Earn It Yourself: A TBR Oral History with Edgar Cage

Edgar Cage’s name is synonymous with Together Baton Rouge. He has been many things over the course of his long tenure with the organization—co-chair of numerous action teams, recruitment coordinator, primary liaison to the Louisiana State Legislature, and a valued mentor to countless of his fellow leaders. A native of Baton Rouge, he attended Southern University, where he majored in business management with a minor in economics. Following a period of service in the Army, he enjoyed a successful career with Blue Cross Blue Shield in Louisiana and California. Following his retirement in 2009, he began lending his services to the IAF Sponsoring Committee that would go on to form Together Baton Rouge. In his narrative, Edgar reflects on growing up during segregation, the work ethic that has helped me achieve success in all his endeavors, and the things he has learned from being a key leader in a grassroots citizen's organization. 

My family and community gave me a good, strong foundation to understand and to know that nobody was better than me, nor was I better than anybody else. And if I wanted something in life, that I had to work for it.

It was an education and an eye-opening experience growing up in Baton Rouge. I grew up in the era of Jim Crow, where it was separate but equal. And, you know, being a native of Baton Rouge and not experiencing anything else, this is all I knew and all I saw. I did feel and realized that it wasn't right, but it was what we had to deal with. And I was fortunate to be raised in a household with both parents, my mother and father. And they worked very hard. They did not have great education. But my mother did go back to school and got her GED and then got a degree from Southern nutrition and she became a cafeteria manager at the school. But they knew the importance of education and they instilled in us—when I say us, all the kids, and I'm one of eight siblings and I'm next to the baby. But they instilled in us the importance of education and they said, “Get this education and you don't have to depend on anybody to give you anything. You can earn it yourself. And that's the best way to be, to be independent.” And everything that I did, I wanted to be independent.

When I was eight years old, I had a paper route. And in my pre-teens, we had a couple of the guys in the neighborhood, you know, we would cut grass, in the area off a Park Boulevard, right there across from the [TBR] office. We would go to the white folks' neighborhood to cut grass to get our little spending money. My parents did a good job in raising me and raising us, but I always wanted to get to the point where I could be independent. I always wanted to lighten their load and put the burden on me to be sort of self-supporting, even though I was a pre-teen.

I attended high school at Southern Lab, on the Southern University campus. I went to a Buchanan Elementary School, because even though I was in South Baton Rouge, my mother, at the time, worked in the cafeteria and she gotten an arrangement with the principal that my brother and I could come—we weren't in that district—but we could go that school. I went to McKinley Junior for one year, the seventh grade, and then my mother thought I could get a better education by going to Southern Lab, because all their teachers had at least a master’s degree since they were supervising the student teachers.

I've never gone to an integrated school in my life. From elementary to Southern University.They did have some foreign students and they did have a sprinkling of white students at Southern at the law school, but primarily, undergraduate, it was totally African American. And that was a challenge to me because I knew that it was not the institution or even the system at the time of separate but equal, but the individual should play a part in determining the outcome or what type of education he or she would receive. 

One of the things that really opened my eyes was in elementary school, we would get books, and at that time we would get book covers on them and in the inside of a book they had a little ledger, where you give your school, and your name, and the year. And we would occasionally get new books at the Black school. But these new books we got had already been filled out by the kids that went to the white school. They were six or seven years old by the time we got them. So that showed me that we weren't getting the same information at the same time, and the possibility to fall behind if you didn't do what you needed to do. I did have a chance, once I enrolled in Southern, to go to LSU's campus and just to see what curriculum and what books they were using in my major. I didn't want to fall behind *chuckles* So I was able to at least stay up by doing that, because my point was, it’s not the institution it’s individual. You can get what you want out of anything or you can not get what you want out of anything, but if you're gonna get anything, it's what you put in. It’s what you put in. 

The neighborhood I grew up in, I guess it was a good neighborhood. And I tell you this, Abel, because I grew up on 17th and South Boulevard. At that time, South Boulevard, places south of that was predominantly white. Right across the street from us were whites, moving north up until you got to North Boulevard, that's where the Black folks were. So, I had a chance to interact with whites all my life because, they were my neighbors. And for the most part, it was good experiences, I think, for both sides. You know, we were in—I don't know if you call it middle class, or lower middle class—but that didn't mean that much to me, or I never thought about it that much, because I can't say I had everything I wanted, but I had everything I needed. All the kids I grew up with, some were from single parent homes and some, you know, had both parents living with them, but we all felt the same. We were all in the same boat. And nobody thought that they were better or superior or the deal about income or what you had never played a part in it. We were we were all in it a together.

