Acadiana’s Forgotten Ambassador: New Iberia Native Dedicated His Life to Service
On Wednesday, the University of Louisiana Special Collections Facebook page paid tribute to Ambassador Jefferson Caffery on the 50th anniversary of his death.
Of course, Ambassador Caffery's name and legacy remain well known in Acadiana thanks to the major thoroughfare named for him. However, some may be surprised to learn that Jefferson Caffery is not the only ambassador to call South Louisiana his home.
In fact, Acadiana's forgotten ambassador has a street named for him, too. It's a small street in New Iberia--the one that runs in front of the house in which he was raised.
Wilbert Joseph Lemelle grew up on Frère Street and attended school just a few blocks away at the St. Edward School. Lemelle initially felt a calling to go into the priesthood. He left New Iberia after the seventh grade and attended the St. Augustine Seminary in Bay St. Louis, Mississippi, the only seminary open to Black Americans at that time. After 12 years studying for the priesthood, he left the seminary and became an academic.
Lemelle returned to Louisiana to take a job as an assistant professor at Grambling State University. After a brief stint in the Army, Lemelle enrolled at the University of Denver, from which he received his doctorate in political science and international relations. From there, Lemelle began teaching at Boston University in the institution's African Studies program. He later moved to the Ford Foundation, where he served as a program officer for West Africa, securing millions of dollars in aid for countries in that region.
His work there attracted the attention of President Jimmy Carter. Shortly after taking office, Carter nominated Lemelle to be the United States Ambassador to Kenya and Seychelles. In fact, Lemelle's Creole heritage and Catholic background allowed him to make a personal connection with Seychelles president Francis René, who, like Lemelle, attended seminary. The two remained friends for the rest of their lives.
Lemelle stepped down as ambassador after Carter left office in 1981. He continued his academic career as the president of Mercy College in New York and as the president of the Phelps-Stokes Fund. In the latter role, he continued his work in aiding African-United States relations and assisting African nations become further developed.
In 1997, Lemelle returned to his hometown for a special occasion. The city renamed Frère Street to Ambassador Wilbert Lemelle Drive. Lemelle became emotional reflecting on how his experiences in his hometown shaped him.
"I thought that having represented this nation and after having been called names by so many representatives of other nations in the (United Nations), I could withstand the emotional challenge of this day," LeMelle said that day, July 18, 1997. "With segregation and Jim Crowism, when our lives were threatened on so many fronts, the teachers at St. Edwards and the Iberia Parish Training School realized the importance of education."
Lemelle lived in New York until his death in 2003. Ambassador Lemelle Drive in New Iberia is a lasting reminder of his legacy of his impact on his hometown, his country, and the world.
The Association for Diplomatic Studies and Training Foreign Affairs Oral History Project conducted an oral history interview with Lemelle in which he discusses his life and career at length. You can read it by clicking here or by viewing the document below.