ST. FRANCISVILLE TO BATON ROUGE (RED STICK)
It was an overcast and misty morning with rain threatening but never really materializing. We came down US Highway 61 the whole way. There was heavy traffic with fast-moving vehicles. Technically we landed in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, but our specific point of entry was Southern University and A&M College – Baton Rouge, LA where we spent the day.
Campus Security seemed to know we were coming, as they waved us along the riverfront drive all the way to the Red Stick monument. My parents were there waiting for us, and soon after we met up with Dr. Robyn Merrick, Vice President for External Affairs. Along with Robyn was N. John Oubre the University’s photographer and some goodie bags with Southern swag. We were instructed to immediately put on the two Southern t-shirts in the package and head back out to the Red Stick for a photo opp!
Following the photo shoot, we went back inside the administration building and upstairs to the Board of Supervisors meeting already in session. Apparently we had been included on the agenda, but amidst the serious business of the day, we thought we might be out of place! Researchers and enrollment officials made formal presentations, confronting major concerns of the University. However, after what seemed like forever, the lights came up and the mood shifted. Robyn took the podium and introduced us. I did my best to explain the purpose of gathering stories along the Mississippi River and the importance of Southern University in that larger narrative. The group of assembled dignitaries were gracious and kind with questions and affirmations of our work, also asking for a photo with the lot of them around the University seal.
We left the room where the Supervisors continued on with their meeting, but we only got a few steps out of the building before being called back. It appears that in our absence word had gotten out of my being from Lake Charles—home to a couple of the board members as well. Once we were back in the board room, they thanked us again and let us know they were making a formal recognition of our efforts, inscribed in the minutes with a certificate issued to us. We couldn’t have felt more warmly received.
Now we really made our exit, and Robyn took us over to the “Donald C. Wade House” (formerly the “President’s house”)—he no longer lives there, but it is historically where the presidents of the University lived and they still entertain there, as it sits on the bank of the Mississippi with one of the best views of the river. There we were met by Mr. Jimmie Wade who was set to drive us over to Facilities Services for a meeting with Maurice Pitts and Henry Thurman III, executive and assistant directors there. These two gentleman have a very personal relationship with what they call the “physical plant” of Southern University—the sidewalks, roads, ravines, utilities, and all other infrastructure—natural and man-made—that keep Southern in working order.
While we were only supposed to have 10 minutes together, Maurice and Henry packed in quite a lot of information, not to mention passion, into what ended up feeling like a much longer time frame. Southern University plays a major role in the surrounding community of North Baton Rouge, not just culturally but also physically, geographically. As Maurice explained, the University takes on all the water from storm runoff in the surrounding neighborhoods, brings it through their ravine system, and then the ravine drains the water off into the Mississippi River. As Maurice explained the significance of all this, Henry illustrated the landscape on a large screen TV depicting a map of Scotlandville and North Baton Rouge, tracing out where the ravines intersected and flowed through.
When you consider the amount of rain the city of Baton Rouge gets, and the flow running through those ravines, there is a lot of maintenance to consider in order to beat back natural erosion of the landscape. Simultaneously the river is putting pressure on the bluff at the 90 degree bend it makes there at Southern’s campus, creating another incidence of erosion to contend with. On top of all that, they recently discovered an underground stream that travels beneath campus, under the football stadium, flowing toward the river, also contributing to this confluence of assaults to the campus grounds and infrastructure.
Maurice explained that they are currently working with the Army Corps of Engineers to strengthen the bluff. Right now it’s a study, and his office has initiated the Federal Government to try to get grant money to address this. Maurice brought Colonel Murphy from the Corps and Congressman Garrett Graves to Southern recently for a half a day through lunch, and what he told them then is what he’s telling us, that with leadership comes responsibility. Maurice is advocating for both a natural buffer system like existing trees but also a manmade buffer. He says, “we need both, we need help, we need a man-made concrete type of shielding to go on, and that’s the study that the Corps of Engineers is revealing to us. And so now it becomes a funding [issue]… 30 million dollars.”
In an effort to secure this funding and raise the stakes for his cause, past and current administrators at Southern have done the work to get the entire bluff, the entire coastline designated as a National Historic District on the National Register of Historic Places. According to Maurice, now the Federal government has an interest in protecting this land and this place. Jimmie and Maurice drove us back to the Wade House and we walked out to overlook the river, the most beautiful view, he said. The work that has to be done, he reminded us, was for the river, but also for Southern—with roads collapsing due to the ravine system all tied to the functioning of the river. There’s much to be done here, and there’s a history to support why it should be done, Maurice said, as he walked us inside to begin learning that very history.
The house was set up with two round tables set for a meal, a group of people already gathered as we entered. Once Robyn arrived from the Board of Supervisors meeting, she introduced us around to everyone, including Dr. Charles Vincent, a professor in the History Department, Dr. Kimberly Ferguson-Scott, Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs, Malik Smith with the Admissions Office, Amissa Washington and Elijah Crawford, both sophomore students, and Dr. Leon R. Tarver II of the Board of Supervisors as well as President Emeritus of the University who were seated with me and Tom. Dr. Merrick took the helm at the second table along with Eli Guillory, Facilities Planning Director for the entire Southern System and Paul Jackson, Assistant Principal at Scotlandville Magnet High School, amongst others.