We talk about food deserts now, but in the neighborhood where I lived, I could remember Marino’s Grocery Market, which was on the corner of 16th and South Boulevard. You had Cal's Grocery, which is on the corner of 18th and South Boulevard. You had Joe's, which is on the corner of 16th and Bynum. And you had Enterprise, which is on the corner of Preen and 16th Street. And these stores were within one or two blocks of each other. Marino’s was the largest grocery store in the area, and the primary one that we had. Mr. Marino had a built a relationship with the family, so any time my mother needed anything she would send the kids to the store and we would pick it up we would tell Mr. Marino to put it on the book. He kept a little book for each family. And my mother told me that this really was a great help to her and the families in the neighborhood. Before I was born, when my father went to war, my mother could at least get food and everything else for the family by putting it on a book and knowing that it would be squared away at the appropriate time.

In my neighborhood then, the only Black-owned business I can think of were Lincoln Bakery, that was on 13th Street, now Eddie Robinson Drive. Liberty's shoe store, that was right next door to it. And you had the theaters, the Lincoln Theater, the Temple. You had the original Chicken Shack. And besides barbershops, well, you had Charley's cab, he owned a cab service on East Boulevard, and Wick's Cabs, which is further in South Baton Rouge. But those were the only type of Black businesses that were around in the neighborhood that that I grew up in, in some close proximity.

My family and community gave me a good, strong foundation to understand and to know that nobody was better than me, nor was I better than anybody else. And if I wanted something in life, that I had to work for it. Don't expect anybody—the ‘Iron Rule’, [as we say in TBR]—don't expect anybody to give it to you. You know before I knew it was [called the Iron Rule], that's what I grew up under. You had to work for it, do it for yourself.

I learned good work ethic and it really helped me out. It helped shape and frame me in being persistent and having goals and objectives and plans on how to meet them. 

My father was a chef, and he worked at various hotels around—where the Capital House is now, that was the Heidelburg Hotel. He worked in various hotels and other establishments around the town, so he was connected to the food business. The first real job, besides the ones I told you about, cutting grass, and the paper route, was I got a job at Delmont Pastries, 4550 Windborne Avenue, because my father knew the guys who owned the bakery, two German guys, Warren and Walter Bruetting, they would come by and bring pastries to one of the places he worked in. And he talked about me getting a job. So I was 13 years old, that was my first real job, washing pots at Delmont Pastries on 4550 Windborne Avenue. I never forget, I had to get up for 4 o'clock in the morning *laughs* to go there, and I made 80 cents an hour. That was my starting pay.

During school, I just worked the weekends. During the summers I worked every day. And I got trained in things. After washing the pots, they had me frying doughnuts, and doin cinnamon rolls. Then pies and cakes and even decorating cakes. So, I stayed there at Delmont Pastries, because the guys had been so nice to me, until I entered into the Army. But 80 cents an hour, when I was 13 years old and working four or five hours on the weekends doing that. And it was a great experience because I learned a lot and I learned good work ethic and it really helped me out. It helped shape and frame me in being persistent and having goals and objectives and plans on how to meet them. 

When I went to Southern University, I majored in business management with a minor in economics. Now, from working at the Delmont Bakery, I had got a job at Holiday Inn South. That’s the Holiday Inn on Airline and interstate 12. It was called Holiday Inn South, it became the Holidome. I don't know what the name of it is now. But because of me being at the bakery, the executive chef who knew the guys that owned the bakery, and they had some equipment at the Holiday Inn that they wanted to have their own bakery if they could. So, they hired me when I was probably a freshman in college. I went to Holiday Inn and tried to do the bakery stuff, but they didn't have the right equipment, and they didn't have anything else. I got paychecks, though, even before the place opened. And I'm the type of person, I'm there with absolutely really nothing to do because none of the equipment was there, but I just didn't want to be around just doing nothing. So I started watching the line cooks on what they were doing and how they did things. And eventually I became a line cook, and eventually I became a night chef at the Holiday Inn. And I was a full-time student, so I would go to school basically from eight to twelve, and my shift at Holiday Inn was from three to eleven. Sometimes I did have a lab class that would go from twelve to three, so I was I was a little late. 

