West Pointe a la Hache to Homeplace (Port Sulphur Detour)
Cooler temps are hanging around along with a steady breeze. Today we ran the levee almost the entire way, running down the west side of the river from the ferry landing at West Pointe a la Hache, Louisiana and landing just south of Port Sulphur, Louisiana at the Homeplace water tower. Our first interaction of the day was with Brenda Hymes, who may be Port Sulphur’s biggest proponent. She grew up there, just a little ways down the highway from her current home.
“When you passed the Subway, we lived like about a quarter of a mile, a quarter of a mile up from the Subway, that’s where the Church was and we was right across the highway…,” she explains, as most things in Port Sulphur are in reference to the Subway restaurant. All the old landmarks are gone, Brenda tells us. Amongst other things, Hurricane Katrina wiped out the Greater Macedonia Baptist Church which was “the beacon light of the community,” according to Brenda, and her family home was right across the street—from all accounts, capturing some of that light.
She was one of ten children, so they all grew up in church—either the choir, a deacon, and one of her brothers became a minister. Her father worked for many years at Freeport Sulphur Company until he had an accident on the job, nearly melting his foot in a pit of sulphur. The sulphur company closed not long after, displacing a number of its workers and their families who lived in a company-owned subdivision located where the Family Dollar store is now. After the company closed, her father worked for a refinery before ending his career as a grass cutter for the Plaquemines Parish Government.
According to Brenda, her mother was primarily a homemaker, sewing all the clothes for the ten kids, keeping up the house, and so forth. And yet, she also worked as the housekeeper for the Freeman’s Grocery family, helping to raise their kids who now run the store. She also moonlighted as a cook at the Delta Club, once an elite duck hunting club through the 1930s.
Henry Turner and Alice Mack were an institution in Port Sulphur, raising their ten kids along the Mississippi River with gardens “from here to the levee” as Brenda tells it. They were very poor, living in a three bedroom house with all those kids, but they never knew they were poor unless someone pointed it out to them.
Brenda has carried on their family’s deep rootedness, she explains, “…I raised my children in Port Sulphur, my grandkids are raised here in Port Sulphur, this is our life, this is where we’re from.” After Katrina, they had to be in Lafayette for about a year and then moved to Belle Chasse because the schools opened there first, but as Brenda recounts, “from Belle Chasse I didn’t stop until we had a FEMA camper right where that green building is at, and I been here enjoying life, no gun shots, no burglaries, no killings, no murders, no kidnappings.”
Tom interjected, “just hurricanes every once in a while.” To which Brenda agrees, but just every once in a while, as she notes it took forty years between Betsy and Katrina. The little ones in between are just like “three day pack vacation type things” she shrugs off. It’s what they’re used to.
Brenda is not just a Port Sulphur die hard and proud mother and grandmother. She also serves as the Justice of the Peace in the Port Sulphur district. Her husband is “Big Sam,” who apparently used to be much bigger than he is now but “thank God for Air fryer!” Sam is a police officer who has a long history working with the youth in the parish through the DARE and Jr. Deputy programs. Together, Brenda and Sam organized the National Night Out Against Crime in Port Sulphur, for which they’ve had over five hundred people to come out to the local church and stand up for their community.
Since Katrina, the population of Port Sulphur has shifted toward a majority African American from what used to be maybe 60/40, with 60% being white. There’s been “white flight” since Freeport closed, and during court-ordered integration in the 70’s, Delta Heritage Academy was established, a private school created so white children didn’t have to go to school with the Black children at the public school. However, eventually the private school did close and the newly integrated students found a way to be together with much thanks to the sports at school, Brenda tells us.
Katrina changed everything. Now those communities south of the flood wall, and also the entire East Bank, are primarily populated by the Black community of Plaquemines. With six of the nine parish council seats located in the Belle Chasse area, that doesn’t leave much of a voice for this minority population who’s living at such great risk.
Brenda’s work as Justice of the Peace puts her right in the middle of her community. She doesn’t keep an office at the parish government building like some others have done in the past. Instead, she works out of her home as is the tradition for Justice of the Peace, making herself most accessible to people in her community with issues of small claims, evictions, notary, etc.
While the position of Justice of the Peace does not require her to be a lawyer, she and the others throughout the state attend a conference once a year with the Attorney General to learn about the laws and recent changes. During the time of the same sex marriage, she tells us, that was a huge issue with some of the Justice of the Peace and they even had a few stand up during that time in the conference saying, “I am not doing it, that’s not the will of the law.”