While Dr. Vincent is the historian in name, and has written the authoritative book on Southern University, Dr. Tarver is the storyteller. As we enjoyed our fish, chicken, gumbo, peach cobbler, and various other southern delights, Dr. Tarver dove into his personal history traced back to Haiti and the Choctaws—how his great-great grandfather escaped slavery by marrying a Choctaw woman and was amongst the 1,400 Choctaws who didn’t make the relocation trip to the Oklahoma reservation after the treaty with the Federal Government. This history of Blacks intermarrying with Indians as well as Spanish and French Creoles, this is how Louisiana has such rich diversity and cultural tradition, Dr. Tarver said, much like what he’s experienced in Cape Town, South Africa. This history is also how his family heritage became situated in northeast Louisiana to this day.
Dr. Tarver’s reference to South Africa is just the beginning of his relationship to another place where he traces his roots. He has been to twenty four countries in Africa—less than half, he says, but all over that continent. He’s seeking to build the history of his people and culture, a people who are often said to not have a history, Dr. Tarver said. There are also many, myths told about the people and the culture of Africa, not to mention African Americans, and he told the story of meeting a young Black man in South Africa who spoke four languages and knew more about African American culture than he did about African culture. When he asked the young man what University he studied at, the young man told him he only had a seventh grade education. Dr. Tarver almost fell off his seat at hearing this. Shaking his head as he continued the story, Dr. Tarver said, “I have a heinous thought which I oftentimes don’t put into words, but I’m old enough to put into words right now. The white man has really sold us a bill of goods, that there are a bunch of black dummies running around in Africa. And I said the only black dummies that I know about aren’t running around in Africa, they’re running around in my hometown.”
On the heels of this charged commentary, everyone at the table, including Dr. Tarver, is recognizing that we still don’t have a very good understanding of the conditions that lend themselves to the level of deprivation within our African American communities. Both Dr. Tarver and Dr. Vincent remembered back to when Lyndon B. Johnson started his anti-poverty program. That then, there was sort of this feeling in the country that somebody is finally going to start addressing it. At that time, Dr. Tarver joined the first anti-poverty leagues, but quit after two years. He realized in those two years that the movement was just “window dressing and cosmetic treatment to a much greater problem and actually the [Vietnam] war was killing us.” Dr. Vincent explains that there was a short time where these programs began to create a layer of the Black middle class, but then that got shut down. At the university level, at Southern itself, they are still asking the question upon graduation of whether you are the first generation in your family to get a college degree—seeing that number dwindle, but also seeing it in refrain brings tears to Dr. Tarver’s eyes, tears of joy and sadness.
Why is the history so important to revisit? Why are the stories so important to retell? As Dr. Vincent said, if we revisit how we got to this point, start with what is known, we can build on that toward a future. Another history we visited that afternoon at Southern was commemorated by a marble statue, as well as the name of the Student Union—this history is tragic, even horrific, the story of Leonard Brown and Denver Smith, two students gunned down on campus in 1972. Peaceful protests had broken out on campus and state police came in with tear gas and guns. There are still mysteries surrounding exactly how the students were killed or by whose guns, but they know the weaponry was from either the state police, the national guard, or the local sheriff’s department. The incident shook the campus, resulting in closure of the University for the remainder of the semester with everyone vacating until the spring. It was turmoil, Dr. Merrick said.
After taking in this solemn memory outside the old auditorium building, Eli, Robyn, Dr. Vincent, and Tom and I went inside to meet Dr. Tarver in this space now converted to a museum dedicated to African and African American Art. Dr. Tarver has been collecting art from all his many trips to Africa and was originally storing it in the President’s House while he scouted out a building on campus for a museum. The auditorium has an incredible history of dances, lectures, parties, funerals, even first lady Eleanor Roosevelt spoke at a convocation on the front steps, and it was slated for demolition. It seemed only right to save the building and its history and repurpose it for the museum. Inside we saw art from faculty members, local artists, and African natives: a series of enormous jade busts, a contemporary sculpture depicting slaves chained down on their backs with heads resting on folded Confederate flags, shackles, a bronze bust over five hundred years old from Benine, a depiction of a slave ship made out of close pins, a larger than life sculpture of Harriet Tubman done by an African artist, and much more.
So many striking images, and from a variety of places and perspectives, which brought up a last conversation about the charged nature of monuments, flags, and histories around the Confederacy. Dr. Tarver says, “the answer for this is always embedded in the spirit of the community in which they occur. And it varies from place to place.” And in his fashion, he went on to tell a story about a remote community in Colombia, 95% black in population, struggling with poverty and survival. He also told the story of running for Congress at the age of 25 and facing death threats from the Klan. Both stories carried elements of hope and disappointment, ambition and fear.
In the end, Dr. Tarver’s thoughts resonated in the room as he said, “I thought by this time it would’ve been over. I now can look at my children and tell them, when you reach my age, it won’t be over. And your children, and their children too. But, there’s a place for everybody to do something. Figure out what the hell you can do. We can’t all do the same thing. So you’re doin what you’re doin. And you’re doin what you’re doin. And that’s important. We don’t all have to do the same damn thing. But just, we’ve got to do something.”