I knew it was a tough row to hoe, but I had a philosophy that I wouldn't cut any classes. I would only miss a class when there was an emergency or something, and I would take good notes because I didn't want to have to stay up all night cramming for an exam. So, I went to class, took the good notes, I knew I would be able to at least keep up. Now, I didn't end up being an 'A' student, but I wasn't a failure either. Because I was carrying a double load. And during that same time, too, I was still working at the bakery on weekends. Had the full-time job school, full time job at Holiday Inn, three-to-eleven, and the bakery on Sunday mornings. I was helping them out where the guys who owned it could have an off day. Sometimes, when LSU would have a home game on Saturday night, I would get to the Holiday Inn at one o'clock Saturday afternoon, we'd work until like three, three-thirty the next morning, at Holiday Inn, and then I would go straight from there to the bakery and not get off sometimes till 10, 11 o'clock the next day. But that only happened during LSU's home game. 

I loved my time in Germany because I think the German people had a much greater appreciation of life than most Americans. Things that we take for granted, they didn't. I guess because they have experienced so many wars and so much destruction.

Now, in the midst of this time in my life, this was the time when the draft was implemented. They were drafting people to go into the Army, primarily to go to Vietnam. And they did it by pulling your birthday out of a hat and assigning a number to it. With my birthday, October 30th, I was thirty-six. My number was thirty-six. And your lottery board would select people depending on their lottery number. The lowest would go first. But as long as I was in school, a full-time student, I had a 2S deferment. So even though my lottery number was thirty-six, that prevented me from going into the service because I had a student deferment. But as soon as I graduated, I became 1A, and I became eligible for the draft. As a senior, I would go to some job interviews at the placement center on campus, and the job interviews would go real good until we got to the point of “what's your draft status?” And I would tell them, thirty-six. They say, "Oh, well that has nothing to do with us hiring you or not." But nobody hired me. 

I was at Holiday Inn one night, and I was thinking, I say, I graduated, but I'm still doing the same thing I did before I graduated. And I said the only way for me to actually clear the record is for me to actually get this commitment behind me. And at the time, that's when the Army was supposed to be sort of guaranteeing you a field if you volunteered, an area. I graduated in business management, so I picked the area of administration in the Army, to go in. And it's kinda funny, because the closest thing they to administration was to train me to be a clerk typist. And our motto was, "We don't retreat, we backspace” *Laughs* But I went over to Fort Puke. Ft. Polk, Louisiana, but we called it Ft. Puke. And we said, too, if they was ever gonna give the Army an enema, they'd stick the tube *laughing* at Ft. Puke. But anyway, that's where I went to my basic training and my advanced individual training. 

Out of basic training, I was the outstanding graduate of my cycle and I became what they call class leader in my advanced individual training. I did stay in the open air barracks, I had a Cadre room that I stayed in and I assigned people to the assignments we had, I didn't really have to do them. From this though, and I didn't really know it at the time, but when I finished the advanced individual training, I had an opportunity to come here to Baton Rouge on a temporary duty (TDY) assignment where I had to just wear my uniform and go to the Army recruiting office, which was at the time in that federal building across from the new post office downtown. I would go in there and sit three to four hours a day and just talk to anybody who came in. But by me doing that, that pushed me two weeks back, and, in that time, the sending of people into Vietnam was still in limbo, but President Johnson had made the decision in January they wasn't going to send any more troops there, and so I didn't have to go to Nam. I was on that levee to be the next to go to Nam, but I didn't have to go. 

So, I got sent to Germany. That's where I spent my time in the service, in Heidelberg, Germany. That was a real experience. I worked in military intelligence. Every intelligence report that came across the place I worked, which was the headquarters of the 7th Army and the Army in Europe, was very, very interesting. It was a very interesting job. My wife came over after I was there for three months, and she was pregnant. My son was actually born in Germany. 

I loved my time in Germany because I think the German people had a much greater appreciation of life than most Americans. Things that we take for granted, they didn't. I guess because they have experienced so many wars and so much destruction. It was refreshing to see family units as a whole on weekend. They would go out in the woods and do what they call "wandering"— like a picnic, but the family was together. And any opportunity to celebrate anything, they would have what they call a festival, or a fest. You know, you hear about the beer fest in Munich, but they had, you know, wiener schnitzel fest, they had bratwurst fest, just anything—wine fest—anything that they could do to celebrate they did it, and they appeared to appreciate life, it seemed like, much more than we do here in this country.

