"All One, Big Family": A TBR Oral History with Ms. Dorothy Thomas

Dorothy Thomas is a fifty-year member of St. Mary’s Baptist Church. After growing up on her father’s farm in St. James Parish, she moved to Baton Rouge to raise a family and ended up finding a career as a nurse. She first became involved in Together Baton Rouge by spearheading an effort to reopen the Blue Grass Bridge that leads into her neighborhood, North Forest Subdivision. Since that action, she’s stayed involved as one of our most consistent and committed leaders. Whether she’s making hundreds of turn-out calls, working with neighbors to canvass her whole precinct before an election, or pressing the Mayor and City Council for better infrastructure maintenance, Ms. Dorothy simply gets things done. In her narrative, she reflects on her growth as a leader during the Blue Grass Bridge campaign and describes what it means to belong to the Together Baton Rouge family.

 

                             Photo by Lily Brooks

I was outside, mostly. Not like most girls, I used to be out with my father, out in the fields. Most of the time, really, when we weren’t at school, I helped my dad in the fields because he had a big farm… And even right now I do a lot outside ‘cause that’s what I’m used to doin’. I work in my flower beds, sometimes cut my yard.

I grew up in St. James Parish. My dad was a farmer, my mom had fourteen children, had two sets of twins but they all died except one. We went to school in Lutcher, that’s a couple of miles from where I lived. For elementary, I went to St. Martin, that’s a smaller school, then from there to Cypress Grove High, where I played basketball, I was a cheerleader, and I was Homecoming Queen one year.

So, I grew up on a farm. I was outside, mostly. Not like most girls, I used to be out with my father, out in the fields. Most of the time, really, when we weren’t at school, I helped my dad in the fields because he had a big farm. When I was growing up, all of us siblings wasn’t there together, because the older ones had gotten married and moved. So, about four of us that was there, we helped our dad, and then he had a few others that worked for him. I was outside most of the time, doin’ stuff on the farm. And even right now I do a lot outside ‘cause that’s what I’m used to doin’. I work in my flower beds, sometimes cut my yard.

 

 

My father farmed a lot of vegetables. At that time, they were really plentiful and that’s what people wanted. He grew mustard greens, collard greens, bell peppers, okra—y’know, all kinds of different vegetables. And there was a farm next to us where they had corn and stuff like that, so my dad had one kind of thing and they had another. They kinda got along pretty good together there, farming side by side. So, it was great, and that’s what my dad done all the time, he farmed. There was a market in New Orleans where he would take his crops. And then those freight trains would come through St. James Parish and there was a place where they would bring the vegetables to be shipped off. 

My mother, she was at home. Y'know, with that many children, you couldn't work anywhere. So she was a housewife. She would put up the vegetables my father grew, in the freezer and stuff, she would do things like that. She would cook and clean at home but she wouldn't go out anywhere to do anything. Now, we did go to church a lot. It was Evergreen Baptist Church and she was deaconess there. And my dad was a deacon and he was also the church treasurer. 

My parents taught us to have respect, especially for elderly people. In fact, for anybody. That's what they taught us—we should respect everybody, unlike what I see today. Right here in the neighborhood, sometimes the kids pass—and they see you, they know you there—but they just say whatever they want to say, it doesn't matter what it is or how it sounds. Children didn't come up like that in my time. And today people don't like to spank kids, but they did back then and anybody could spank your kid. Whether your parents was around or not, you got a spankin' from somebody out there if you done somethin' wrong. So ya, that's the way it was. It makes you better a person, because we remember all of that from back then, and that's what made us like we are today.

In St. James Parish, most of the time if you done anything, it had to be with the school. There wasn’t a lot of things to do there except at school or for some of the school projects. I had two sisters who lived here in Baton Rouge, so I visited them there sometimes. In Baton Rouge, there was a lot more to do. Where I came up was like the country, and they just didn’t have everything. So, it was like a little vacation to get away from there and go to Baton Rouge to do different things. 

