting the observer.

African-American heroes are pictured on the right side and don’t include Avery C. Alexander, a leader in Louisiana’s Civil Rights movement, Theriot noted.

A white almost ghostly face represents Alexander’s grandmother and Theriot’s great-grandmother, Edith Smith Talbot.

“She’s our link,” Theriot said with a smile on his face, proud of all that his family has accomplished.

Others depicted in the mural represent African Americans’ ancestors, inspired by photographs of slaves seen in the museum. But there is one exception of a man who stands with a blank face, said to represent everyone’s ancestors, Theriot said.

A lone hand waves to the ship as it prepares to leave the harbor, symbolizing the slaves’ separation not only from the mother country but in many other ways, Theriot said.

“How do they look at us now?” Theriot asked about those still living in Africa.

It’s important to find out where we came from, he said.

The hope is that younger people who view the mural will get a sense of their history and become inspired to learn more about where they came from, Theriot said.

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