After being there a while I could have a done couple of things. In basic and advanced individual training, I took the test to qualify to go to officer's candidate school and passed it. But my philosophy was I didn't go to school to be a soldier. I didn't want to do that. And after I was in Germany, the office I worked in, I got an opportunity that they wanted me to stay on as a civilian employee to do similar work to what I was doing, but, you know, overseeing a staff. But at that time, man, I was homesick, had been to Germany two and a half years and my family hadn't seen and seen my son who was born there. So, I just decided, No, I'm gonna come back home. 

That's when I got to meet Pastor Wesley, cause I was actually the person at Blue Cross who helped establish a health insurance plan statewide for all the community action agencies. 

When I came back home, I went and applied for like four jobs. Within a week's time, I'd gotten three offers. And the one I decided to choose, because of a couple of things—they was offering a company car, for one—was Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Louisiana. It was in a marketing type job. And I never—that wasn't my intent, if somebody asked me, "Will you be in marketing, or will you be a salesperson?" I woulda said, "Nah." I didn't really want to. But that was the most attractive offer that was made to me, so I took it. And I was the first African American group salesman Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Louisiana hired. In nineteen seventy-four. And I stayed there, started in group sales, then went to a specialty department. That's when I got to meet Pastor Wesley cause I was actually the person at Blue Cross who helped establish a health insurance plan statewide for all the community action agencies. Here in Baton Rouge, Pastor Wesley was over Community Advancement Incorporated, which was one of the keys and one of the hubs here in Baton Rouge. So that's where I first met him and got a chance to work with him. 

I stayed at Blue Cross and eventually became the senior manager over the federal employees program. That's the program where those civilian employees associated with the federal government, at the bases, the post office, the USDA's, what have you, they have insurance options or plans that they can choose from. And the service benefit plan, which is offered by the Blue Cross Blue Shield Association, was by far the largest, and that's the one that I represented here in Louisiana, for the association. 

Then, after that, I had an opportunity to become senior manager of Blue Shield of California. At the same time, my wife's job was transferred to Huntsville, Alabama. And my son had graduated and accepted a job at Raytheon in Plano, Texas, he's an electrical engineer. So, that summer, I was the first to leave and we kind of all went our separate ways. In California, I was given responsibility over a much larger statewide area and two products, and I had a staff of 15 people who I supervised. I stayed there for 10 years.

It was always my intent to come back home, because I bought a house in Baker in eighty-seven. So, I left my house here and at the time my son was dating his then-girlfriend, and she and her cousin, they were in school at Southern. So, we had them come and live in the house. And I basically just walked out and left all the linen, stereo equipment, TVs, and everything and all I asked them was, "Take care of it, pay the utility bills that you incur, and Imma come home two, maybe three times a year, and I just wanna sleep in my bed and I'll let you know when I'm coming." That was great. I even had somebody cutting the grass for them, because it was two girls. I was paying for the grass cutting. And that worked fine, because first of all, my house wouldn't have to be empty. And I was helping some kids out in college. So, when my daughter-in-law and son got married, they was in relationship with some other people, so we had about seven or eight different sets of kids to live in the house during the time we were away. The best part about it, it was so sweet, I didn't charge them any rent. All I wanted was for them to pay utilities and keep it up.

A leader, to me, is a person who is able to not dictate, but to collaborate with the people in his or her group. We are broad-based, with different ideas, but we’re coming together and I’m just there to facilitate the conversation.

Two thousand and nine is when my wife and I came back to Baton Rouge. We came back that February or March. But while I was there in California, my brother, who was a priest at the last church I attended here, he was saying, "You know, we are getting involved with this new organization," and he knew I was coming home, he said, "when you come home, I want you to be the liaison person." And I said sure. Didn't know anything. So when I got back home in, like I said, February, March, I think that June or July Broderick called and he scheduled a one-on-one. And he came and we did a one on one and my two major concerns then, in the area, what I saw primarily—even though I lived in Baker, my heart was still in North Baton Rouge and Scotlandville—I said the lack of a grocery store and the lack of a full-fledged pharmacy was what I would like to see changed. 

