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.

On the farm, my grandparents had pigs, they had horses, they had goats, they had everything. This was their farm. It's up in Zachary. If you go to St. Francisville, it's on that stretch, 61. They did vegetables for garden stands, they would always have peas, butterbeans, okree, tomatoes, cucumbers, cantaloupes— so you had a lot of stuff, y'know.  In the kitchen she had a closest, and we called it the pantry, she would put everything she wanted right there. We would have barbacoa peas, crowder peas. Then you would have butterbeans, you would have the plain, just greens, then you would have the speckled ones. And when you got to your okra, she would take and we would out okra in the jar and then we would force tomato pieces in there, and she would cook. And during the winter months, whenever she got ready for a vegetable, she would just go pull that out. So, y'know, she was more or less like self-contained. Uh, if she went to the store, she would buy salt, pepper, sugar, and maybe flour. That's it.

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. While we there as young kids we didn't notice, family would always come and they always had plenty that they would divide among themselves.

Now, some of the people that were in the area in Port Hudson, where I grew up at, once they finished high school a lot of them left and they went up North. They will come back, during the time when it's harvesting for vegetables and so forth, and they gather up as much as they can and then they go back North. Then with Community Coffee, a lot of peoples come here and buy coffee and have it shipped it back. Same thing with red beans. My daughter was living in Texas. When she first left, I would send—like especially during Mardi Gras—I'd always send her a King Cake. Yeah, go to Gambino's and they ship em. If I go and place the order one day, two days later she got it. She also couldn't find red beans, so she told me to send her some. I went got two two-pound bags and sent em toher *laughing* She said, "My God. Whatchu tryin to get me to eat beans everyday?" A lot of other students who were over there, and some she had gone to school with, when they get something from home they would cook it and then they'd have em a dinner party.

I do have me a little garden now. The sticks you see out there, those are okra sticks. I made enough okra to get what I want out of it and to give some away. I usually have bell peppers. Those are some cabbage plants that I have around the corner. And those two grey buckets I have there, after the fall, when everything was over with, I went and bought me some mustard seeds and I put em in that bucket, and do you know that I had some to give away? 

Now I do a lot of jellies. Some peoples like muscadine. We used to go and pick strawberries and we would just keep them and eat them. But for the blueberries, I boil them, strain it, and then I make blueberry jelly. Now my son loves blueberry jelly. Usually when I make a batch of it, I give him some jars, y'know, and he'll let me know when he out, then I just give him some more. I have one aunt living, and she's in Georgia. She's up in her late eighties now, and she would always tell me, she said, "Well, blueberry season is there, can you make me some jelly?" And I would make her some jelly, I'd pack it up and then I'd ship it to her. 

Around the time I was in 8th grade, we were trustworthy, we went back to live with my mother in Jackson because you could basically take care of yourself. My mom would have to go to work, like, 4 o'clock in the morning. The four of us kids, we stayed there with her. I finished high school in Jackson, LA in '65, then I came to Southern, and the first semester I was there my mom had surgery from blood clots, and she died. So, I never did go back to Jackson. I went back to my grandmother's.

I stayed at Southern for two years, I ran outta money, and I went to work. I left and went to North Louisiana and worked at an ammunition plant in Minden, which is out bout thirty-some miles from Shreveport. I worked with the TNT that they put into bombs. It was like a powdered form and what they do is send it through this machine and this machine would make pellets, and you would put two pellets in a can about the size of tomato paste. You did assembly line work, and it went on down the line and when it finished, they would box em up and take em to another section of the plant and they'd put em into bombs. That was during the time when Vietnam was there, so it was really busy. There was only one explosion during the time that I was there, but I wasn't there when it happened. You could feel the vibration from when the thing exploded. Some people still got killed, because they worked the nightshift, and it was just before the dayshift was comin on. You had a dayshift, you had an evening shift, and you had a midnight shift. So, I did that, and I worked a while after that explosion. Then I left and I came back to my grandmother's and I stayed there, and I worked with East Baton Rouge Parish for like two, three years.

