Esther Vincent has had a long and successful career of service in Lake Charles.
Born Esther Davis in the late 1940s, she was one of four children in a household of three girls and one boy. Her early childhood neighborhood was Fisherville and she attended Washington School, which was a K-12 school. In the 1950s her family moved to Cherry Street when the government bought her family’s land for I-10 construction. She remembered, “I did not live on a paved street in Fisherville, but I did on Cherry Street. On Cherry Street, we had sidewalks.” Her father worked at Columbia Southern. Her mother was a homemaker, though she would later become an LPN, an accomplishment in which Esther takes great pride. Esther stated “When we were growing up, I found it more family oriented. Everybody in the neighborhood knew everyone and people didn’t have a problem looking out for each other. My greatest inspiration was my family. Because of the expectations, and I’m not just talking about on my mother’s side. On my father’s side too.”
Her first introduction to music came early. Both her father and her church contributed to her exposure to music. “Oh my dad started that. He had me taking music at five, and then by eight I was playing songs at the church on the piano. My mom said when I was born he looked at my fingers and said, ‘oh yeah this baby is going to play the piano.” Her church, Reeves Temple, has a long history and many roots in the African American community. By 10, she was talented enough on the piano that she was playing at other churches as well. Esther remembered the Franklin E. Fondel Sunday Morning Gospel Program on KAOK radio: “He would have me on this radio show singing and playing.”
Two months before Esther graduated high school from Washington, her father died. Esther, her siblings, and her mother felt a weight of responsibility fall to them with her father’s death. Esther stated “my mother knew that she had to send us to college. I knew I was going to college. I came from a family who went to college. We knew we were going.” Esther laughed about how her mother was the one who really interviewed on Esther’s behalf for Esther’s first job at Calcasieu Parish School Board. When asked where she attended college, the proud Grambling alumnus responded with a smile and said, “Is there another one?”
During her first semester at Grambling, she was interested in math, but one day her roommate convinced her to visit the music department. The music professor heard her play My Country Tis of Thee and told Esther “As of this day, you are a music major,” and Esther remembered, “That was that.” She also began her lifelong affiliation with her beloved Delta Sigma Theta at Grambling.
Her first job with Calcasieu Parish School Board was in 1969, teaching music at Mossville Elementary Junior High and Opelousas Street School. She would rotate back and forth between the two; Mossville was in the morning and Opelousas was in the afternoon. This was close on the heels of integration and there was much relocation of teachers at that time. Esther recalled that some teachers feared relocating to different schools, but this eventually died down and slowly but surely, everyone began to work together. Esther would also get involved in the Vocal Music Teachers Association, becoming president of the organization at one point. Her teaching career would span over 30 years and would include the roles of music teacher, counselor, assistant principal and principal.
In 1975, the tenacious and determined Esther Davis would not wait on marriage or a man to set herself up for her future. In that one year, she earned a MEd in music from McNeese and purchased her own home. “I was independent,” she said proudly and with a smile.
In 1979, Esther Davis married Griffin Vincent. They lived for a couple years in Port Arthur and Esther commuted every day to Lake Charles, not wanting to abandon the students at her schools. During this time Esther also earned a guidance and counseling degree from Lamar. One would think that after her successful studies at Grambling, McNeese and then Lamar, Esther would have been finished or satisfied with her own education, but this was not the case. When she and Griffin moved back to Lake Charles, she returned to McNeese, taking administration and supervision classes. “I just kept going to school. I wanted to do other things. I never wanted to always do the same thing.”
She eventually entered administration, first as the assistant principal at Molo Middle and then principal of Ralph Wilson Elementary. Remarking on her days at Ralph Wilson, Esther stated “You know when I walked down those halls at Ralph Wilson, I would make sure they could hear my keys. Everybody knew I was coming, children and teachers. But we had respect for each other. I loved my staff.” When asked about her fondest memories of teaching, Esther stated “I enjoyed being a principal. I enjoyed every job I had, to be honest. I loved teaching music. It was always a variety. I enjoyed being a counselor. I cannot say what I did not enjoy.”
After 33 years in the school system, Esther retired in 2002. That same year, a job position was available with the City of Lake Charles. “Rodney Geyen, you know that’s my good friend, like my brother. He knew I was retiring and I wanted to do something else, not because I didn’t like teaching, I was just ready to do something else.” Rodney Geyen set out on a mission to bring Mrs. Vincent to the City of Lake Charles. Mayor Roach had known Esther from her work in the school system over the years and from working with the City on various initiatives. Rodney Geyen’s mission was a success.
This began her tenure as Director of Community Development and Services. This was a new job title created mirroring the work of a Director of Human Services. Originally concerned about the new responsibilities, Esther asked Mayor Roach, “Well Mayor, how am I going to do this? I don’t know anything about HUD. And he said, ‘well, you’ll get trained.” So began further education for Mrs. Vincent. She had a crash course, learning about HUD and CDBG funds and programs, making sure the City of Lake Charles’ federal allocations were spent legally and effectively. Her work with Team GREEN, the Leadership Team for Community Diversity, the Mayor’s Commission on Disabilities, and the Human Relations Commission all left lasting impacts throughout this community. To truly describe all Esther’s responsibilities and accomplishments at the City of Lake Charles, one would need many more paragraphs and words then are available for this commentary. After 17 years working for the City of Lake Charles, she retired in 2019.
Growing up during the 1950s and 1960s as an African-American woman presented many obstacles but Esther Davis Vincent transformed these obstacles into opportunity. When she enters a room, others know she is there. She is a force. Her wisdom and her love for her community resonate with everyone she meets. Her work in the school system, dedication to Delta Sigma Theta, participation in the Vocal Music Teachers Association, love for her family, and her work for the City of Lake Charles all have left an indelible, positive impact on Southwest Louisiana. For these reasons and so many more, Esther Vincent is a Lake Charles Local Black History Hero