Thursday, October 15, 2009

On my hometown

I've been planning to do a post of comments on my old hometown in Northeastern Louisiana for a while, but I keep putting it off because it's a difficult subject with no conclusions.

But I just came across this almost News of the Weird article in which a Justice of the Peace in Tangipahoa Parish, which is north of New Orleans, was caught denying a marriage license to a couple because there were "interracial," meaning she's white and he's black, in this case.

On the obvious and negative side, the reaction is:

?!@#&$#%@#$$($%? REALLY? STILL TODAY IN 2009?!!!!!! C'MON LOUISIANA!!!!!!

The other side of things is that at least this guy is becoming more and more of a minority. I get the impression most Louisianians are also going: ?$%@#$#@%^

This was enough of an inspiration to finally write my article about the Boro, which is Winnsboro, LA.

My family has deep roots there with my great grandfather moving there over 100 years ago. He was a Methodist minister for a very short span in the early 1900s. My grandfather, father, and mother were all Presidents of the Chamber of Commerce at one point, with my mother being the first female president they'd had. My dad is the only family member remaining in the town, but the Paca family was a leading family, you could say, for a century.

I was born and raised there, and it was the only world I knew until I was 12, when I left to New Jersey for a boarding school. I spent a few summers there in the mid-80s, but by senior year or so, I would stay with my mother in other places in Louisiana and Mississippi. And so, I only know of the town from a child's point of view and I have not spent more than a few days at a time there in 20 years.

It's a farming town as virtually all small towns in the area are, on the border of the Mississippi Delta. When I was growing up, the crops were cotton and soybeans. The cotton market fell apart later when I was in college and lots of people moved to corn.

The racial makeup was stereotypical for the area as well. White and black. And that was almost it. Everyone could count the number of families of any other ethnicity on two hands, maybe one hand. I'm only coming up with 4 families right now.

As far as I remember as a child, almost all the elected leaders and such, with only a couple exceptions, were white. I always thought that this was basically because the town was about 60% white, 40% black and there was enough racism that only a small number of whites would vote across the color line.

However, I recently came across some interesting demographics about the town. I had the racial makeup reversed. It's actually 60% black / 40% white. Whites are the minority. (I don't know if this is a change over the last 20 years or not.) Puts the lack of black elected leaders in a slightly different perspective. Here are some other interesting demographics:

Of the households with children, only 35% are headed by a married couple. Another third have a female head with no husband present, and the final third are labeled "non-family". I'm not sure what that means exactly. Could be non-married, could be a combination of families.

The median income per household for the town is... get this:

$17,500 per year.

That's median, so 50% of the households make that amount OR LESS. Not one person, the entire household. This then implies the next stunning fact:

Almost 60% of the town lives below the federal poverty line.

This is not going to be the whole picture, because I know well that there are many poor whites, but one also can't notice the close connection between the town being 60% black and just about 60% of households being below the poverty line.

Things are changing, as I understand it. Here's a lovely video of Freddie Cole, a world famous jazz musician, brother of Nat King Cole, playing a couple years back in town at the Princess Theater. The band stayed with my dad while visiting. The Princess Theater is something of a high spot for Winnsboro with well-known artists coming to play and productions being mounted.

But in the comments to this video, someone stated how wonderful it was to see this, not just because it's a great jazz musician in a tiny town, but because black and white citizens were sitting together and playing music together. And this was not true when I was a kid. In the early 80s still, blacks had to buy their movie tickets at a side door and then sit in the balcony. I confess I had forgotten, but it's completely true. Clearly, it was illegal, but segregation continued on at the Princess just 25 years ago. Good news is that that's gone. Bad news is that it's so close in memory.

I periodically wonder: Why is Winnsboro in such economic troubles with a full 60% below the poverty line? A large part of it is the general decline of rural America. People are leaving the country for the city all over the nation. At the same time, not all rural places have to collapse. I've never actually been there, but Vermont has a reputation of being simultaneously rural and yet decently educated and, if not prosperous, getting by alright. The Delta soil is very rich. Why can't Louisiana be like Vermont?

My best idea is that it's this lingering racism and history of slavery. While the Princess is no longer segregated, it sure seems like most whites and blacks still live rather separate lives. Here are two examples I've found:

The town has one major festival each year: The Franklin Parish Catfish Festival.

I've never actually been, as it started sometime when I was in boarding school. I always hear good things, though, and it became a pretty big deal for a while with thousands of people attending. I encourage my readers down Baton Rouge way to try going some time. Interestingly, though, if I look at the photos on the official site, I can only find one single African-American in the pics. In a town where 60% of the residents are African-American. (I'm sure things are more mixed in reality, because this is a big event and town celebrations like parades had everyone attend when I was a kid. Even so, there's at least under-representation of the black citizens in the way the celebration is presented online.)

Simultaneously, blacks in Winnsboro will celebrate the Juneteenth Festival. I'd like to pretend I was all in the know on this but I hadn't heard of Juneteenth. It's a holiday that commemorates the end of slavery in Texas and has slowly spread across the nation. Here's a little home video from YouTube.