When I got married, I came to Baton Rouge. I went to Capital Area School for nursing, to get my LPN, and from there I worked at the Lake, I worked at Earl K. Long, and then I went into dialysis and that’s where I retired from, twelve years ago. I started out living in the south part of Baton Rouge and I bought a home in mid-city, then, in 1970, I bought a home in North Baton Rouge, where I am now. And I like it over here.

I have three children, two boys and a girl. My daughter, Tina, works for motor vehicles. I have one son, Frederick Jr., who just left Baton Rouge for a job in Houston, Texas. Then I have my baby son, Jeffrey. He drives a truck for Coca-Cola. Both of my boys went to Southern University. All three of my children went to Capitol High School. I also raised a niece, Lenny, my brother's daughter. And then Lenny passed at twenty-nine, she had two girls—Lolita and Andrea, we call her Deon—so I raised those two girls, too. So, at one time, I had six children in my house. 

It wasn’t hard at all to raise children in Baton Rouge. It was pretty good. The schools were near where we were, they could walk to school, you didn’t have to take them. There was an elementary school and a high school, Capitol High. Back then things were better crime-wise. So, you know, even if the children had to be home when the parents were working there wasn’t any problem with that because the neighbors would look out for you. We didn’t have to worry too much about the kids because everybody would look out for everybody. Not like it is now.

When I moved here in the ‘70s, white people were moving out, and they seemed to just let things go down after the whites were movin’ out. We had shopping centers that closed down, like Wool Co. shopping center on Plank Road, they let that close down. There were other stores in the area that they let close down after the whites moved out. So, it just started, y’know, bein’ different.

We told them about the bridge, and they told us that they didn’t have any money to fix it. But we didn’t let that go. We continued to meet with them and our councilwoman, Mrs. Edwards, and Together Baton Rouge, and they started findin’ some money.

Before Together Baton Rouge, I was never involved in politics. No, not all *laughs* I go to St. Mary’s Baptist Church and, when the bridge closed in our area, I had talked to my pastor about it, Reverend Knighton. Together Baton Rouge was meeting at our church because my pastor was a founder, so they would have meetings at the different churches. Well, this night they had a meeting at St. Mary’s and I had to be there for a trustee’s meeting, so he told me to go into this meeting and tell Broderick and Reverend William what was happening. And that’s how I kinda got into it.

Photo Courtesy of Loyace Gant

When the city came to check the Blue Grass Bridge, they closed it immediately. And the people in the community didn’t know that they were gonna close it. When I started out the next mornin’ and I was almost there, I looked up and I saw there were concrete pillars blocking the bridge. So, they didn’t waste any time. It was bad. Really, really bad. The school buses would cross over there to pick the children up in the neighborhood. There were delivery trucks crossin’ over there, so they couldn’t waste any time. To me, they really wasn’t checkin’ the bridge the way they should have, because they would have known that it was that bad. When they closed it, it stayed closed well over a year, almost two years. There wasn’t anywhere for us to go out the neighborhood except behind us, through the parking area of an apartment building. That was difficult because it took more time for you to get out of here. So, we needed to see what we could do in the community about it.

At the meeting that Reverend Knighton asked me to attend, I spoke to Broderick Bagert, who was our lead organizer for Together Baton Rouge at the time, as well as Reverend William, who was another one of the founders. I told them what was going on and they said, Ok, we gonna see what we could do and we’ll get back with you. So, they did and that’s how we started workin’ on tryin’ to get that bridge open.

We set up a meeting and went down to the mayor’s office as well as to city council. We told them about the bridge, and they told us that they didn’t have any money to fix it. But we didn’t let that go. We continued to meet with them and our councilwoman, Mrs. Edwards, along with Together Baton Rouge, and they start findin’ some money. There was actually lots of other bridges that needed to be done, too, but this was the worst one.