At some point, my sister told me, she said, "Why don't you go try the phone company?" So, I went and put the application in, I took whatever test they had to offer, and she said, "Well we don't have anything right now, but we'll call you back if we do." About two months later she called, and she wanted to know if I wanted a temporary job as an operator. I said, "M'am, I have a full-time job right now. I'm not about to leave full-time to go to part-time." So she said, "Oh, okay. I'll keep your application." And a week later, she called and she offered me a mail clerk job in the business office. I got mail in like four, five times a day, and you had to sort it out, all for Baton Rouge and the surrounding areas— New Roads, Plaquemine, Denham Springs.

So, I stayed with that and when my son was about six months I said, Well, let me try this job and see, because every week somethin was posted, where is a job in Louisiana, Mississippi, anyone that was for Bell South—well, it was South Central Bell, then. So, I betted on Service Tech. Didn't know how to do nothing but pick up a phone and dial it. That was it. So, I went to school in New Orleans, and my son was still small, and my sister went through a divorce so she stayed here, and she would get my oldest out and she would take the baby two blocks from us to the sitter. I would come home on Wednesday night, and if I didn't go to school on Saturdays, I'd come home Friday night. But if I went on Saturdays, I would come home Saturday evenin and then I would go back early Monday morning. I'd drop my things off in the hotel then I'd go into class.

Growing up, once we went to live with my mom—we had no brothers, it was just four of us girls—and her attitude was, if something was broken she'd try to fix it before she'd ask anyone for help. She'd say, "Well, if it's already broken, I can't break it any further" *Laughs* Y'know, so I took that attitude from her. 

At the time I was hired, I was the first woman to ever work as an installer for South Central Bell. When they called and told me that I had gotten the job and everything, I came home and I told my husband, I said, "Well I got me another job." He said, "What do you have?" I said, "Well, it's still with the phone company," but I say, "but Imma go outside and be an installer." He looked at me, he said, "What?" He said, "First of all, Imma give it to you straight: you gotta learn how to do your own work" *laughs* He said, "They're not gonna do your work for you." He said, "You see, me, the ladies are comin out there driving trucks now,” he worked as a truck driver, “and I went to a stop the other day and this lady was tryin to back in, cause here trailer had to be unloaded, and she kept tryin, and after ten minutes she couldn't get in there." I said, "Well did you help her?" "No. She gettin the same pay I am, so she got to do it." He said, "And those guys are gonna feel the same way with you, you have to do your job, don't depend on them to do your work for you." And... at first, I thought he was just being cruel? But he was just being honest with me. And that paid off. He didn't sugarcoat it, or nothin.  And some of the guys said, "You mean to tell me your husband talk to you like that?" "Yeah." "You weren't offended?" "No. He was tellin the truth." I had no idea what I would be into.

When I finished my training, I got put in a crew that was just checkin for noise in the phonelines. That crew got dismantled and the manager asked us, "Where do you wanna go?" So, by havin a small child I figured I don't need to be too far from home, because if something happens, I could get home quick. From home to where I worked on Harding Boulevard was less than five minutes. And that's where I stayed the whole while, and it worked out fine.

I learned a lot, y'know. And I never was afraid or anything. It didn't bother me, y'know. And I never called for help. Because there were some ladies who called for help, some jobs are much harder than others. And I heard how the black employees were talkin about the white employees, how they would call for help quick. They would get into talkin. I said, "Well, you won't have to say that about me" *Laughs* Y'know, and one day one guy asked me, he said, "What took you so long with that job on Baker Boulevard." I said, "Well, it was a rough job." I said, "I had ten poles I had to climb." I said, "I had to run that line from the street, all the way back, til they get to the house." He said, "Well, you gotta call. I'd a come help you to pull it up." "No." I said, "No. Thank you, but I got it done." And he say, "Well, how did you do it?" I told him, I say, "Well, I climbed each poll two times. I climbed it and took the line up there, I pulled the slack out, took it to the ground, and I tied it off to the bumper of the truck." *Laughs* "Then I go back up the pole, put the clamps on it." And that was it, y'know. And they learned quickly. I wasn't gonna call for help. Growing up, once we went to live with my mom—we had no brothers, it was just four of us girls—and her attitude was, if something was broken she'd try to fix it before she'd ask anyone for help. She'd say, "Well, if it's already broken, I can't break it any further" *Laughs* Y'know, so I took that attitude from her. 

