The Racial Dimension

'To Me, It Just Seems Like Black People Are Marked'

Refugees Keyera Winston, 8, Ernest Washington, 9, and Zuri Franklin, 11,  dry off their feet  at a gas stop near Baton Rouge, La.
Refugees Keyera Winston, 8, Ernest Washington, 9, and Zuri Franklin, 11, dry off their feet at a gas stop near Baton Rouge, La. (Carol Guzy - Twp)

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By Wil Haygood
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 2, 2005

BATON ROUGE, La., Sept. 1 -- It seemed a desperate echo of a bygone era, a mass of desperate-looking black folk on the run in the Deep South. Some without shoes.

It was high noon Thursday at a rest stop on the edge of Baton Rouge when several buses pulled in, fresh from the calamity of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans.

Hundreds piled out, dragging themselves as if floating through some kind of thick liquid. They were exhausted, some crying.

"It was like going to hell and back," said Bernadette Washington, 38, a black homemaker from Orleans Parish who had slept under a bridge the night before with her five children and her husband. She sighed the familiar refrain, stinging as an old-time blues note: "All I have is the clothes on my back. And I been sleeping in them for three days."

While hundreds of thousands of people have been dislocated by Hurricane Katrina, the images that have filled the television screens have been mainly of black Americans -- grieving, suffering, in some cases looting and desperately trying to leave New Orleans. Along with the intimate tales of family drama and survival being played out Thursday, there was no escaping that race had become a subtext to the unfolding drama of the hurricane's aftermath.

"To me," said Bernadette Washington, "it just seems like black people are marked. We have so many troubles and problems."

"After this," her husband, Brian Thomas, said, "I want to move my family to California."

He was holding his 2-year-old, Qadriyyah, in his left arm. On Thomas's right hand was a crude bandage. He had pushed the hand through a bedroom window on the night of the hurricane to get to one of his children.

"He had meat hanging off his hand," his wife said. They live -- lived -- on Bunker Hill Road in Orleans Parish, a mostly black section of New Orleans.

When the hurricane hit, Thomas, a truck driver, said he came home from work, looked at every one of the people he loves, and stood in the middle of the living room. Thinking. He's the Socrates in the family -- but time was running out.

"I only got a five-passenger car," he said.

"Chevy Cavalier," said his wife.

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© 2005 The Washington Post Company

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