While we working to open the bridge, we passed things out in the neighborhood to let everyone know what was going on. Ms. Loyace Gant would always do that. We would have the meetings at my house and we couldn't get the entire neighborhood here, so Ms. Gant would write notes, type them up, print out the copies, and just drop them off at everyone's residence in the neighborhood. 

I remember some days I would pick up my granddaughter from school. When I would get back, I had either Channel 9 at my door waiting for me, or Channel 33. I’d say, “Well why didn’t y’all talk to one of the other neighbors?” And they’d say, “They told us to wait for you".

As we worked on getting the bridge fixed, I had to speak in front of elected officials and big crowds of people. The worst time, for me, was when I went to the Metro Council meeting. I’m standing there with Reverend William and he say, "I never seen you this nervous before." Actually, the paper in my hand, I was so nervous it was shaking *laughs*. I think that’s the worst time. Y’know, bein’ in front that many people, I’d never done that before. The council members, they’re around you in a half-circle, and I was more nervous than I had ever been. Seein’ all those people, I didn’t know what to expect.

And I didn’t get used to it quickly! But I did eventually. I mean, I didn’t have any choice. Because the other people in the neighborhood wouldn’t talk. They were like me. They were shy, they didn’t want to be in front of the camera, but someone had to do it. Since me and Ms. Loyace Gant were the ones that asked about the bridge and got it started, then, y’know, most times I was the one that done the talking. So, I was kinda pushed into doin’ a lot of things. But I got over it and I started getting better. And I feel like now, I’ve gotten to the place where I can get up and speak.

Councilwoman Edwards gave us this petition we had to get signed so the city wouldn’t just come in the community and do things without letting us know. We ended up getting support from both Mayor Kip Holden and the Metro Council. ‘Cause when Ms. Edwards talked to them, and when Together Baton Rouge was there, too, we had some support from the mayor. They were the ones that originally said they didn’t have any money to fix the bridge. But, when we started meeting with them—not with the mayor, but with his assistant, William Daniel—they started to get things together.

So then they started to come and check things out. They started sendin’ these companies I guess to look at it and see what the bid and everything was. And that took a little while, too. ‘Cause the first one that came out, they brought equipment and set it up there, and about a week or two passed and they hadn’t started doin’ anything. I called and told Mr. Daniel at the mayor’s office that the people had brought the equipment, the children were playing on it, and they hadn’t been back. He told me he would call them and he said, “If they don’t get started tomorrow, I’ll see to it that they won’t get another job in the parish.” So, you had to follow up on everything. Because they’d just start something and leave! Yeah, that was a task.

Now, during the time the bridge was closed, a person was ill in this community, and the ambulance didn’t know how to get in here. That person died. Some months later, there’s a fire at the house two doors from me. The firetruck didn’t know how to get here, so the house—by the time they found their way in here—the house was almost gone. All they could do was stop the fire, but it was a total loss. ‘Cause nobody knew but one way in here, that’s all we had. And that was on Blue Grass Drive, across that bridge. When they closed that, nobody knew what was going on. 

 

Photos courtesy of Loyace Gant

I was sort-of angry with the city because I thought they should’ve been checking the bridge more than they did. If they had been, it would not have gotten that bad. I still have pictures of how it looked. We never looked underneath, that wasn’t for us to do, so we didn’t realize that the bridge was that bad. But when they took pictures and showed us the supports underneath, I’m tellin’ you, it could’ve fallen into that canal anytime.

We had a good organizer supporting us with the bridge. Broderick Bagert was very good, and very knowledgeable about things. And he was a hard worker. He knew where to go, he knew, y’know, who you need to talk to. ‘Cause I guess he had already met with some of these people when they formed Together Baton Rouge, so, he knew where to go and what to do and the other ministers did, too. Whenever I was speaking, the ministers from the different churches, they all would be there, too. So, it was good to know you wasn’t by yourself. I hadn’t ever been in any organization that’s like that. Y’know, everybody just worked together. It was just—it was good. It was good.

