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.

 

Durin the summertime, we would go as kids and probably spend a week at a time on the land in New Roads. One of the things that I really remember seein was my grandmother, Orelia  Rodney, right next to the home she had a garden, and that garden would have just about every vegetable there is. 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. And when she come out of that garden, it’s just the beginnin of the day. And she would come in there and cook a big meal.

One of the big breakfasts that I always enjoyed was that fig—you don’t hardly see a fig tree now—but she had a whole bunch of fig trees and she used to can those figs and do fig preserves and stuff. And there was somethin that back then durin that time we used to call fry bread. She’d get that cast iron skillet, and that dough, and man you talkin bout with that fig preserve and that fry bread... Then, the bacon they had durin that time come from my grandfather’s hogs. Every October or November, he used to kill hogs. We had hogs, chickens, ducks, geese, you name it. It was a regular farm. A regular farm with everythang, y’know. The whole family was pretty much eatin off the land. Whatever they grew, we ate, and whatever they raised, we ate.

So, pretty much that’s my vision of New Roads and the Rodney family. Even much had a time where I did a little cotton pickin. My grandfather raised cotton, and I was always tryin to get away from daddy, from layin bricks, but I always wind myself back to him *laughs* I never forget the time I had to pick cotton. Picked about thirty pounds of cotton all day, from about six o’clock that mornin to six o’clock that evenin, and when it was time to pay, I got ninety cent. So, you break that down, that’s three cent a pound *laughs*

On my daddy’s side, the Bazile side, my daddy was a farmworker in Point Coupee parish—New Roads, Louisiana. His family were sharecroppers. They lived on some land right off a False River. My father and my mother was pretty much raised in a five-mile radius but my daddy was much more underprivileged than my mother’s family was, because my daddy's eldest brother pretty much raised their entire family without a mother and a father, because the mother and father died at a young age. So, imagine yourself a young family on sharecroppin land that you don’t own and then the sharecropper always tellin’ you each year, “We just broke even.” So that mean that you pretty much worked free that whole year, ‘cept for the food and shelter over your head. And the little shelter that he showed me that they lived in— I- I- I just shook my head y’know, how six or seven people was brought up in that. So, my daddy was, pretty much, very poor, and my mother’s side was poor but never wanted for nothin, is the best way I could explain it. Her family was in a position not only to feed and clothe and house themselves, but also to help others.

When my mother started courtin and stuff, my daddy had to go through my grandmother. And my grandmother, she was a very strict person and stuff. So, Lionel, with his background, he had to really sell my mother’s mother to even much think about comin into the family. You had a certain level of- of background, even much durin that time, to come into a family. But the Rodney family really accepted my daddy because my daddy—even though he was poor and came from a poor family—he had value. I don’t know how he got that value, but my daddy, with the least amount of education—what I think my daddy had was somethin like a fourth, fifth grade education—but, if you sit down and you talk to him, you thought he was a college grad. My daddy read, read, read, read. And even much as today, I kinda miss not tappin into some of that knowledge he had.

                                          Lionel Bazile Sr.

He had three sons, my father. And he taught each one of us to lay bricks… So, all the way through school, I always did have a job durin the summer, and on the weekends, workin with my father. At that time, I thought my father was the meanest old man in the world… But, when I had matured, got to be round about eighteen, I figured out what he was doin. He was preparin me for the world today. He became my hero, because he taught me the value of hard work.

As they grew up, the Bazile boys got old enough to leave New Roads. The first one that left the sharecroppin land was Manuel Bazile. He was the first one to leave New Roads, and he started workin’ at Exxon. He worked there a number of years then he left Exxon. From what I understand, at Exxon, him and a white man got into an altercation, and that altercation landed him being fired from Exxon, alright? But that wasn’t the end of Manuel Bazile. Manuel Bazile went—almost no education—raised an entire family with a career as a painter. One of the best painters in Baton Rouge, Manuel Bazile. He brought all the rest of his family from New Roads, and all his brothers—there was about five brothers—all of em became painters. And that occupation in the Bazile family exists right now, from Manuel Bazile’s sons, Manuel Bazile grandsons, cousin, relatives—so it’s a whole entire family of Bazile painters in Baton Rouge. And not only did he hire family members, but also men in the community. He passed that trade on to quite a few fellas in the community of Valley Park. 

