Familiar faces: A TBR Oral History with Julie Hoffman

Julie Hoffman is a longtime member of Beth Shalom Synagogue. Her parents, Paula and Harvey, were major leaders in the Baton Rouge community, and Julie has carried on in their footsteps. She’s served in various leadership roles at the synagogue over the years and, along with her husband, Ara Rubyan, has continued the annual Baton Rouge Jewish Film Festival that her parents started in 2007. After beginning to attend Leader’s Luncheons in 2016, Julie felt immediately familiar with the TBR community and began working with Edgar Cage to bring her synagogue on as an institutional member. As a TBR leader, her organizing efforts have been focused primarily on the Criminal Justice Action Team. Looking back on the lives of grandparents who fled Europe during the Holocaust, Julie cares deeply about fighting prejudice and upholding the civil rights of persecuted groups.

                                                     Photo by Lily Brooks

My grandfather left Germany in 1933 because he was running away from home. My grandmother was just supposed to be on a summer trip, but at the end of the summer her parents said, "don't come back."

Almost all of my grandparents were immigrants who came to this country for a better life, and for freedom. Patriotism has taken on different meanings now, but for my grandparents, it was to get away from Cossacks and Nazis.

My mother's parents were more Americanized, because her father came here from Poland as a baby. And her mother was actually the one grandparent I had who was born in this country, though her parents were from the Romania/Bessarabia/Ukraine area. They settled in New Orleans, which is where my mother grew up.

My paternal grandfather was from Germany, and my paternal grandmother was from Lithuania. Both of them left their respective home countries before the Holocaust. My grandfather left Germany in 1933 because he was running away from home, my grandmother was just supposed to be on a summer trip, but at the end of the summer her parents said, don't come back. It was too dangerous. They ended up in Palestine at the same time, and that's where they met. Later, they came to this country via Cuba to Houston, and that's where they stayed.


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Finding Home: A TBR Oral History with MiJa Thompson

MiJa Thompson has dedicated her life to serving others. She is a committed church leader, retired nurse, and mother of four. MiJa was born in Seoul, South Korea in 1952, not too long after the Korean War. She was adopted by a Black G.I. and his mother, and brought to America when she was four years old. She moved to Baton Rouge in 1979, and got her RN diploma from the Our Lady of the Lake School of Nursing. While working as a staff nurse at the Lake, in 1996, she earned her Bachelor’s degree in nursing from Loyola University. She retired from Our Lady of the Lake in 2015 after 35 years of service. MiJa is an elder of the Unitarian Church of Baton Rouge, which she has attended for 30 years.

I Remember... 

I have glimpses of places, and what was going on at the time, ya know.

I remember being near a hut, or a little house.

I remember I had come out on the back stoop and an older woman was out there. 

I remember she had a big cauldron of something cookin. 

It coulda been laundry. It coulda been soup. 

I dunno.  

I remember lookin out into the field, and there was a train.

I remember the train cars.

I remember seeing people comin out of the boxcars of the train as though they had slept there all night. 

It was 1956.  

It was after the war- the Korean "conflict" (they didn't call it a war). 

I remember that. 

I remember near the little hut there was a magazine stand.  

It was just one counter with stuff all around that you could buy.  

It's funny how these little glimpses are so clear, ya know, the details are not there, 

But I remember.  

I remember squatin down- me and the other kids, and we had sticks, 

And we had grasshoppers stuck on the end of the sticks.

I remember there was a little fire in the middle, 

And we were fryin our grasshoppers. 

I remember that. 

I remember a bridge. 

I remember walkin across the bridge with someone. It was probably with my mother.

I remember she was kinda stumblin- she wasn't doin well.  

She coulda been drinkin. She coulda been cryin, I dunno.

I remember the night my mother took me to the base to give me over to my dad.

I remember the plane ride to America.

I was only four years old, but I remember…

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Goin Door-to-Door: A TBR Oral History with Lionel Bazile

A member of St. Paul the Apostle Catholic Church, Lionel Bazile has served on the TBR Executive Committee since the days of the CATS Tax campaign. Volunteering as a door-to-door canvasser in that effort, he used people skills he'd developed as a USPS letter carrier to break down neighborhood barriers and turn out votes to save the city's failing public transit system. Lionel has lived in Baton Rouge all his life, growing up in the predominantly Black subdivision of Bird Station, starting his own family in North Baton Rouge, then moving to the southeastern part of the parish in 1995. In his interview, he reflects on disparities in access and opportunity that he's observed as a property owner in both North Baton Rouge and the breakaway city of St. George, whose formation he passionately opposed as part of another TBR canvassing effort. Tracing the roots of his community work back through earlier generations, his narrative portrays the family legacy of hard work and mutual aid that carried him to where he is today.

               Photo by Lily Brooks

Round about five o’clock, five-thirty in the mornin, she would go out with a apron on, and would come back out of that garden. With all dew she’d be real soakin wet comin out that garden. So that’s a memory I’d always have, of my grandmother.

Both sides of my family—Rodney, my mother’s side, and Bazile, my father’s side—come from New Roads, Louisiana. Both sides of the family was nothin but workin there way into what they are today. On the Rodney side, my grandfather, Tony Rodney, he took sixty-five acres of land in Point Coupee Parish, and during that time he started raisin, plowin and cultivatin that land into a farm. It was a government program, he was one of the top farmers, so they had a grant where he got sixty-five acres of land and he pretty much brought, from my understanding, that bare land into a farm. In my memories, he grew everything possible on that farm. You name it, he grew it. And not only grew it, he was able to grow enough to where he not only just sold to the community but also shared with the community, with family members who was less fortunate.