Once we got the bridge done, everybody was happy then! Everybody wanted to participate. Yeah, when the TV station came and they were dedicating the bridge, everybody came out. All the neighbors were out then. We had a ribbon-cutting, mhm. That was a good feeling, to be able to go out the community and go across the bridge, rather than going all around the different streets. It was a relief, like a burden was lifted.

By the time we finished with the bridge, I think everybody in Baton Rouge knew who Together Baton Rouge was. Well, most of the churches, actually, was a part of it. As time went on, I guess more churches were joinin’, so we just became a big organization.

The cemetery was in pretty bad shape, but we actually had fun doin’ that. It was a whole lot of us and everybody just worked together. It just makes everything so easy and you enjoy it no matter what it is because that’s the way Together Baton Rouge is: all one, big family. 

One thing about Together Baton Rouge, they work with you. We all work together, we help each other no matter what. And that’s a good feeling to know that you have people with you like that. I can’t even name all of the institutions, the people that came out to support us when we were working on the Blue Grass Bridge. We had meetings, everybody knew about it, everybody helped. When we went to Metro Council to meet for the first time—when I told you I was very nervous—all of the institutions that were with Together Rouge were there. The rooms where we were meeting were full of Together Baton Rouge members. Where you get off the elevator was full. They said that they were gonna be with us and they were. They were there. I don’t think anybody else could’ve gotten up there because it was that many people from Together Baton Rouge. 

I met more people from being a part of Together Baton Rouge I think than I ever had before in my life. All those people from Together Baton Rouge, when we come together, we know each other from the meetings we’ve all attended. At the time that I got involved, the bridge was the first big thing that all of us really came together on and I met a lot of people. And when I see them now, it’s still the same. We know each other, we friendly with each other. I’ve never met anybody with Together Baton Rouge that wasn’t friendly. And they always remember me, too. I guess with the bridge they kinda got to know Loyace and I better than they knew the other people in the community. So, when they see you, they know your name right off and sometimes I didn’t remember some of their names, but I remembered their faces. And the longer we stayed together and had meetings and stuff, then I started remembering their names.

Ms. Loyace Gant, I’ve known her since I moved here and I think the bridge is really what brought us closer together. She took some pictures of it and turned them in, so that’s how I got to know her. When we would go out there, we would meet and we would be the ones to contact the city. We called when we’d see anything that wasn’t right. She would call or I would call and, y’know, let them know what was going on at the mayor’s office and stuff like that. Then, when we became part of Together Baton Rouge, she and I got even closer. 

Photo by Lily Brooks

After the bridge project, we cleaned this graveyard on Greenwell Springs Road. Everybody came together, they brought their lawnmowers, and weed eaters, and everything you needed to clean. The cemetery was in pretty bad shape, but we actually had fun doin’ that. It was a whole lot of us and everybody just worked together. It just makes everything so easy and you enjoy it no matter what it is, because that’s the way Together Baton Rouge is: all one, big family. 

Every year, during the first part of December, we have a big gala, usually at the church on Scenic Highway, Mt. Pilgrim. That’s a big time for Together Baton Rouge because we all come together and we enjoy each other. We have food and speakers and choirs singin’ and it’s just a big time. I think everybody looks forward to that. Everybody comes and brings family, friends, anybody. It’s very nice. Very nice.

I know that with the virus things have slowed down some at Together Baton Rouge, but after things get better, I believe it’ll come back up again. We haven’t been able to have meetings like we usually have, you know? People kinda settled down and they’re just afraid to come out. Then a lot of people don’t like to be on Zoom or don’t know how to be on Zoom, and some don’t have computers, so, you have all of that, too. But, once this is over, I think it’s gonna come back to where it was before, or better

Showing 3 reactions

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  • Rick Moreland
    commented 2020-12-15 09:07:01 -0600
    Great story, Ms. Dorothy. Thank you!
  • Phillip Norman
    published this page in News 2020-12-14 13:24:24 -0600
  • Phillip Norman
    published this page in News 2020-12-14 13:12:40 -0600

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