Through determination and work ethic, my daddy, Lionel Bazile, left that sharecropper land and went into the Army as part of an outfit called Redball Express. Redball Express was during the time of World War II. That outfit was pretty much predominantly Black. It was a truckin outfit. And that truckin outfit had to run twenty-four-seven durin the time of World War II under General Patton. My daddy never talked about the war that much, but whenever he talked about the war, it was General Patton, General Patton. He was under General Patton, and the whole outfit of the Redball Express had to get the ammunition, the gas supply to the battlefield. So, I was told, that the outfit Redball Express was a major part of winnin that war. ‘Cause without that ammunition and everythang, there’s no way they could’ve accomplished that feat. He was stationed all over Europe, my daddy. He even came on the island of Normandy four days after they’d invaded the island. He said, when he got off the boat, is that all he seen was blood. 

My daddy came back, and even much after he came back from Europe, got out the service, y’know, uh... Well... Well you know the history of the Black solider versus the white soldiers, when they had the GI bill, and how the white soldiers versus the Black soldier got much better neighborhoods and stuff. The Black soldiers were denied certain neighborhoods even though they were qualified for the GI bill, but they always had the red tape where, Oh no, you can’t go to this neighborhood, that neighborhood. So, they eventually built a subdivision here in Baton Rouge primarily for the Black soldiers when they got out the service. And that’s how I got into that subdivision called Bird Station. Bird Station was built pretty much for the soldiers who went to the service under the GI bill. It was one of the first Black neighborhoods in Baton Rouge at the time, in the nineteen-fifties.

The only brother who wasn’t a painter was my father. Lionel Bazile, he was a bricklayer, and he started off workin by the hour. And eventually, he got his own contractor business. My father, that’s somethin that he really, really loved. And the reason why I say he really loved it is because, if you see his home right now, his home got as much brick as possible he could put around that house. From the pavement on the patio, den, all around. So, he really loved his trade, and he taught the trade to me and his two other sons, Darryl and Kenny Bazile. So he had three sons, my father. And he taught each one of us to lay bricks. As a young man I could remember he gave my first job, I was twelve years old. So, all the way through school, I always did have a job, durin the summer and on the weekends, workin with my father. At that time, I thought my father was the meanest old man in the world. But when you’re young and you don’t know better, y’know, you just think he very mean. But, when I had matured—got to be ‘round about eighteen—I figured out what he was doin. He was preparin me for the world today. He became my hero. He became my hero because he taught me the value of hard work.

One of the things my father shared with me was about his struggle getting into the brick masonry trade. My dad had a struggle gettin into that trade, but he was determined. That’s the only way I can figure he made it because it’s somethin that he loved. Because the struggle that he had gettin into the brick trade—not only with the white race, even much his own race. A lot of the brick trade at that time, as far as in African-America, was a lot of Frenchmen. Frenchmen and Black, y’know. I don’t know if you know anything about the Black Frenchmen at that time, they even much kinda looked down on some of the African-Americans and stuff. My daddy told me about how he got fired three times in one day with Black Frenchmen being his boss. He got fired three times in one day. He had caught the city bus goin to one end of the town, got hired, got fired there. Caught another city bus, got fired. Until he met a white man, and that white man name is Buddy Thibodeaux. I never met Buddy Thibodeaux, but when I retired I started takin my daddy to doctor’s appointments, and when I took him to doctor’s appointments we had a certain route that we traveled, along Lobdell. And once we passed Lobdell, Jefferson, Goodwood Boulevard, it’s just like clockwork, he gonna bring up Buddy Thibodeaux.

Buddy Thibodeaux was a contractor who took my daddy on the job. And Buddy Thibodeaux, I could sum up, is the reason that my daddy is the bricklayer that he is today. I never met Buddy Thibodeaux, but every time I crawled up that Goodwood Boulevard, I was gonna hear his name. So I would like to really meet that Buddy Thibodeaux, but I know he’s dead and gone. The story that my daddy tell me, Thibodeaux said (lowers voice), “Young man, you not where you sposed to be at in this brick trade, but you’re a hard worker, Imma keep you.”

Buddy Thibodeaux musta really, really gave my daddy the knowledge of that trade because he laid bricks until he was eighty-two years old. Eighty-two years old was the last time he laid bricks. In two-thousand ten, just when I retired, my daddy had just had congestive heart failure. But my daddy had promised a young man, “Whenever you build your house, I’m gon’ lay your bricks on that house.” And that young man finally built that house, and sho nuff, I tried to go on the job where my daddy was, cause he had just got outta the hospital—he’s not maybe around six, seven weeks out—and he wasn’t supposed to be on that scaffold layin bricks. But he was determined that he was gon lay bricks on that young man house. And I went out there tryin to get im, and I left him on there because I woulda probably did more harm to him, uh, stressin him out tryin to get him off that wall. So I gave in, and he finally got to that house and laid them bricks, y’know. He was determined to lay those bricks he had promised that man that he was gonna lay on that house.

