When we travel, I like to have a purpose, something I want to learn about. This trip south, on the 150th anniversary of the beginning of the Civil War, I decided to try to find out if the Civil War did any good in solving the problems with slavery in the south. My rather weak recall of history is that although the slaves were freed, they were treated badly for the next 100 years, and only the Civil Rights laws and movements of the 1960s brought about real change, but things are fine now.
The first place we explored was Hammond, LA. This town has been in the news recently. Local Justice of the peace, Keith Bardwell, made the news in October 2009 for refusing to officiate at the wedding of an interracial couple. This town was the 1980s initial setting for the fictional town “Sparta” in the first season of “In the Heat of the Night.” In that TV show, black northern cop Virgil Tibbs (Howard Rollins) comes to work in a southern white town with police chief William Gillespie (Carrol O’Connor), exploring contemporary racism, modern policing, and other issues. I remember it as a good show.
Hammond is located in Tangipahoa Parish (Louisiana’s name for a county) east of Baton Rouge. It is mostly rural, crossed by freeways with a lot of urban mall sprawl. It has 70% white and 29% black people. Median income is about $30,000 with about 30% living under the poverty line. Total sales tax rate is 9%, split locally and state wide; property taxes on a $250,000 house were about $2,000; state income taxes are based on income level, 6% over $50,000. Louisiana is rated as a low tax state, but the ratings seem to represent a low income state where taxes are relatively high on lower income folks and relatively low on high income folks.
The week started with Martin Luther King Day, something taken seriously here where 30% of the folks are black. We chose to visit a local Black History museum. It was a very interesting, very professional and privately financed museum showing black folks history from their lives in Africa and the history of slavery from transport, sale, plantation life, Civil War, Reconstruction, Jim Crow, Civil Rights era ending with a display of current black leaders including President Obama.
We were led on the tour of the former blacks-only school by a teacher who had taught there named Adelle. She was 82 years old, strikingly handsome, with long black and white hair parted in the middle, flowing widely on each side. She spoke in very educated English; a school teacher’s precise enunciation, fluent, yet with passion. I started by saying “My great great grandfather gave his health to free slaves and his oldest son his life. One hundred and fifty years later, we are here to find out whether it was worth the effort.”
Adelle tells the rest. “After the war, there was a time that black folks did well—as long as northerners were in control, the Reconstruction. We had the vote, elected blacks to all levels of government and things were headed in the right direction. By 20 years after the war, the Federal government soldiers pulled out and local white folks took over again and proceeded to strip us of all of our rights. We lost our right to vote, lost our integrated public schools, and over the next 20 years, the whites took control of everything and made rules, down here they are called Jim Crow laws. They enforced everything with violence; the Ku Klux Klan rode around burning, shooting and terrorizing any black folks who spoke out.”
“They separated kids into separate schools. White folks paid taxes that went to white schools; black folks paid taxes for black schools. Blacks were poor and so our schools were poor. Black schools when I went to school in the 1930s ran only a few months a year, because we had to work in the fields with our parents to make money. “
“If a black man complained, he got lynched. There were hundreds of lynchings of black people down here. The whites ran around with sheets over their heads, the Kluxers (Ku Klux Klan) burning, shooting and scaring black folks who complained.”
“We had a few black colleges. I went to one for two years to get a teaching degree. Then, in 1952, I got a job teaching in a black elementary school. We got the old desks, books, and supplies from the white schools when they got new things. My salary, $51 per month, was half of the white teachers on the other side of town.”
“We did a good job with the children who did come to school, but many didn’t stay in school. Even with an education, black people couldn’t get a decent job down here—just in the black school or black hospital. Women worked as house servants; men as field hands and day laborers on plantations. You complain, you got fired.”
“We couldn’t stay in the white hotels, couldn’t eat in the white restaurants, had to sit in the back of the bus, couldn’t vote without getting in trouble. I got married and my husband didn’t dare look at a white man or woman straight on without worrying about getting arrested or a visit by the Kluxers. We sent our two daughters north for an education and they both work in good jobs, lawyer and business, but not around here. Still not possible down here for most black folks.”
“This building was the Mooney School, the local black school until 1968 when the school district was told by the court it had to integrate black and white. They had claimed that they had separate but equal schools, but they were not equal, not even close. They shut the school down here, because whites wouldn’t send their children to such a poorly built school. “
“Do you know that the local district is still under court orders because instead of really integrating, they have continued to play games with boundaries of districts that keep schools either white or black. Last March the court found they were still out of compliance and ordered more changes.”
“After the black school, this building, closed in 1968, few black teachers got jobs in the new supposedly integrated schools. I did, and what I remember most was the big boost in my salary! The schools really have never been integrated here; white folks with money moved their kids to private schools or new neighborhoods where new schools were again white. When the black schools closed, it was really hard for a black teacher or coach to get a job in the new schools—still is even with a court order that 1/3 must be black, never got near that. “
“You see this picture. ( She showed us posters of the 20 -30 black folks marching up main street in 1966.) Dr. King started us on non-violent marches to try to get our rights. That’s me. She pointed out a tall strong looking young woman marching in the front of a street following mounted police with angry looking white people lining the streets. I marched in those times. We got attacked many times by the whites along the side, throwing stones at us and sometimes punches. The white police pretended to try to protect us, but they were on the other side too. We registered to vote, and then politicians had to worry about our vote too!”
“It is certainly better now. There still is racism; white folks down here don’t give up their prejudices and privileges easily. But it is not out in the open like it used to be. They don’t lynch us anymore, we can vote now without being attacked. “
“I was so excited when Mr. Obama got elected president. I had always taught my students that if they worked hard, they could become president of the US, but inside none of us really believed it. We were trying to give the children a good education, and we did, in our black schools, but there just wasn’t opportunity for decent jobs down here“
“When Mr Obama got elected, I just knew I had to go to Washington DC to see it. I was 80, but I told my daughter I had to go! She tried to talk me out of it; but she hasn’t seen what it was like to be black in the south like I have—to be treated second class so much of your life that it just becomes part of you. I just had to go and be part of the biggest thing that ever happened to me in my whole life. She realized I was going to go what ever she said, so she took off work and we got to be in the huge crowd at the Capitol for inauguration day. We stood all day long in the huge crowd, so excited we didn’t even have to go to the bathroom. We milled around the area and managed to see President Obama as he got out of his car. It was so wonderful to see a black man president of the US. If I had died right then, it would have been worth all of the trouble and bother of 80 years of being black in the south to see this happen!”
“It is hard for me to see President Obama criticized. I think underneath a lot is really racism. It isn’t gone from here. It is much better, but, my how hard it has been to be black here for 82 years. I hope my grandchildren don’t have to see how people can have raw open hate for people just because of skin color. I think that is why some people are so vicious in attacking President Obama.“
“Religion has been a consolation for me. Whites wouldn’t let us worship in the same churches, so we have our own. I never could understand why, when we were all Christians, that white people thought making slaves out of us was right. Sometimes I think religious folks can be the worst when it comes to treating others decently.“
After the tour, Adelle and three other retired teachers who had taught in the segregated visited with us. I told them, “Up north, we don’t have discrimination in our churches.” Adelle said “It must be nice where women can be ministers or priests; gays are welcome and your preachers don’t rail against scientists and Muslims.”