BATON ROUGE TO ST. GABRIEL
The rain came earlier than expected. We thought we might be able to get an early start and stay dry, but it wasn’t in the cards. Tom took off down the levee from LSU—already soaked just by walking from the van to the top of the levee. The view of the Mississippi River from the levee was good. It’s a wide river here with barges, ships, and workboats moving up and down. Refineries and industry are common along this stretch—and surprisingly, so are cows.
Cattle ranches on the dry side of the levee are abundant. Today the cows were getting a good soaking as they grazed the wide stretches of pasture land to the east of the river. There were a few spots where the cows had wandered up to the top of the levee, probably just to nibble the grassy slope, but Tom and I like to think that they were there to greet me as I ran past. I slowed down to a leisurely stroll as I passed through them, hoping to remain friends. A minor stampede erupted as I launched back into a run where they dwindled off, but I think everyone came out unscathed.
We arrived in St. Gabriel, Louisiana without fanfare, but it was actually one of the best arrivals on the journey. The parking lot of the St. Gabriel Grocery and Deli was our landing spot, and we had a few minutes to spare. We quickly ducked inside to escape the rain and maybe get a quick bite to eat. After negotiating between pork boudin, crawfish boudin, or shrimp boudin, we sat down at the cramped back counter and devoured the pork variety tightly wrapped in tin foil as well as some hot BBQ beef on a bun and a bag of spicy chips. It wouldn’t be Louisiana if we hadn’t washed it all down with a cold 24-ounce Coors Light straight out of an ice-filled bucket. We shared everything, of course.
Next stop was the mayor’s office. Mayor Lionel Johnson greeted us upon arrival. The bulk of his City Hall staff are out of the office today, so it was up to Mayor Johnson to take care of today’s details. He was working the phone to confirm our interactions as we sat in the back conference room and talked. He was also working the front desk, as today was “Mondays with the Mayor,” a weekly event where anyone can make an appointment (or just drop in) to give the mayor a piece of their mind. From 7:30 AM to 5:00 PM, Mayor Johnson makes himself available front and center to the concerns of the people. It’s this kind of openness that appears to have won him the affection of his community, now entering his third term as mayor.
On top of these elements of today’s duties, the mayor is multitasking in one more way today—he’s helping his young daughter with a school project. As we sat across from him at the conference table, he had a light box, some large sheets of paper, a ruler and drawing utensils out in front of him. Along with these tools, he had a map of the country with the Mississippi River highlighted. Turns out, his daughter is doing a project on the river as well! Good timing all around. We offered our help, but the Mayor Johnson set the arts and crafts aside for a while to talk to us.
He was born and raised in an area known as Bayou Paul, attended grade school in both St. Gabriel and Baton Rouge before finishing out high school in St. Gabriel. Southern University is his alma mater, but he only spent two years on campus, coming back home in his junior year after his sister died of Leukemia. He wanted to be closer to his parents at that point and could commute to finish out his degree in English education. Once graduated, he started his career in education, doing various jobs in local schools, eventually teaching “students of english” as he called it. Mayor Johnson said his professor told him “you don’t teach english, you teach students,” so that’s why he says it that way. He also coached football, basketball, and track. He was an assistant principal, a principal at a very young age, and a mentor of principals at the state level.
Transitioning from teaching into politics was easy for the mayor, he says, as politics was in his family early on. He planned to be a lawyer but realized that law school was not his path after dating a law student his freshman year of college. He says he “vicariously went to law school”—thankfully. Instead, he has the great reward that comes man years after the work is done, that is seeing how his students turn out, and seeing their kids turn out as well. You don’t get that as a lawyer, I said. “No, you just get paid!” said Mayor Johnson, and we all had a good laugh…
As mayor, he’s seen deliberate growth in St. Gabriel—good growth. He enjoys being in a position to positively affect his constituents’ lives. People come to him for everything because some people expect the mayor can solve all the problems, not fully understanding how government works. But the mayor takes these opportunities to do everything he can to help in every way possible.