We had about twenty-eight, thirty students in that class—and I wind up finishin in the top ten. Just sayin that to say that to say this here: it wasn’t a lack of knowledge, it was just a lack of exposure to the knowledge. 

I was born in 1950 in New Orleans at Charity Hospital. And my mother and father raised me here in Baton Rouge, all our life, I’ve been a native of Baton Rouge, and North Baton Rouge, during the early part of my life. We were stayin on North 35th Street for a little while, that’s in Eden Park. And, like I said, my daddy got out the service and we moved into Bird Station, in that home, in maybe '51, '52, somewhere around that time.

When I finished high school, LSU was offerin a summer pipe draftin course to the top industrial arts students from each one of the high schools in Baton Rouge. I think it was round about three or four of us from Capital High was chosen to go to that pipe draftin program. And, the bottom line, you finish the course, they find you a job in the industry. A little history on that, when I went to that course, I find myself fallin behind. The reason why was the difference in the education system. Y’know, back in ‘68, schools durin that time were still segregated. And the year after, schools integrated, so the exposure was different. I found that out quickly, how far behind we was. The stuff that the white students were havin, I come to find out that we ain’t never had that in high school. 

So, we had the 4th of July break. I told my mother and father, “I ain’t goin back to that school.” I attend class the next day, after the break. Then, next thing I knew, I missed two days. The third day, Dr. Hall—I’ll never forget his name, Dr. Hall—Dr. Hall called my mother and father, told them to get me back to school. And I did go back, and Mr. Hall tutored me for one hour for five days, and then—we had about twenty-eight, thirty students in that class—I wind up finishin in the top ten. Just sayin that to say that to say this here: it wasn’t a lack of knowledge, it was just a lack of exposure to the knowledge. 

From that point, I did get a job, at a Shell plant in Norco, Louisiana, and I was the first Black draftsmen who was hired at that plant. But I didn’t stay there that long, because I was tellin my momma I was gonna move to New Orleans or La Place, LA, closer to the job, because I had to drive from New Orleans back to Norco, LA. And my momma said, “No, you ain’t gonna move. Whatchu gonna do, you gonna go back to school.” So, I did go back to school. I went to Southern University. If I would’ve stayed at that plant I probably would’ve got drafted. But my momma told me to go back to school, so I went back to school and when I went back to school then they came up with the lottery system for Vietnam. So, pretty much that kept me out of goin to the Vietnam War.

I got outta Capital High School in 1968. That’s primetime of the Vietnam War. And just about every fella who graduated at that time with me, I would say bout ninety percent of em went to the Vietnam War. Why I did not go to the Vietnam War? That’s a good question. My only explanation was, durin the time, I was in school, I was goin to Southern University, so I got a deferment to go to college. Then, they oversee the deferment and came up with the lottery system. The lottery system is the draft system where they draft you accordin to your number. The lower your number, the more likely you get drafted. The higher your number is, the less likely you get drafted. They got three-hundred and sixty-five days a year, my number was three fifty-six. So, they eventually didn’t get to my number. I didn’t go to Canada *laughs* Nope, I just got lucky.

That Vietnam War affected a lot of my classmates. My classmates, when we graduated, we had over three-hundred and fourteen students, I believe, and when I attended my fifty-year reunion, we had over a hundred and fourteen students had died outta three hundred and some, a lot of ‘em from Vietnam. I think everyone in my neighborhood who went to Vietnam, they dead now, except one that I can remember, who is still livin’, and he in bad shape. So, Vietnam wasn’t a nice thang, y’know. All my fellow neighborhood fellas, and schoolmates always were glued to the six o’clock news to see what was goin’ in Vietnam, y’know.

At one point they tried to get me to go inside. I said, “Nooo, man”. They wanted me to do management inside the post office. I said, “I’m rooted on the outside, man”. All my work had been on the outside, layin bricks or paintin with my uncle.  So I had a lovely career as a letter carrier because I enjoy meetin people, I enjoy talkin to people, y’know? 