I stayed there working with South Central Bell as an installer for twenty-seven years. At that point they were surplussing people, I had the time to retire, because you had to have points, you had to have seventy-five points and you had to be at least age fifty. I had eighty-one points. So, I left, but one little guy that had the same job title I had was worried because he was gonna get laid off, he was the bottom man at our work center. And I just kept tellin him, I said, "Shad, don't worry about it." He was sure he was gonna get laid off. Well, I took retirement then. I saved him a job, and he didn't last a year after I left. He stopped coming to work. The phone company is not a bad company to work for, the only thing they don't like you to report out sick. You can be the worst worker in the world but if you come to work on time, they'll never say nothin to ya. 

So, I retired in 2002. Then, when Katrina come through, I got a call from personnel, they wanted to know would I come back and help em out.They said, "Yeah, well we'll pay you dearly. We'll pay you $1000 a week if you come back." I said, "Well go-lly, I can't turn that down." So I went, I worked for about four months. And I probably could've stayed longer, but there were a lot of young kids there, and the attitude was just horrible. I thought about it one day, and the young man that I was workin for, I said, "Have they given you a date yet?" So he said, "No, m'am." He said, uh, "Why? Why you wanna know?" I say, "Well, I don't like the attitudes. I'm old *laughs* and I don't have to put up with this." So, uh, I said, "Imma give you a date. And I worked 'til the end of the year, I gave him a two week's notice and I just didn't go back. 

What I liked about the job was that, once I got my load, I'm out. I didn't come back inside. If I saw em on the road I waved to em and kept going, y'know. But I would go do what I had to do, and then that was it. I enjoyed the job because you were not in an office. You were basically on your own. I did it just to get out, to try something different, y'know. Yeah, it was very convenient, and some days—you had to be within so many blocks of the job you just left and the job that you go to—and if I was in my area, what I would do is like in the morning I would take out what I was gonna fix for supper, and my oven had a timer on it and I would season it up, put it in the oven, put the timer on it, and by the time that my daughter got in from the school the oven was kickin off. So everything was done, so when I got home, I didn't have to worry about cookin.

Y'know, treating individuals the way you wanted to be treated, you can get into more places than you get anyway else. Most of the guys had beards or mustaches, so they had to be clean shaved to get into the plants. I got into all the places, y'know, and there's this one guy at Exxon, he would always—he was back on Chippewa, it was an entrance back there—he would always look at me and say, "Ya gotta be clean-shaved." And I just looked at him *laughs* Y'know. No problem here.

One guy I worked with, named Herb Sanders, I met him when our sons was playin pee-wee football together. He worked at a different location but he'd end up over there, he didn't know anyone but he knew me. That's one guy, he was very trustworthy. If I didn't know how something went, I could ask him and he would give it to me straight. And I didn't have to worry about the bite-bite behind it. I tell him all the time and I tell him to the day: I'd put my head on a chopping block and I wouldn't get deheaded. He was just that straight. You know, Herb had some health issues. He was diabetic, he had high blood pressure, and he didn't follow his diet. And I knew his wife. So if I wanted anything, I'd call over there and I'd ask Anne, "Ain't Herb at home?" She'd say, "Yeah." And I'd ask him how to do such n' such a thing, and then he would tell me. When I got ready to retire, Herb was still workin. I told her, I said, "Anne, I'm retired now, I can't watch what your husband eat no mo!" *laughs*

Then I said, "Well, Imma go a little bit further." The exit out of this part of the neighborhood where I live, it's a parking lot through those apartments. It was in bad shape then and it's worse now. I don't even go through there if I can help it. So, I went took pictures of the damage, had em developed, and I attached them to the petition.