Mayor Johnson is also very involved in a unique organization called the Mississippi River Cities and Towns Initiative, or MRCTI. This is a national coalition of mayors who are al located in towns and cities along the Mississippi River, organizing their efforts to effect social and environmental change at the political level across the region. By way of the MRCTI, Mayor Johnson is connected with other mayors we visited, such as Mayor Rita Albrecht of Bemidji and Mayor Errick Simmons of Greenville. “I’ve been able to learn so much about the entire river through my time with MRCTI,” says Mayor Johnson, “so from my perspective, mid-river, upstream, the river’s more a part of their everyday lives, you know, recreation, they drink from the river, their jobs are right there on the river. Here in the South it’s more commercial, industrial and chemical, from my perspective. We’ve gotten away from the daily life of the river being a part of everything, being a part of our daily lives. It’s more of about revenue, ships passing through, product being shipped. On the upstream, I mean I just fell in love with it.”
The mayor is working to bring a bit of that love back home to St. Gabriel. There are already a couple of access points to the top of the levee throughout the region that were spearheaded by his administration, and he would like to build a pier to access the river over the batture during his tenure as mayor. That is his dream if he could get the money and the buy in from the community. His relationship with the river is strong, and despite being told not to go over the levee as a youth, he read Tom Sawyer, he rode the ferry across the river, and even wanted to be a ferry boat captain in his youth.
Besides his work with the river and general open arms and support of his community and constituents, Mayor Johnson is thinking about ways to keep young people here. Maybe the city could offer scholarships with a stipulation that students return after their education to give back to the community. There’s little to no crime in St. Gabriel, so that’s another incentive to return home. He’s hoping people will become more environmentally conscious in St. Gabriel, even one small thing at a time, like light bulbs, plastic bottles, recycling. He’s an educated black man, he’s traveled and seen many other places, and he makes St. Gabriel his home.
From City Hall we were off to see Mrs. Helen. Helen Lee Ambeau is an 80 year-old African American woman who lives just along the river. I cannot say her exact address, because the mayor directed us there by way of an intricate hand drawn map instead of giving us the street name and numbers. Invariably, we found it OK. We knocked at the front door, rain still coming down, but she asked us to come around back where she had fewer things obstructing the path. It appeared she might already be pulling out holiday decorations!
Helen didn’t seem to know why we were there at first, but we knew the mayor had been in touch—he’d been on the phone left and right, making arrangements on the fly as we left city hall. As we explained ourselves a little further, she warmed up. We were strangers of course.
As we got to talking, Helen started to tell us about her life in St. Gabriel—she’s lived her whole life in St. Gabriel, the second child of seventeen. Her mother passed away when she was thirteen, and there were ten children at that point. Her father, he couldn’t take care of all those children by himself, so he married again and Helen’s stepmother had seven children by her father. As Helen says, “I’m one of many.”
They grew up on a cattle ranch—her father worked for the man who owned the ranch, and her father had a farm on the side “because with that many kids and only making less than a hundred dollars a week, you had to have a way to feed everybody, to take care of everybody.” She and her family lived on that cattle ranch all their lives, but her brothers didn’t stay around. As soon as they came of age, they joined the military. That was their way out, according to Helen.
Life on the farm was a kind of subsistence lifestyle. They never went to the store unless to get something they didn’t grow. You didn’t make sugar so you had to go buy sugar. They either made cornbread or biscuits or homemade bread. Helen’s father said it was just a waste of time to go to the store: “you gonna spend money you don’t have.” So they didn’t go. They had hogs, chickens, and the cattle rancher gave them one cow a year. Anything extra that they butchered would go in a deep freezer for later.