Brenda stands up and declares to us, “I’m one like this, I have to answer to God for myself, you have to answer to G—whatever your belief is, that’s fine, I’m not here to judge you, I’m here to do a job, and I will do my job.” Apparently some people quit their positions as Justice of the Peace over the same-sex marriage issue, but not Brenda. She’s motivated to help people, all people, young and old, Black and white, gay and straight.
She’s also motivated to protect her children and her grandchildren and make sure they have the “country-living” way of life that she so values here in Port Sulphur. She once quit a job on the spot because her daughter mentioned something might be wrong with her grandson. Brenda wasn’t leaving anything to chance! She swooped in and took the child back to the doctor to figure out the situation, ready to take whatever pains necessary for him to be safe and well.
When I asked her about how she’s kept her kids and grandkids so close, and whether other families are similar, Brenda smiles, “our kids don’t go too far, they, on this end of the world, we pretty much handicap our kids, and then when they get ready to go to college, we’re paranoid. We’re terrified. We’re thinking the worst…. My grandson, he may have been eleven and I was still holding his hand to cross the highway.”
And yet, Brenda and others are actively bucking up and sending their grandchildren to college. They want them to go because “the way that erosion is coming through the lower end,” she says. Brenda feels the government is not really doing too much to preserve the lower end of the parish, and the levees are very weak as well. During hurricane season, from July to November, is when the levee repairs are done, Brenda tells us, and she can’t wrap her head around that.
“You know that’s the minute something is out in the Gulf or coming to the Gulf, a hurricane, …you know. The news people are gonna panic you to no degree. They want you to, they want another Katrina, so they can have something big to talk about, but you know now it’s like we… want ‘em to learn to live somewheres else because in the next, what, thirty or forty years, this place won’t really be here. It won’t, and it’s, you know, it was such a beautiful place to live before our politicians, some of them got greedy, and just wanted what they want.”
So it’s clear that Brenda loves this place, but if there was one thing she could change about it, what would that be? The politics. They play too strong of a force in this area, she tells us. When people are elected, they are no longer focused on doing the duties of the people, taking care of the people. Brenda tells us about companies coming in with chemicals, especially around Ironton—apparently they get the brunt of things because they are a totally African American community. Ironton only started getting water around 1975, Brenda recounts, and before they would still having to get water from cisterns or have water delivered. They have two coal terminals near Ironton, and local councilwoman Audrey Trufant recently fought back an effort to add another in the same area, leaving some to feel they are no longer worried about the people.
So with all this institutional neglect, I wondered why Brenda makes this place her home. She tells me someone else asked her that once, right after Katrina. They asked her, “why do y’all go back?” This was not exactly my question, but an interesting interpretation. In Brenda’s own words: “I know no other way of living. I mean, I will never starve on this end, I’m not talking about wealth, I’m not talking about food stamps, I’m not talking about robbing Peter to pay Paul, I’m talking about regular, good old fashioned living.”
She goes on to say she can still borrow an egg from her neighbor, or rather, ask for an “egg loan—I’ll give it back to you, girl!” People help each other, she explains. They watch out for each other and each other’s children. Brenda’s not afraid to tell another Port Sulphur resident’s child, “you better go home! I’m gonna call your mama!” If that child was getting into trouble, they know Mrs. Hymes is going to set them straight.
I’m glossing over so much, as our time with Brenda was animated and full of stories, but in trying to distill, there’s one last thing about Brenda I should say. She’s almost deathly afraid of New Orleans. She’d never live there, and she rarely goes for a visit. However, when I asked about how people could take some of her “country-living” sensibility and instill it in a community like New Orleans, that struggles with crime, Brenda did have an answer.
She says it starts the minute they are born. It starts with something as simple as a hug. She tells the story of the children in Port Sulphur going up the steps to school where Mrs. Henrietta Turner greets them with a hug each day. Some of the children are reluctant at first, those who don’t have that kind of nourishment at home, but from the start of school in August to Thanksgiving break in November, something magical happens. Those reluctant children are running up the steps for that hug.
That is the start, the nourishment and the care, says Brenda, and she could imagine one of those old buildings in New Orleans converted to a space for a young motherhood class. She would go and encourage them, teach them, “this is what we do in the morning, you know. Talk to your baby. Hold your baby, Love your baby. I know you need time, but by the time you really nourish your baby, feed your baby, she’s gonna be or he’s gonna be at rest. Whatever you’re feeling now, you’re mad, you’re angry, cause somebody put a Facebook post about you—you don’t even know that person. You don’t even know if that’s about you. Whatever you’re feeling now, your baby’s feeling [it too].”
When we left Brenda’s house, she and Sam were heading off to Gretna for their shopping day at the Oakwood Mall. We were headed over the High Bridge to Empire to meet with an oyster fisherman. Still more to come.