Durin all this time, I had family, and I was still in school. So, I had to get outta school, cause I had a family goin. I had took the test at Exxon and I passed the test. Then I had a interview set up. Went through the interview and everythang, and I never forget, in that interview, it was round bout three or four gentlemen—white gentlemen—interviewin me, askin me different questions and stuff, as you go through a interview, y’know. And mind me, everybody who got that interview that day got hired. But I didn’t get hired. Remember what I told you bout Manuel Bazile? First job when he left New Roads, he got hired at Exxon? And how he got into an altercation with a white man, right? Alright, so, my thinkin— I didn’t get that job, and everybody else got that job, so I just put two and two together. Say I got a name that is Johnson and Smith, where you got a whole bunch a Johnsons and Smiths. Bazile is not a common name. So, I figured those white fellas remembered Manuel Bazile durin that time. You get the picture? *Laughs*

I’ll never forget—he dead and gone, too—this fella here, name is Scott Smith. Scott Smith and I lived in the same neighborhood, Bird Station. One street from each other. Now Scott Smith was in the Exxon interview that day, too. Scott Smith got hired at Exxon. Quite a few more got hired at Exxon. But, before Exxon came into play, Scott Smith and I went to take the post office test. Now I wasn’t even much thinkin bout takin the post office test, but I ran into Scott Smith one day, and Scott Smith asked me what I’m doin. I said, “I ain’t doin nothin”. He say, “Well, let’s go down there and take the post office test.” So I said, “Okay, I’ll go down there and take the test.” So I took the test, got my score back, did fairly well—scored in the high nineties. Before you know it, I got called to come in for an interview at the post office. At that time, I was workin at the Coca Cola plant. Bein honest as I am, I told the supervisor that I need to get off at twelve cause I had a interview, and they told me, “Yeah, you can go on the interview, but you better get the job.” *Laughs* So *laughing* I got the job at the post office.

When I got hired at the post office, as a mail carrier, compared to my past workin with my father, I had one of the easiest jobs in the world. After haulin bricks, mortar, and throwin bricks and stuff two stories high? When I started just dealin with mail, goin to mail from bricks—*laughs* I looked at that, man, as, Oh, I’m in hog heaven now. Wound up doin thirty-nine years and ten months at the post office, y’know.

Post office was one of the better jobs at that time when I got hired, next to an Exxon job. Durin the time, 1971, when I got hired, the post office was doin a transformation. Every dime I done gave to the union—United States Mail Carrier Union—is very valuable money that I spent in union dues, because I would say the National Letter Carrier Association is one of the most powerful unions in the country. From 1971 to ‘73, the post office union fought hard for fair labor, safety, and pay increase. Durin that time, they were bustin up the unions. But the National Letter Carrier Association survived all that, tryin to bust up the unions, and it’s still one of the most powerful unions in the country today. As a retiree I still pay my union dues, because of all the benefits I have. So, I’m very humble and appreciative of what the post office done for me and my family.

*Laughs* At one point they tried to get me to go inside. I said, Noo, man. They wanted me to do management inside the post office. I said, I’m rooted on the outside, man. All my work had been on the outside, layin bricks or paintin with my uncle. So I had a lovely career as a letter carrier because I enjoy meetin people, I enjoy talkin to people, y’know? And that gave me a great opportunity to meet a lot of people, talk to a lot of people. My kids today, they grown, and every time I go off into one of these neighborhoods in the southeast part of town, off of Perkins Road—into Lakeshore Drive, Morning Glory, Clover Dale, Cherry Dale—every time I ride them out in that area they know what I’m gonna say—Boy, I walked these grounds. *Laughs* Round by city lake and all of that, those was some enjoyable times in Baton Rouge.

Owning property on both sides of town, it’s given me a split time to see the reality on both sides. And, believe me, they operate different. Southeast part of town versus North Baton Rouge town operate very differently.

1971, when I came to the post office, was pretty much the first time that I spent a lot of time on the southeast part of town, because that was my first assignment, to go over to the southeast part of town. That pretty much is the time that I learned how different Baton Rouge was on one side a town than on the other side a town. I started seein how peaceful and how flourished the southeast part of town was. So that motivated me to elevate myself in life. Seein that, Hey, there’s other things in life besides North Baton Rouge. What I seen on the southeast part of town opened my eyes to the opportunities that is available right here in this town that were pretty much cut off from North Baton Rouge, from my experience. That work capacity showed me that it’s a different world out there, and it inspired me so much.

I got married to my wife, Lucille, in 1970. We raised our family part of time in North Baton Rouge, and in 1995 I decided to build me a home. Y’know, I’m always a person lookin at where I can get the maximized return on my investment and I look at that being one of the greatest investments that I was gonna make, so I decided to leave North Baton Rouge to go to southeast Baton Rouge. I built my home in 1995 in a subdivision called Rolling Meadow, in the heart of southeast Baton Rouge.

