Helping Hands: A TBR Oral History with Loyace Gant

Born in Jackson, Louisiana, Loyace Gant spent a large part of her childhood on her grandparents' farm in a close-knit rural community. One of four sisters raised by a single mother, Ms. Gant learned from a very early age to be self-sufficient. Following the example set by her mother, she was brought up to have the courage to seize roles and powers traditionally reserved for men. When she settled down with her family in Baton Rouge, she enjoyed a long and successful career with South Central Bell telecommunications, becoming one of the first women to work outside as an installer. Along with her neighbor, Ms. Dorothy Thomas, Ms. Gant first became involved in TBR as part of the fight to reopen the Blue Grass Bridge leading into their subdivision. Since that time, she has continued to proudly represent North Forrest Heights Subdivision as core leader in our organization. Exhibiting a tireless devotion to her community over the years, she has helped to lead a variety of canvassing campaigns and always ensures that her neighbors are up-to-speed on TBR happenings. 

.                                  Photo by Lily Brooks

I think all kids should learn to stay in the country. We didn't have toys, but you were in the country, you could always have fun with something. We learned how to braid hair by grass in the yard. In the country, you had like little chunks of grass and that's how we learned to braid, my grandmother showed us how to do that.

I was born in Jackson, LA. And my parents separated. I don't even remember living with my dad. My mom got custody of us, she was working it at the mental hospital in Jackson and we were too small to live by ourselves, so our grandmother took us and I stayed with my grandmother up until about 8th grade. My grandparents gardened a lot. They were farmers, and when we were real small, they would take us to wherever they were working, but we would sit up under the shade tree. My grandmother would say, "Y'all are too young to do that." Of course, they didn't want us to cut all they vegetables up either, y'know. And one year she told us, she said, "This row right here, this is for you girls." And we couldn't understand what was that she was planting for us, and it came up and it grew like corn. And we looked along it and I said, "What's she puttin corn down there for?" She had popcorn. She had made popcorn.

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On The Family: A TBR Oral History with Reverend Jesse Bilberry

Reverend Jesse Bilberry served for # years as pastor of Mt. Pilgrim Baptist Church before retiring in 2019 at the age of 89. The oldest of ten children born in rural Union Parish, he followed in his father's footsteps by attending Southern University then working as a principal and a pastor. Prior to his career in the ministry, Rev. Bilberry served as a much-beloved Principal of Tensas Rosenwald High School and then as an administrator at Southern University. Considered by his parishioners as "more of a teacher than a preacher", Reverend Bilberry has put lessons on the family at the center of his ministry. The Family Life Center that was constructed at Mt. Pilgrim during his time as pastor was an important early meeting place where hundreds of TBR leaders joined together for celebrations and public actions.

                                                             Photo by Travis Spradling for the Advocate

So, I used to drive there, listen to him preach, and I would come back home and preach to my brothers and sisters… We had a big trunk and I used to get up on that trunk and my sisters and brothers would sit around and I would preach to them.

I was born and reared in Union Parish. About twenty-nine miles North of Monroe, Louisiana. I was born in a place called Marion RFD. It was a small, rural parish and the major occupation was truck farming and harvesting pulp wood. We lived in two different towns. Our permanent home was in Farmerville.  My daddy was a principal in Downsville for three years.  They had a principal’s home there. So, for three years we lived in Downsville during the school session and Farmerville when school was not in session.

My father... My father was a hero... but I didn't think he was a hero *laughs* early on. But he was a family man. He had ten children. I was the oldest of ten. My mother never worked a day outside of the home. He was a hustler. He farmed part-time, and then he taught school. I remember sometimes he would hire somebody to take him where he needed to go and allow us to use the car. But you better take care of it. You misuse it, you get stranded, whooh boy. He was a left-hand man, we called him a southpaw, and he was firm, very firm.  He demanded that we live obedient lives, demanded that we respect our mother. He would do whatever he could for us, but he demanded that we just be obedient. And you tell him the truth. Now you talking about being in trouble if you didn't tell him the truth about something.



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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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