I got started with Together Baton Rouge with that bridge. At that time I had gone to a meeting with our council person at the time, at an elementary school in our neighborhood. That's when she spoke and she said the mayor had told her that there was no money to replace the bridge, it would just be closed. She said, “Well you guys, probably the only thing that can get his attention is if you get a petition.” So, I came home, and I typed up a petition and carried it to the lady next door, let somebody proof it to make sure it was right, y'know. She said, "It's good enough." I said, "Okay." And I took my street and one over and Ms. Thomas took her street, and we got the signatures and everything. Then I said, "Well, Imma go a little bit further." The exit out of this part of the neighborhood where I live, it's a parking lot through those apartments. It was in bad shape then and its worse now. I don't even go through there if I can help it. So, I went took pictures of the damage, had em developed, and I attached them to the petition.

I found out about Together Baton Rouge through Ms. Dorothy Thomas. They were havin a meeting at St. Mary, and that's how I found out about it. Well, from what I understand, it was the organization that would help you try to solve some of your problems. And the Blue Grass Bridge is what got em on the map, y'know. Then it went from thing to thing. But I still think that they should kinda look out on some of the items they have in each neighborhood. Y'know, what are some of the neighborhood's problems, kinda help solve them. But that's just me. 

With the bridge, I just wanted to see the problem fixed. And one thing we accomplished out of that was that whenever they are gonna close a bridge down now they have to notify the residents. See they didn't notify anyone of anything. That morning I had looked out and I had seen the surveyors out there. They inspected the bridge and that was it. And then later I was lyin on the sofa half-sleep, and I heard the truck. Then it stopped. And when I came out onto the car porch I looked and there was this big eighteen-wheeler with a crane to move those barriers to block the streets off. Wait a minute. I walked down there and I asked him, "What is going on, sir?" He said, "We got orders from the state that this bridge is closed, it's unsafe to travel on." I said, "Oh." 

It took about two years to get it done. You had to follow up on everything. Ev-ry-thing.And you see what shape the bridge is in now, it needs to be redone. Every time I call they kept tellin me that it's not scheduled to be worked. That's since June of last year. And, the councilperson, I'm gone write her, and I've got a folder, so every time I call 311 I always ask who am I talking to, and I write the date and the time down and the person's name and I put remarks down, what they tell me. And when I write her the letter, I'm gonna make a copy of this and tell her I've been trying to get this done and nothing has been done. And she knows about it. But I think the last meeting that Dianne had and they were trying to get the council members to come? I called her clerk, and I asked her about it, so she told me she don't know if she did or not, but would I send her the information, so I forwarded the information to her, and she responded back to tell me she had gotten the information but she never did say whether she would be attending or not. So whenever something is going on I make sure that she's aware, but, y'know, I can't go no further than that, I can just advise you. 

I enjoy working with Together Baton Rouge. Helping someone else, you get enjoyment out of it. And you know you have tried. I don't have to ask myself if I had done this, or if I had done that. You do what you can, and then that's as far as you can go. And you can't make peoples be interested in something. You just work. Now, y'know, whatever I can do, I'm willing to do it. As far as like when they go out for canvassing and stuff like that, y'know, I have to hire a sitter, cause the way my son work, when he goes to work he goes for twenty-four hours at a time. 

When we were doing the CATS tax canvassing in our neighborhood, we started over off of Ford Street, and we went from Ford Street all the way out to Plank Road. And then once we had finished Zion City, we came through here, and we went al-l-l-l-l-l down Sumrall *laughing* All the way from Plank Road all the way back. But there was about five or six of us. Three would go on one side of the street and three would go on the other side, and we moved our vehicles, we'd park, and walk down, and work our way back to the vehicle. Then we'd move the vehicles, go to another spot, and then work our way back down. And all the ones that were doin it, we were retirees *laughs* We could still get around.

So, we did that in the afternoons, three or four days a week for about five weeks. We found out that four o'clock in the evenings was hard. And we went back to five o'clock. And I think we ended up goin back at six o'clock. But it was like daylights savings time, so it was light until eight o'clock. And that's how we were able to get everything done. 