Nothing in particular to see there except that I don't see a single white person hanging out. A Juneteenth festival is never mentioned as a cultural event on the town web site. People are still living in their own racial worlds.

And this has immediate political consequences. I just dug up the parish election results for 2008. (A parish is like a county and include more than just Winnsboro.) The parish voted 67% for McCain, 32% for Obama. Got those numbers? 67 McCain, 32 Obama.

Now here's the racial makeup of the entire Parish: 67% white, 32% black. I'm not making this up. It looks for all the world like a straight race-to-party-line.

So what? I can only think that this two worlds approach to race that persists is still killing the rural South. Not just black Louisianians, but white Louisianians as well. No society can truly prosper without them all working together, or at least consistently with one another. Until that cycle is broken, the median income will stay as low as it is. I don't know what it will take. All the old guard dying off leaving the younger people who see all of the citizens as one group, not just those of their own color? I don't know. I welcome your ideas.


Mommy said...

Juneteenth is actually a Louisiana state holiday... it is always on a saturday, but a state holiday anyway.

Sarah Laurenson said...

I lived in Shreveport for 14 1/2 years and never heard of Juneteenth. My wife who lived in the Dallas area for years has mentioned Juneteenth in relation to when our rescued kittens were born, but I don't know if that term has more significance to her than mid-June.

My family still live there and I hear about the accepted level of racism that continues to exist. Grown men are still being called 'boy'. Blacks were killed by whites during Katrina and those white were thanked for keeping their neighborhood safe.

It's amazing to me that people I know who are very thoughtful and giving and stepped up to the plate when my dad was dying keep themselves deliberately segregated from those who are not white. That they would dismiss a group of people without getting to know any of them still baffles me.

pacatrue said...

I'm very happy to hear that about Juneteenth, -e/Mommy. I hope all the citizens are starting to feel that its their holiday, and not jut a holiday for one segment.

Sarah, most of the people I've known well who are prejudiced have the classic stance that individual people they know of a certain ethnicity are great, but still believe that the entire group has some sort of deficient trait. The fact that they keep meeting people who don't really match that stereotype doesn't seem to change the ideas.

Robin S. said...

I work in DC. There are three worlds at work there, in my opinion. There's the co-worker world, where educated people from all over hell's half acre work together. They mainly stay on point, and work gives them common ground. No one cares what you look like if you're well-educated, well-spoken and well-dressed, and you contribute well to the group that is work. Even so, I see mini-groups, racial, gender, etc., hanging out together more during lunches out, etc. Not straight down the lines, but some. I'd say that's simply the 'comfort zone effect'.

The second world is the neighborhood world, and it's all over the map as well, as it's based on who can afford to live in, or who is in the 'correct' age demographic, to live in which middle-class-ish area of DC. Hipsters stick together. Hippies stick together. Urban professionals stick together. This trumps race and gender, at least in DC, in my opinion.

The third world in DC, again, in my opinion, is the world of the under-educated and under-employed, and these seem to be mainly black, although increasingly some Hispanic.

I'm no sociologist, but I'd say education and presentation are the keys to the kingdom of everyone getting along and enjoying one-anpother's company, regardless of race. They work.

I could go on and on about this, but I have time constraints today.
One thing, though. A wonderful woman friend of mine, who happens to be black, said one day (she lives in DC) that a guy had come to speak at her church. He was from the bad part of town, was always in trouble, was caught one time, and sent away - but not to prison. Not sure how it happened, but he was taken out of his environment, and 'taken to raise' at the age of 14 or so, was a bright kid, learned a helluva lot, ended up going to college and doing quite well for himelf. I was shocked a bit when my friend quietly said to me that she wished more kids coming from trouble woulc be sent away from their environments, where everyone keeps you down on purpose. She thinks that would turn the tide on race relations like nothing else could.
Just thought you'd wanna hear that, because it touched a nerve between both of us. We've never talked about it again.

This is only tangentially related to the race issues of the deep South, but I do wonder if the lack of higher education in BOTH populaces of the small towns of the deep South is their biggest problem. Not the history so much now, but the lack, from a lack of a good education, of an expanded worldview.

Mommy to Ander and Loki said...

Thanks for the summary of Winnsboro. I'm now the juvenile compliance officer (fancy word for making sure the juvenile public defenders do their jobs) and I plan to visit soon. With a poverty rate like that, it's especially important that we help the poor!

David said...

Yes...lets celebrate the end of slavery with 30" rims on our Mercury and gang signs in our youtube video.

pacatrue said...

I'm not sure I understand your comment, David. Many people don't celebrate things in a serious way. For lots of people, the 4th of July is celebrated by eating baked beans and having a pool party, when what the holiday is about is the independence of our nation.

If you've got ideas for better ways to celebrate Juneteenth than just hanging out, which is all the video is, I'm sure some people would be interested.

By the way, are you the David I know or someone who stumbled by here?