So, that’s my Grandfather Rodney. I can remember my grandfather pulling a mule and a sleigh, that’s how he started. Must’ve been many, many years before he musta got a tractor. And he had four sons and those four sons pretty much helped him as they got older. And the girls, my mother and two sisters, they pretty much did the gardens and stuff. So, I got that work ethic from my mother’s side of the family, seein how hard they were brought up.

As a kid, goin to my Grandfather Rodney’s land, that was almost like a every weekend thing. Every weekend, that was almost automatic. We were stayin in Baton Rouge, but we would always go back to New Roads. And when I say ‘we’, that’s my family members, my mother’s sisters, we all go on the weekend and meet. My grandmother and grandfather had a home big enough where it could occupy all of us. And when I say on the weekend, I mean mostly on Sundays. We’d go there Sundays and have meals there just about every weekend.


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Coming Together: A TBR Oral History with Janifer Peters

Janifer Peters is a 32 year member of Greater Mt. Carmel Baptist Church and currently serves as Assistant to the Dean, College of Sciences and Engineering at Southern University, where she has worked since 1997. Prior to that time, she was an Instructor of Mathematics from August 1984 through April 1997.  Growing up in segregated Bogalusa, Louisiana, she excelled in her studies and won a scholarship that she used to attend Southern, where she majored in Mathematics.  After her late husband, Lieutenant Colonel Roosevelt “Rosy” Peters, completed two terms of service in the Vietnam War, the two spent several years moving across the country, from Bogalusa to Hawaii, on different military assignments. Janifer continued pursuing degrees and taught school in each place they lived. When she returned to Baton Rouge, Ms. Peters brought a great deal of experience with integrated living from the years she had spent in mixed military communities. She applied this experience as an early-on recruiter for the Industrial Areas Foundation sponsoring committee that was uniting Baton Rouge citizens across lines of race, religion, neighborhood, and political affiliation.  


                                                                                                                 Photo by Lily Brooks

Growing up as a young child, even in elementary school, I did very well, to the point where my teachers would say, “Okay Janifer, you understand. You work with this one over here, ‘cause he or she is having trouble.”  I would relate to them and they could understand, especially the math. I didn’t know then what tutoring was, but I was tutoring! 

Well, I’m from a little town called Bogalusa, Louisiana. When I was there, growing up, it was about twenty-seven thousand people, but now it’s half of that. The town is going down to a ghost town now, but it was booming during my days. Crown Zellerbach, from San Francisco, California, came in and took over that sawmill town and all that area and brought in lots of money to Bogalusa. All the males worked at the mill and they really took care of all the families. The people who were in charge were very good to the families. Because I remember my dad working there and he had a terrible case of asthma so he couldn’t always be at work. He was basically either working or sick for most of his life. But they saw that need, that my mom was struggling, trying to raise four kids, and somehow they would make sure that he got a payday. At Christmas time, they would have the men bring their families and they would deliver to all the children a huge bag of Christmas gifts and toys, and we were always so very, very happy about that.

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A TBR Oral History with Betsy Irvine

Reverend Betsy Irvine is a member and former interim minister of University Presbyterian Church, retired Executive Director of the Louisiana Delta Service Corps (now Serve Louisiana), and a current interim minister at St. Paul Lutheran church. Her track record of leadership at multiple TBR member institutions speaks to a long personal history of community work spanning spaces both religious and secular. Rev. Irvine’s first foray into institutional organizing came in the 1980s when she sought the mentorship of Calvin Houston, a Black Presbyterian minister who hired her on at the Urban Training Organization of Atlanta, an early IAF affiliate. In her interview, she reflects on the upbringing that taught her to be politically active, the many mentors who helped her develop a public life, and the fulfillment she’s found in living between institutions, helping to knit them together in pursuit of common ideals.

                                                                     Photo by Lily Brooks

He was an institution man, he believed in community institutions. And he was a New Englander. I think that civic awareness comes easily to New Englanders, because everything is about ‘the town’, and the community.  That was his generation. My father had a very clear, moral sense of community obligation, and that revealed itself in almost everything he was involved in.

I was born in Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, which is near Gettysburg, but I grew up in Philadelphia. My dad was in the dairy business and we moved to Philadelphia because of his work. My three sisters and I, remained in Philly until I was in junior high school. 

We had a lot of diverse religious experiences growing up, we were around a lot of people. Even though my immediate neighborhood in Philadelphia was primarily Christian, I went to more Bar Mitzvahs than most Jewish people do by the time I was fifteen. My parents were typical fifties people, with their four little children, living on a street where everybody had four kids and were either Catholic, Presbyterian, Episcopalian, or Methodist. Growing up, most of my friends and the kids I went to school with were Jewish, and they all lived in a different neighborhood that was right next to ours. I was always intrigued by the sociology of that- where people lived and who they chose to live near. The Jewish kids were primarily second-generation immigrants whose parents had lived in Center City Philadelphia.  Many came from merchant backgrounds. For many of them, there was a huge emphasis on education. “You’re not going to be a shoe cobbler.  You will be a doctor.” I mean, every kid I went to school with is a heart or orthopedic surgeon *laughs* My father was a member of the school board and he said it was amazing because the push for the best in education was fierce-especially from those families who had started out with very little. We benefitted of course from this because the schools were really great. “Good enough” was not an option. Oh no, it had to be really good, because it was important that succeeding generations did better than their parents.

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