A lot of people would answer the door, and then some wouldn't. When they did, they'll ask you, "What are you selling?" "I'm not selling anything. We're just asking you to try to support the bus system, y'know, it is gonna be a tax", and so forth. Most of em don't have transportation. Cause see that's the bus just passed *bus screeches and squeals in the background* And see at the time, before the taxes, this stop in our neighborhood was not on the route. So a lot of em, they would say that, "Yeah, we gonna vote." And sure enough they kept their words. Our precinct ended up having one of the highest turn-outs in the parish.

"Why are you sitting here with me?" She said, "I know you live a better life than I do. I got three kids, and I'm on welfare. You're working." I said, "M'am, just because I have a job that don't mean I'm no more than what you are. You're a human being and so am I." Y'know, some peoples, when they get a step ahead of another person, they look down on the ones that's down there. But you got to remember, you were once down there, too.

I just don't see how some people are just not interested in nothin. Or only interested in something that they are going to benefit from. And to me that's not the right way. You just can't force peoples to do anything. Y'know, it's just like when I was working and when I went there to do an installation, the first thing they would start fussin about the price of what the phone company was chargin them to do it. One lady, she really ticked me off. I went to hook her phones up, and she said, "I'm supposed to have a private number, whatchu doin with it?" I said, "Ma’am. If I don't have the number, how I know what to hook up for you?" "Well, you might remember my number." "When leave here I'm not gonna remember your number.” *laughs* But. That's just people. I think that wanting to be involved in the community is all to do with the upbringing that I had, where you always shared. Y'know, my grandparents always taught us to share, and to always help one another. And their basic motto is, Treat the next person the way you want to. be treated. And it goes back to that.

Y'know, one time I was at a house and I hooked this lady's phones up. And it was right at lunchtime, and the kids were hungry. And she didn't have a car. So, she was there just to get her phones hooked up, so the kids were complaining. So I asked her, "M'am, do your kids eat-" such 'n such a thing, because I always kept on my truck, plain crackers, the little crackers with peanut butter, I kept sodas on my truck. So I told her, I say, "Well, I have something that you can give the kids to eat that will kinda quite them down." So I gave em that and the lady looked at me—I sat down on the porch! And I drank my drink and ate my crackers *laughs* And we had just started with computers, and I had my computer out, I had the little antennae up, and I was just puttin the information in there. And she looked at me, she say, "Why are you sitting here with me." She said, "I know you live a better life than I do." She said, "I got three kids, and I'm on welfare. You're working." I said, "M'am, just because I have a job that don't mean I'm no more than what you are. You're a human being and so am I." Y'know, some peoples, when they get a step ahead of another person, they look down on the ones that's down there. But you got to remember, you were once down there, too. That little lady sticks with me and every time I go there I can see that little house *chuckles* And the kids were very mannerable. They wasn't no rude kids, y'know. Some things just stick witchu. I don't feel you should ever put anyone down. That's not judging them because of the situation that they're in. You should judge them according to how they treat you or the next person.

Nowadays what I do with Together Baton Rouge is that whenever information is sent out? I make copies. And I hit all three streets. If Ms. Thomas is at home, I give her some for her street, but I'll hit the street on the back, and that's it. I make sure that the people in the neighborhood are aware of what's going on. Now, it's your decision whether you attend or not, but you can't say you weren't advised. I just want to make sure you are advised. So, you make your own decision, just like I take the time out and do what I have to do, you could do it, too. And it doesn't take a whole lot of time to do that. The biggest time I spend is at my computer printin it. And I pass em out. That's all I can do.

I don't consider myself as a leader. I consider myself as a helper *laughs* I'm not a leader, I'll tell you that quick. I'm not a leader, because you have to take control, but I will help you. A leader has to have someone to work with them and to help them because they can't do everything. Y'know, if this person does this or this one does that, that's gonna make the leader's job a whole lot better. It's just tryin to help someone else. I'm too bashful to be a leader. You gotta be more like an aggressive person. That's not me. Now Ms. Thomas is aggressive, y'know. And Ms. Thomas'll say whatever is on her mind, whether you like it or not. I'm a little reserved about that, I'm not gonna say anything. If I don't like it, you'll never know it. But I'm not a leader *laughs*


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