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.