When I did that I had even much family members askin me why I left, y’know, the North Baton Rouge area. And that’s another story itself. I had a uncle who was a principal in Germany for a while. He left LA, California—him and his wife—to go be principal to students on the Army bases and stuff. And they spent over twenty years in Germany doin’ that. Then he decided to come back home, and when he came back one of his goals was to do community work here in Baton Rouge. He came to Baton Rouge very energized to do work, and he had an apartment complex tore down and built some homes in the community. He was very active in the community. And he was the one that asked me, “Bazile, why you went over there in the south part of town?” Y’know, in other words, sayin I left my people.  So, I had to explain that to him. He came and he migrated—he coulda went anywhere he wanted to go, too—but he migrated into a place where you called “Easy Town”, and where you call “Easy Town”, normally you would call “the hood.” He migrated into the hood, and stuff, y’know. And that was his choice, and I made a choice. I respect his choice, and he eventually respected my choice. I explained to him my choice.

My choice—I was here my whole life, I had a young family, and I wanted the best for my young family at the time. In 1995, when I made the choice to go to the southeast part of town, I started to see the community being depleted and I started doin the market analysis on my property, and each year I get an analysis, my property value goin down. So I say, Welll, it’s either I’m gonna stay here until I can’t get nothin for my property—so I made a choice. Let me get my cut while I can, and go build me somewhere else, and when I build somewhere else, I’ll make sure that I maximize my investment. So I went to the south side of town, where I could build a home knowin that it wasn’t gonna decline, it was gonna go up in value, if I decided to sell. And that’s the way it went.

Owning property on both sides of town, it’s given me a split time to see the reality on both sides. And, believe me, they operate different. Southeast part of town versus North Baton Rouge town operate very differently. They get things happenin on the southeast part of town. Imma give you an example. To gets some streets paven, it took me almost three years after the first time I called 311. There’s a canal—I’ve been callin in for over a year, year and a half, to get a canal cleanin in North Baton Rouge. The reason I still have my mother and father's property over there, I have sister still livin over there, so my roots is still over there. And, to give you a little light on the southeast part of town, if they have potholes on Coursey Boulevard, or Jefferson Highway, they spend the weekend—whole summer when the streets started buckin up—they actually spend the whole summer makin sure those streets don’t have them potholes. 

When we had the election, 2016, Together Baton Rouge brought candidates in, and one of the issues we had seen in the Metro Council, the Metro Council pretty much vote accordin to constituents, rather than votin on issues that is good for the whole parish, y’know? We talked to those city councilmen on the southeast part of town about that, but it just went on deaf ear. They kept on the same practices, votin across lines that favor their constituents. And what I see in Baton Rouge, they get done what they want to get done. Imma give you an example of what I’m talkin about. Baton Rouge, downtown, at one time was a ghost town. Nobody was goin downtown. But they made a conscious effort to build up Baton Rouge downtown, and one of the mechanisms they used was incentives, tax breaks, to bring hotels, business, bars, stores, apartments. They got incentives to build that part. Now, North Baton Rouge, one city, one street, we talkin bout Plank Road. Same way they did downtown, if they really want things to happen, they could have em just like they did downtown Baton Rouge. Give the businesses incentives to build up North Baton Rouge. It could be done, but it got to want to be done.

                       Photo by Lily Brooks

St. Paul took me outta my element. I was the person who didn’t like to ask nobody to do anything. But by bein in a certain position, it made you get outta your comfort zone. And by gettin on certain committees and stuff, I had to start askin people to do certain things… Now, it got to where— I think I do it too much now

One thing bout my life, I always say, I don’t never regret anything. When I was a young man, and stuff, I was doin foolish stuff. But when my son got old enough and he decided he was gonna go to the service, me and my wife traveled down to New Orleans, and we dropped him down at one of the hotels in New Orleans and he done gone to basic trainin. By the time I got back on Interstate 10, I made a commitment with my Lord, my savior. I said, Lord, you take care a my son, I’ll serve you like I'm supposed to. That was a contract, between me and my Lord, my savior. My Lord and my savior saved my son, brought him home, he did twenty years in the service. He did twenty years. God did his part and I’m doin my part.

St. Paul took me outta my element. Around the time my son went into the Army, Father Vincent started askin me to do certain things, certain things. He made me a part of the fundraising committee, got me on the parish council, and stuff like that, y’know. I was the person who didn’t like to ask nobody to do anything. But by bein in a certain position, it made you get outta your comfort zone. And by gettin on certain committees, I had to start askin people to do certain things, and I wasn’t comfortable askin people to do them things. But now, it got to where— I think I do it too much now. And I’m the type a person, I don’t sit on the sideline and hear he-say, she-say stuff. I like to get into the table and see what’s goin on and get my own opinion. So that’s how I am, y’know—involved.  