Helen’s older brother, the oldest of the seventeen children, joined the military like the others and ended up stationed in Seattle, Washington. He settled there, leaving Helen the elder daughter back in St. Gabriel. She took on the care of her father, feeling like she could never leave St. Gabriel because of “daddy,” not to mention she herself married there and had three daughters of her own. Tragically, however, Helen’s husband died of a brain aneurysm at just 39 years old. He had had a brain tumor, and he survived the first operation and the second operation. Then he just went into the hospital because he started feeling bad again but he was getting better and on his way to coming home, but he just had a hemorrhage that night. They couldn’t stop the bleeding.
Helen was left to raise her three girls alone. Surely, the strength she acquired after her own mother died, helping to raise her younger siblings and keep up the household of seventeen with her stepmom and dad, aided her in this time when she was on her own with her oldest daughter just thirteen and her youngest then seven. She kept up two jobs, teaching Head Start in the local community and also managing surveillance at the BASF Chemical Plant. She had to work the evening shift sometimes. At one time all three of the girls were in different colleges at the same time, so she was teaching Head Start from 8 o’clock in the morning and in the evening she would work from 4 o’clock to 12 o’clock.
“So but you know I had rules set in place,” Helen said. “They weren’t wild. I could trust them at home. They wasn’t in the street.” And Helen is very clear about this, that her girls were good girls. They followed the rules and she had no problems with them. She explicitly stated a few of the rules: “The rule was that if I’m not at home then you cannot have company. So they followed the rules. I always told them I wanted grand—I wanted son-in-laws before I wanted grandchildren.” And at this we all laughed, because they had indeed followed those rules too.
Only one of Helen’s daughters is still in St. Gabriel, but another is close by in Baton Rouge, and the third is in Washington, D.C. The one in town works for Gillis Long Hansen’s Disease Center, a longtime employer in the area which has relocated to Baton Rouge within the last 30 years. Helen says it is a good thing that the chemical plants have moved in to offset losing Gillis Long. Despite the plants creating some problems with spills and emissions, the provide quality employment for local residents. Although she also acknowledges that only about a third of the employees at the chemical plants come from the St. Gabriel area, while the rest are coming from out of town. Still, these are trade-offs that made it possible to raise her own children and give them other opportunities.
Today, at age eighty, Helen is staying very active, engaged, and concerned about her community and peers. She normally goes to the Community Center on Mondays and Wednesdays for a water aerobics class and again on Tuesdays on Thursdays for a Tai Chi class. Also on Tuesday she has “Adoration” at her church, so she goes to church from 12-1pm every Tuesday to sit with the members there. She belongs to a book club which keeps her busy each month. She served on a steering committee to establish the new local health clinic. And she is an advocate for senior housing and transportation with a host of ideas of how to improve their quality of life in St. Gabriel.
“I have this vision in my mind,” explained Helen, “that really don’t have to be anything elaborate for a senior home for people to go and stay when they cannot live alone. It’d be like a sorority house, a small group of people, maybe you know like the golden girls used to all live together. All they need is somebody in that house to live as the house mother. Somebody… like fifty years old, young enough to still get around and do things….” And Helen went on with this idea, and I just fell in love with it! How has no one come up with this? Or if they have, let’s connect them with Helen and bring it to St. Gabriel where they need it.
Helen has ideas and she’s keeping track of them, keeping a daily journal—a page a day, a binder a month, one year after the next. She can pull up any day you ask her about, reference the list of people who were at the reunion, what was on the table, how she felt about it. She says you just have to do something to keep your mind active, wherever your are in the world. On this day, on this afternoon, we were at Mrs. Helen’s house. I wonder what she wrote after we left…
Our afternoon wasn’t over yet, though, as the mayor’s phone calls had been successful, and we were set to head back to city hall to meet with Councilman Ronald Grace, Sr. He’s a tall man with a broad smile, and fittingly he’s from a place called Sunshine. What today is known as the city of St. Gabriel actually now contains what used to be the separate communities of Sunshine, St. Gabriel, and Carville. St. Gabriel the city has only been around since 1994. Councilman Grace also helped us clear up that the Sunshine Bridge is not in Sunshine, nor are Sunshine and Sunset the same place.
