Where We Come From: A TBR Oral History with Robert Thompson

Robert is a native of Baton Rouge. He graduated high school from Southern Lab school, and spent four years in the Marine Corps. He is a Vietnam War veteran, and retired from the postal service after 25 years. He is a member of the Unitarian church of Baton Rouge, where he served as the Social Justice director for 10 years.  Robert is a trained facilitator for Dialogue On Race LA for more than 20 years. He’s been a volunteer mentor for Humanities Amped for the last four years, and he’s also served on the Together Baton Rouge Executive Committee for the last 10 years. Robert has been married to his wife, MiJa for 45 years, and has 4 kids and 3 grandkids.


John And Calvin

“...during the depression he was able to bring the community together- black and white…”

Now, one family mystery is our name- Thompson.  The first time we see John, who is my great grandfather, he's listed as John Moreau.  And then the next census he's down as John Thompson.  Where he got the name Thompson, we don't know.  I understand why he was listed at first as Moreau, because he was on the Moreau plantation in Moreauville, Louisiana not far from where he ended up living.  But where he got the name Thompson nobody really knows.  There were some itinerant doctors- not real doctors, but they were able to look after the sick and stuff, and they were called Thompson Doctors. I'm thinking he may have been influenced by that- he may have met some of them. 

They were Catholics, and my Grandfather, Calvin, and his brothers weren't happy about the arrangement of where they had to be in the Catholic Church. My grandfather really wanted to go into the ministry, but they had no hope of being priests.  They had to worship from the balcony and they couldn't take communion. Some Lutheran missionaries (missionaries to the missionary fields in South Louisiana *laughs* came to establish a missionary church among the local black people in Mansura.  So my Grandfather and his brothers got interested. By then they had finished their education, so they were going to send them to the seminary in- Springfield, Ill. .  But because of the times, once they found they were black they wouldn't allow him to attend-  It was called Luther College.   Which was the name Lutheran seminary.  So they ended up actually creating a school in New Orleans for my grandfather and great uncle to attend, and get their degrees as Lutheran ministers.  

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Reflections on a Delegates Assembly

At the beginning of March, Together Baton Rouge hosted the first of two Delegates Assemblies planned for this year. As someone who is still pretty new to Together Baton Rouge, this was my first time being able to be a part of such an important event for our member institutions. The Delegates Assembly was an opportunity for members from each institution to make their voices heard in the direction of TBR. For some, it was the first opportunity to see each other since the start of the pandemic. We also had visitors from a sister organization in Michigan and a few folks who were simply concerned citizens looking to get involved in their community. Although we had to hold the assembly via Zoom, the energy and hope of over a hundred people working together to make their community better flooded through the screen. I wanted to take some time in this blog to reflect on the importance of the institutions that make up TBR, and give a behind the scenes look at everything that goes into planning such a large event.

For those of you who don’t know, TBR is what’s called a “broad-based organization”- basically, an “institution of institutions.” By connecting all of these institutions together, we help build power by organizing people and bridging cultural divides. Needless to say, without the dedication of the institutions that make up our broad-based organization, TBR would be nothing. But it’s a reciprocal relationship, too. When an institution joins TBR, we are committed and obligated to provide them with the tools and support they need to deal with the issues affecting their members. Because the strength of TBR depends on the strength of our institutions, the organizers must be committed to supporting those institutions in whatever efforts best serve the people who belong to them.



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Mental Health and COVID

In early February, the United States hit the grim anniversary of one year since the first death from COVID-19. Since then, our lives have changed in a way that hasn’t been experienced since the influenza pandemic of 1918. It’s shocking to look back and realize that it has been nearly one year since I last saw my classmates at LSU. It feels like it was only weeks ago that we attended the Field Fair and left having no idea when we would next see each other. At the same time, it feels like it has been forever since I was last able to comfortably be around a crowd of people, or walk by someone without worrying in the back of my head that they might be carrying the virus, or cough without immediately thinking about how I may have been exposed. One writer even dubbed this past year as a “time warp,” and I can’t think of a better way to describe this feeling. What it is, is a reaction to trauma. 

Although trauma may not be the first word that comes to mind when thinking about our time spent shut indoors binging Netflix and gaining twenty pounds, trauma doesn’t always come from things like abuse or natural disasters. Trauma can come from unexpected sources and have unexpected symptoms. And although I joke about binging Netflix, I don’t mean to make light of our collective experiences at all. Even for those of us not on the front lines, COVID has taken away much of what used to get us through the drudges of everyday life. Furthermore, at this stage of the pandemic, it’s hard to find anyone who hasn’t lost somebody to the virus. In fact, an estimated 5 million people are in bereavement. Other experiences, like having to navigate virtual school or the blurring of work-life boundaries, can also be traumatic. It’s also important to remember that what may not be traumatic to one person may very well be traumatic to someone else.


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Congratulations, Dr. Tellis!

The organization African Americans Leading Equality, ABLE, recently honored Dr. Claude Tellis for his barrier-breaking work in the medical field. A member of Camphor Memorial United Methodist Church, Dr. Tellis serves as a co-chair of Together Baton Rouge's Health Equity Action Team. 


Read on for more about Dr. Tellis' historic career in medicine. 

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Insurrection at the Capitol

Today, I want to talk about something that has been on the minds of every American since January 6th.  Like many others, I found myself looking on in shock and horror as the Capitol was defaced and our democracy faced its toughest test likely since the Civil War. I even found myself tearing up in anger and frustration, especially as I began thinking about how so many protesters suffered grievous injuries while fighting for racial justice last summer. In contrast, these extremists seemed to go by unharmed, although thankfully it appears that most of those who participated in the violence will eventually be caught and charged. 

You may ask, what does Together Baton Rouge have to do with this? It’s true that we generally focus on local issues, and as many within the organization will tell you, those issues have much more of an impact on your everyday life than national politics do. However, I believe what we saw that day was the symptom of much deeper problems that exist within all of our communities. Despite the desire to blame these problems on any one person or group, we must remember that we are all responsible for strengthening the weaknesses in our democratic institutions, weaknesses which were made glaringly apparent by the events of January 6th. I think it is not only possible but absolutely necessary to condemn the actions of the individuals who threatened our democracy that day while also acknowledging the factors that could have led to such violence. The attack on the Capitol also holds particular significance to Louisiana and Baton Rouge, as reports indicate that local business owners were present at the insurrection, while many of our elected officials voted against the certification of the election results – even after their lives were threatened that day. 

In John Dewey’s, “How We Think”, the author takes after John Locke in critiquing a series of errors that Locke believed we are all prone to making when formulating our thoughts and beliefs. One common error in thinking which I found particularly poignant describes people who “sincerely and readily follow reason” but “converse with but one sort of men, read but one sort of book and… will not come in hearing but one sort of notion.” Nowhere is this error more evident than in our current political climate. Despite significant progress in terms of racial equality, Black and White Americans remain largely segregated, whether in schools, workplaces, neighborhoods, or even the churches they attend. Those who grow up in urban environments rarely, if ever, interact with those from more rural areas. As someone who grew up in an urban environment, I couldn’t even imagine what life would be like in a rural area. In fact, I even fear driving through them at times. Another significant divide exists in the realm of education. Pursuing a higher education frequently divides you from those that don’t, even if this separation isn't necessarily intentional on your part. After all, we primarily make friends through our educational institutions. In this, I also share some guilt. All of my closest friends have had at least some college education, and many are pursuing graduate degrees. Age as well is a huge divide, to the point that I can have a hard time even holding a conversation with an older person – much less find any means by which we might closely relate to one another. 


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