Then Father Rick came to St. Paul. Father Rick was heavy involved in his parish in southside Chicago, and he was heavy involved with the community. When he came in, I set up a meeting with Father Rick about Together Baton Rouge. And before I had that meeting with Father Rick, Mr. Bagert, the organizer at that time, already had met with Father. Then when I had the meeting with Father, Father was heavy ready to roll with Together Baton Rouge. At that time, they were closin Baton Rouge General Hospital in Mid-City. So that was one of the first projects that Father Rick and St. Paul took on. Bottom line, we did not save Baton Rouge General at that time, they went on and closed Baton Rouge General. But they had to give the community somethin in the means of fightin that issue. We ended up getting a clinic in Baton Rouge, in the mid-city area, on Airline Highway. And with the work of the good Lord, right now Baton Rouge General is reopened, y’know. And it go full cycle and stuff, y’know.

Father Rick gave me that leadership to be on the Together Baton Rouge Executive Committee along with him and another member of St. Paul. When Father Rick took over and came to the church, I met with him and we’d been havin, pretty much, an annual meetin. I liked to have an annual meetin with him to see his positive or negative feedback about Together Baton Rouge. And that’s how we did each year.

Back in the day, a lot of people who were domestic workers had to go to the southeast part of town to they jobs as housekeepers. Those people, they didn’t have cars. And even much didn’t during the time when we was tryin to pass the tax, they didn’t have the cars. So, you just can’t leave people behind when you know you can help people. 

The CATS Tax campaign, that was pretty much the first real experience I had with Together Baton Rouge. Because St. Paul, we pretty much joined the organization around that time. CATS was always underfunded by the city of Baton Rouge. By being under-funded, they had long wait times on the routes, very insufficient bus line for Baton Rouge. And they kept tryin to get the Metro Council to fully support the transit situation in Baton Rouge, but that was just like pulling teeth. They had only a small budget, so the only way that CATS would’ve survived is to go through a tax proposal.

Back in the day, my mother sacrificed, and my father sacrificed, to send me to the Catholic school, St. Francis Xavier. I was in North Baton Rouge, the school was in the south part of town. So what did we have to do? We had to catch the city bus. My sister, Beverly, myself, and young lady named Janice Thomas, we caught the city bus on Choctaw Drive near Bird Station, went all the way down to North and 3rd, downtown Baton Rouge, and transfered from there to south Baton Rouge Rouge, in the bottom, where St. Francis Xavier was located. So, I seen the importance of transportation for people who didn’t have a car. And back in the day, a lot of people who was domestic workers had to go to the southeast part of town to they jobs as housekeepers. Those people, they didn’t have cars. And even much didn’t during the time when we was tryin to pass the CATS tax, they didn’t have the cars. So, you just can’t leave people behind when you know you can help people. 

When we went for the CATS tax proposal, we had some strong opposition, we had opposition called Tax Busters. Those was the more conservative people in Baton Rouge, and their whole thing was to defeat taxes. Any kinda tax came up, they was fightin’ the tax. So, CATS tax was a uphill battle, no one thought we could pull it off. They had a first attempt with the CATS situation, and it failed. So, we had to go back and restructure our strategy, alright?  When we seen that the people on the outskirts of town was pretty much against the tax, and voted against the tax, that directed us to narrow our focus. Instead of goin for the whole city, we went for, pretty much, East Baton Rouge Parish. East Baton Rouge Parish pretty much was the core ones who pretty much needed and was usin the transit situation in Baton Rouge. So, that’s how we restructured to get the tax passed.

Let me give you a little bit of information on the process, how we turned out the votes. That was a pretty amazing thing itself. When we got all the information on the addresses, all the people were pretty much in the inner city, so we put a group together in the 70805, 70802, and also 70810, 70820 zip codes. We put a group of people, organized, to canvass these zip code areas, knockin on door to door. And that was about a month operation, just doin that, meetin up pretty much every weekend. And sometimes durin the week in the afternoon. I’m speakin for myself there. I took that time in the afternoon to knock on doors through the weekdays, cause that’s how important it was to us. And about me, I don’t even much use the bus line. But it ain’t all about me. It’s about the ones who are less fortunate than me, y’know?