Whew. Now that all our geography and place names are straight, Councilman Grace told us about his journey with education—not taking to college at first, so leaving during his second year. He immediately got involved in work and bought a house early from his father. He worked at the chemical plants for a while, but after getting laid off he did security in prisons and other companies before getting into truck driving. Now truck driving provided the real epiphany for Councilman Grace, thanks to its odd hours.
He was getting off work around mid-day, and realized he could use that time for something. He decided to go back to college because his grandmother, who was an educator and taught him in the first grade, she always said “you’re too smart not to go to school.” She was getting close to death at that time, and so it was on his mind already, and it just all came together. In the end he was forty-six years old when he graduated, which he explained with that big smile and a laugh.
Councilman Grace didn’t appear to be bragging about this achievement, in fact I had to pull it out of him that while going back to school he was also raising a family with his wife, still driving a truck, and the commute to Southern’s campus in Baton Rouge from St. Gabriel wasn’t nominal. He also took some evening and night classes at LSU and BRCC to make things work with his schedule. In the end he graduated with a degree in education, prepared to teach high school mathematics.
He taught in the school system in Iberville Parish for 13 years, and just retired. As he said, he’d become disenfranchised with certain things—mainly how test scores were more important than what the kids learned. There also seemed to be some politics involved in teacher evaluation, and while Councilman Grace doesn’t mind being involved in the city’s politics, he doesn’t appreciate politics in the classroom. In fact, even as a city councilman, he seems most interested in doing what’s good for the city, in just “getting along with everybody,” rather than doing what’s good for he and the other “politicians.”
A relatively young man in our eyes, we were surprised to hear that Councilman Grace had experienced segregation in a very real way as a child. “I can recall going to Baton Rouge on a field trip one time,” he told us, “and I had never experienced this before. But on the way back, we stopped to go to a restaurant on Hwy 30 near LSU…. So we got off the bus. We had to go around the back (gestures) to make our orders, and I didn’t know that at first ‘cause I was one of the last ones to get off. And when I got off, I went to the front, and they said no you gotta go around to the back. And so …I said, this don’t seem good.”
St. Gabriel today, says Councilman Grace, is much more integrated. It was tense at first in the 1970s when they first came down with the new system. Students had to change schools in the middle of the school year, and some didn’t want to so they just failed that year. They didn’t want to accept the change. A lot of the white students moved across the river to a private school. But Councilman Grace says things have come around. The schools are mixed for the most part, although one high school is still primarily black students with the other high school beginning to shift toward a more integrated population he said.
Between Councilman Grace as a math teacher, the Mayor as an English teacher, and Mrs. Helen as a Head Start teacher, our time in St. Gabriel has been one steeped in a story of education. Mrs. Helen even taught the mayor in Head Start! That’s how they know each other. And our visit wouldn’t be complete without understanding that voice in Councilman Grace’s life who propelled him back into school, his grandmother, the educator. She was actually the teacher at the historic one room schoolhouse in St. Gabriel, and Councilman Grace offered to bring us there and show us around.
The school building is situated alongside “Amanda Grace Park”—Amanda Grace being the name of Councilman Grace’s grandmother. The building is in a bit of disrepair, but the Councilman says they are waiting on some approvals and grants to get the renovations done. It has to be done properly as the building is on the National Historic Register, so you can’t change it too much from what it was. Luckily, a city worker was able to come open the building and let us inside where we saw the small kitchen in the back and several displays in the main room, news articles about Mrs. Amanda and the work she did. It’s a great legacy.
Councilman Grace even called up an old friend who actually went to school in the building, put him on speaker phone and started asking questions about what it was like. He wanted us to hear first hand from someone who lived it. We all agreed it’s a history you have to capture before it’s lost.
This wet day in St. Gabriel turned out to be another experience soaked through with rich stories and generous lives. We left town and headed back toward Baton Rouge for a night’s stay at the Casino hotel a few miles away. Hoping for a drier day on the levee tomorrow.