From that, Broderick hooked me up with some people to try to think of—cause my church had property next door—so he hooked me up with some people to see if we could get a farmer's market there. That was a long, cumbersome process and it was a shortage of farmers, which made it almost impossible to do. But that's how I got involved, is through Broderick's one on one and then him inviting me to certain meetings. When I started going to the meetings, I didn't see much diversity. So I made it a point that if nothing else, I wanted to be there just to add some diversity and possibly another viewpoint from a different perspective. And so that's why I kinda got attached or involved with a lot of different issues. Now, it was all issues that were important to me and important to our community. That's why I felt the need to be there and to be a part of it. And I'm not saying this with any disrespect to anybody else, because everybody's situation is different. I was retired at the time, so I did have the time and I did have the interest to get involved as much.

Through Together Baton Rouge, Pastor Wesley and I, we reignited what we had before, with the Community Action Agency. And Bobby Thompson too, 'cause I hadn't seen Bobby in a while, and I tell people, "Yeah, I knew Bobby since he was a Seventh Day Adventist." Cause he used to come right down the street with a guy, Womack Rucker, who lived right across from Marino's Grocery Store, and he used to visit him in the neighborhood. I used to see Bobby and his brother down there all the time. Yeah, it was good to connect with Bobby in that way. But it's been such a plethora of people that I have enjoyed working with and being around. You know, Father Rick Andrus, Melvin Rushing. Ms. Dorothy, Abel Thompson, our current lead organizer Khalid Hudson. It's just been such a pleasure, man *sighs* And it's just too many people to name, and I think that's what keeps me connected, my admiration for the people in the organization and the great needs of the community, to bring people like us together to try to change things, to try to make things better.

What I have learned, I've learned the true value of broad-based organizing. And I've learned that, you know, as an individual, your chances of getting something done are sometimes slim and none. But it’s different in a broad-based organization, using the model and the system that we have about the power analysis and the power dynamics and doing research and understanding and knowing what you're talking about and building those relationships, which is more important. Now, these things, I was probably doing before Together Baton Rouge, to some degree, and not knowing what I was doing and why. But Together Baton Rouge sort of put a process, a name, and a label on those tactics, and instilled in me that these are things that you have to do in preparation for an action or to get anything done. And that people in numbers, and collegially, is the best way to do it. Individually, like I said, it's next to impossible. Your voice is not as loud, or as powerful. 

We have been successful, but I think for us to be truly and really successful, we have to reveal before we can heal. And I think we have to get to a place where we can have open and honest discussions about issues and hope the relationships are strong enough that we don't have a fear of people not want to hear it, or not wanting to accept someone else's view. And I'm not saying you have to agree with it, but you have to respect it, and to respect it you have to first hear it. 

I think sometimes in our meetings, some of our discussions, that people's responses or statements are tempered, or they water it down for fear of how people may perceive them or what they think. And I think that's a problem, because we don't all have to agree, but for me to better understand really who you are, you have to tell who you are and not try to hide anything or water it down. We can get to a place where we can really have our discussions and have our debates, but let's leave, once that's over, let's walk out the same way we walked in, as friends and colleagues and working together. And if we come to common ground on something during this discussion or debate, let's focus on that. If there's something we can't agree on, that's fine, but at least I know where you're coming from and you know where I'm coming from and we understand each other a little bit better. 

The simple definition of a leader that we always say in Together Baton Rouge is that a leader is a person who has a following *laughs* And you know that's true, but you can say that the Pied Piper was a leader of mice, but he was just bringing them to a place that they didn't know what the hell they was doing and why they were going. I think a leader to me is a person who is able to engage people in a way that they become interested and committed—and it still is around their interest—interested and committed and they understand exactly what they're doing and what the mission is. 

A leader is a person who is able to not dictate but to collaborate with people in his or her group, where we are broad-based, with different ideas, but we're coming together. I'm just there to facilitate a conversation, but everybody's voice and everybody's interests and concerns are important and how you can actually meld and merge those together and have people come out of a meeting or a session or action as a cohesive force and on the same page. And there's no set model for that, because it varies, I think, from situation to situation, from people to people and person to person. So, you have to be able to sort of read the room and understand who you dealing with and what you're dealing with, and how you can agitate them, what you need to do or say to get them on board and get them working. And a leader is able to present him or herself in a way that followers trust them, but more importantly, he trusts the followers. There's mutual trust, and respect and admiration.

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  • Phillip Norman
    published this page in News 2021-11-08 13:39:56 -0600

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