When we went door to door in those neighborhoods where we wanted to pass the tax, what was so amazin about that, we had white women—they had white men, but the majority of em were white women—going into black neighborhoods. And it juvenated me when I got them to walk with me and I made it a priority to make sure that white folks was with me, y’know? ‘Cause I wanted them to experience it. I knew I could get them to as many houses as anybody else, because that was my line of work, y’know? It was a beautiful experience. Right along with me, I had round about two, with me, never walked in a black neighborhood before. And they had a amazing time. And that gave me a lot of joy, to see that, y’know? The day I went out canvassin with Vicki Brooks, that was pretty much a amazin day because those ladies I would walk with got a chance to see some good people that’s in a bad situation. Some really good families was just caught up in a bad situation. We was in the 70802 zone—that zone is one of the highest rated zones in crime, in that area. 70802 and 70805, number one and number two in crime. And what they probably been seein on TV, all they’ll see are crimes. By givin them perspective and a time to go out and meet these people and get a different view of the type of people that they met and talked to that day, it was pretty much heart-warming for me as a black man, and gave some white ladies and men an opportunity to see that we just got some good people in some bad situations.

When I was growing up, I seen my mother and father helpin less fortunate people. My daddy, I seen my daddy take the least person and give them opportunities in his field, brick masonry. I seen him bring a person with no skills but was able enough, and he hired that person and gave them what back during that time was a pretty decent salary. My daddy was payin people back in the 70s 12-13 dollars an hour, y’know, laborers. So he wasn’t cheatin them. And then, if you really put out, he’ll give you more. So I always seen my daddy reachin out and helpin people. And I always seen my mama open doors to feed people. So, my background, I always did see my mother and father lift people up. I can go even before my mama an daddy, to my Grandfather Rodney in New Roads, who raised a farm and made sure everybody in the surrounding area did not go hungry. So, that’s where I got my ‘for the less fortunate people’ mindset. 

When you go door-to-door for somethin like the CATS Tax campaign, you just come with the truth. You tell your truth. And, you tell them how its gonna benefit them, and it might not benefit you but somewhere down the line its gonna benefit someone in your family or your neighbor, or whatever. Now, you gotta also give them the cons, if it doesn’t pass, there’s a possibility that you might be living in a city without a bus line. You be truthful with them, and, pretty much, the majority of them already was self-educated. So when we came up there tellin em that we was in there tryin to get the tax passed, it kinda made our job a little easier. And everyone was very welcomin to us. I couldn’t recall one person in the whole operation who brushed us off.

When it was election day, and it came to election night, we ourselves had a little doubt because the numbers was comin in pretty much not in our favor. But we didn’t know at that particular time that the numbers that was counted at the end was in the inner city. When those numbers came in, we had a brand-new ball game, and we had a victory. When we had that victory, it was amazin in Baton Rouge because no one thought a little group, just comin about, could pull the tax off like that. And the thing about it, Together Baton Rouge give you the opportunity to build relationships with some pure-hearted people, black and white. And all denominations and everything. And all we was trying to do is equalize the playing field. Not to balance it one way or the other but at least try to make it as equal as possible for all people. 

Everything gotta be equitable if you gonna do it. If you ain’t gonna do it equitable, then I have to go to the structure that say, ‘Do for my least brothers, and they do it in remembrance of me.’ Y’know, you just don’t throw people away.

One Together Baton Rouge issue that was alack of knowledge to me—and not only to me, I come to find out they had a lack of knowledge even much among the city level of officials, and also state officials—was about how much money was given away through the industrial tax exemptions, y’know. That was a very educational aspect of Together Baton Rouge. Together Baton Rouge elevated that industrial tax exemption for what it really was, y’know. As a citizen, my perspective was that if I’m runnin my household, how I can I afford to give away money when I need it in my house, to take care of my necessity? And come to find out that the city-parish, the school board, the sheriff’s department, all they funds was under a tight budget. When you have money given away, and there’s some that you could prevent from being given away, to eliminate some of those needs, that was a no-brainer to me. But a lot of people didn’t see it that way. My point of view is that Exxon is in the 70805 zone. 70805 zone is one of the poorest zones in East Baton Rouge Parish. And right in the front door of Exxon is one of the poorest parts of 70805. If you was a good steward, I think you would do somethin about that. But Exxon wasn’t doin nothin about that situation. If you look at the spreadsheet of Exxon, Exxon’s profit was always in good standing. But the community and the school wasn’t in that good a shape. 

Another Together Baton Rouge issue that I worked real hard to try to defeat was the St. George situation, y’know. I was very against St. George becomin a city of they own, even much that I live out here in the St. George area. And the reason why I was so against the breakaway of St. George was because, in 1971, when I came over to the southeast part of town, Plank road was just a two-lane street. Essen Lane was just a two-lane street. Siegen Lane was just a two-lane street. And they didn’t have the mall, they didn’t have all them businesses out there, no. So, back in that time, when Kip Holden was mayor, they made a conscious effort to build up the southeast part of town and neglected North Baton Rouge. That was designed. And anybody who have any humanity, why would you want to build up one area of town, and then once you done built it up, on the labor of hurtin other people, then they want to take that city and claim it as they’s? Y’know, it just doesn’t fit well with me. Now, if we was back in 1971, and they wanted to build their own city, I wouldn’t a had no problem because they ain’t had nothin over there then. In 1971, you coulda had that built up. Not in 2000. You gotta do things equitable, and it wasn’t done equitable. Now you done it built it up, now you wanna take it away. And if you gonna do that, where the restitution?

Everything gotta be equitable if you gonna do it. If you ain’t gonna do it equitable, then I have to go to the structure that say, Do for my least brothers, and they do it in remembrance of me. Y’know, you just don’t throw people away. Even much I’m on this side, y’know, I could benefit from the breakaway city, but it’s not just bout me. One thing you gotta remember in this equation: if you keep on the path of leavin people out—this is just from experience, seein thangs on both sides—eventually, it gone come into your territory. And southeast Baton Rouge is seein’ that. Crime is comin’ over here, also. When you start to leavin out the have-nots, the have-not gonna come where the haves, have. So, you gotta do this thing equitable.

We’re in Together Baton Rouge for the research they put in. Y’know, I’d put that top of the list. The collaboration with the membership. You could take a person like myself, to get us involved and give us the tools and you be surprised how the cream come on top with that.

What I like about Together Baton Rouge is the relationships. And y’know what I found out? The white liberal persons with Together Baton Rouge? They fight real hard for equality and injustice. That’s what I find, y’know. Like Dianne Hanley? Vicki Brooks? The list is so long, y’know. They know they catch heat at their church and they still fight. Like at St. George, they’re the center of the breakaway of St. George, but Dianne Hanley, she fights real hard for justice, and Vicki Brooks, at St. Jean Vienney. But you got some good-hearted white liberals who stand up and speak up for justice and injustice in Together Baton Rouge.

What I’ve learned from working with Together Baton Rouge is that you got to go into each issue and do your research. We’re in Together Baton Rouge for the research they put in. Y’know, I’d put that top of the list. The collaboration with the membership. You could take a person like myself, to get us involved and give us the tools and you be surprised the cream come on top with that. With Together Baton Rouge I really commend them when they take on a issue, they got the research where they can back up what they’re trying to accomplish.

With the St. George issue, we got all the research we needed so we knew exactly who to target and everythang, and we defeated St. George the first go around. Only way they came back and won the second round, they had to restructure the area they were petitioning. The area that they didn’t get the numbers in their favor? They cut them out. So, that’s the only way they overcame that situation. But we defeated them the first go-around with our research and targeting who we had to target. For that issue, we had Civic Academies, got all the information that we needed, and then we did the hard work on the ground, goin door to door. Mhm. Door to door. Many, many, many hours knockin on doors to inform the people. I wanted to go alone because I knew what I had to do, and I knew if I took somebody along with me it woulda slowed me up. I wanted to maximize my time.

Oh, what does it mean to be a leader?. To be a good leader, you got to know your people, listen to your people, and be able to bring your people together. An example of that—back to St. Paul— St. Paul was havin a lot of members sayin this, sayin that. So, back to what I told you from beginnin, y’know, a good leader don’t listen to the he-say, she-say. You get to the table and get to the root of the issue. So, that’s my aspect of good leader. Block out all the noise and then get to the table, find out what the issue is about, and then come up with solutions. Because you gonna hear stuff, but you got to make sure that you got the facts. And then, ya got to get to the table. Now that’s a common term, “get to the table”, but that’s what it boils down to. And like they say, Imma close with that.

Showing 3 reactions

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  • Barbara Wittkopf
    commented 2021-07-27 18:57:15 -0500
    We need to read these stories to better understand the inequalities in our own backyard.
    This blog also shows the positive influence that can be passed down through generations to make the community a better place for all. Barbara Wittkopf
  • Nessa Van
    commented 2021-06-29 14:55:18 -0500
    This was such an inspiring story of hope, perseverance, love for all mankind, and having true grit to stick it out, try, and do something new. Loved This!
  • Phillip Norman
    published this page in News 2021-06-25 13:32:42 -0500

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