I was here not long ago to attend my 10-year high school class reunion. Took the wife, who was Booker T. Washington High's valedictorian in 1968, and the kid, who is nine.
Went back to see what people thought how of the girl voted "Most Intellectual," as well as of myself, a one-time Ripple-drinking, Jr. Walker-style tenor sax player in a jazz band called the "Washingtones," which paid $2 a night. Better players got more.
My high school had been rated by Life magazine as one of the top 15 comprehensive high schools in the country when it opened in 1950. It had long been Shreveport's showcase for "separate but equal" educational facilities. Combining the philosophies of two prominent black educators, W.E.B. DuBois and Booker T. Washington, the school prided itself on producing graduates who were versatile, who could, say, recite Shakespeare while laying bricks.
Voluntary "crossover" began in Caddo Parish public schools in 1969, making my class of '68 the last officially segregated crew at BTW, the last class groomed for a place in one of two different worlds that exists here.
When I arrived at the reunion, Evonne Moore, the class treasurer, elected because of proven abilities as junior high sock hop doorguard, was sitting at a registration table at the entrance to the ballroom of the Shreveport Civic Center. I had not seen her in nearly a decade.Recognizing me immediately, she said, "You still owe $25 for registration." I told her that Linda, my wife, had paid $25. "Then Linda can go in," she said curtly. Then Linda went in.
Alone with Evonne in the hallway, I watched my old classmates through a crack in the door. They were seated at cloth-covered cafeteria tables wearing pastel-colored tuxedos and long gowns, sipping liquor from plastic cups and dancing to the beat of a band called, "Three Degrees Below Funk."
I had not seen many of these people since the prom, since 1968, the year that all hell broke loose. My most serious confrontations that year had occurred after band practice, on late-night, front porch dates.
"You better come on and pay your reunion dues." Evonne finally said.
"Are you Martha Bowls?" I asked one woman I thought I recognized. "No," she said . . . "It's Sharp now." Martha Sharp. I was in the Central Free Methodist Elementary School with her when boys were learning how to "cop a feel." She was the first girl to beat me up in public.
Martha was also the only BTW graduate in the class to return to school as a teacher.
"Oh, God, you'd cry if you went back," is they way she began her story of the decade.
Now going back to Shreveport was tough enough. It was not New Orleans. My town was the last Confederate capital in the Old South, one that Sherman considered so unimportant he stayed in Atlanta. The rebel yell has been heard up and down this Red River city ever since, and Shreveport remains the most segregated city in America, next to Chicago.
But Martha went on. "Booker T. is integrated," she said. What she meant is there are now more white teachers at BTW than black teachers. There had been one white girl attending school under escort for a half day at a time and a white boy who corresponded with BTW by mail.
A decade ago, integration, or "mixing," as home folk call it, had been an exciting proposition, something that people were dying to do. Now, for many members of the class of '68, there are mixed feelings about it; they are happy that new doors had opened for them, sad to see so many old ones closed.
"Integration reduced us," said Raleigh Brown, who was the principal at Booker T. Washington from 1960 to 1967. "White schools attracted the black bourgeoisie, drained us of those whose motivation could have motivated others."
My father and my mother taught at Booker T. - he, graphic arts and journalism and she, business administration. He stopped teaching journalism a year ago, however, discouraged because there were not enough seniors who could write a simple sentence. My mother exchanged places with a white business teacher at a predominately white school.
"I read that series on Eastern High (in Washington) in your paper," my father said. "I could have changed the same to BTW and run the same stories here. It's bad. It's not just in Shreveport, either."
"It's so bad I had to start carrying a shotgun in the trunk of my car," Martha continued. "They slapped Miss Kelly, you know. They filled one teacher's gas tank with sugar and doo-doo. I told 'em if I catch 'em, that's it.
"They got what they call a 'reclamation room' in the school because nobody gets expelled anymore. It's a joke. Students call it R&R. All the white teachers want to do is stay friendly. They sit on top of their desks with their legs crossed like Indians while the kids go crazy. We were so lucky to have teachers who cared," she said.
She made me think of Coach Leonard Barnes and Bobby Lane. Barnes' mouth was like Vince Lombardi's: filled with gapped teeth and tough words. He and Lane knew how to wield those paddles custom-made by shop students with autographed grips and hand-drilled holes to suck up butt on contact. Another coach called his, "Little Sally Walker." He would say to me, "Come on, boy, let me let you talk to her. Can you handle it?"
Three hundred and nineteen students had graduated from BTW in 1968, and 60 percent of them now live in Shreveport. Martha was one of 42 classmates who had returned.
Many of my classmates had left for Los Angeles, New York, Houston, Chicago and Washington, D.C., and had come back, they said, in search of the comfort, support and security that characterize closely-knit black communities.
To them, this "quality of life" outweighed the most serious drawbacks to segregation, which in Shreveport is typified by Lakeside Acres, for well-to-do blacks, and Willow Ridge, for well-to-do whites. Both are on Cross Lake, but on opposite sides. A railroad track separates the lake from Lakeside Acres, and the incline that the tracks are laid upon blocks the view.Willow Ridge residents can jump into the lake from their back yards.
Conspicuously absent were people like Joseph Harrison, the class president, who had worked so hard at after-school jobs that he was able to buy a house right out of 12th grade. He had become a Jehovah' Witness.
It would have been good to see, too, a drummer in the band and a ladies' man who wore ankle-length "high water" slacks so as to reveal his ribless, see-through silk socks and wing tips with straps that his folks had brought from LA.
David Lee McNeil was back. Now a postal employe and disco DJ called "Funkmaster," he had been voted "Most Humorous Boy" in 1968. He had sold Harry Greer, the tuba player, a half pint of urine in an Early Times bottle.
"They don't have fun like we used to have," David Lee said. "I don't know what it is, but it just doesn't seem like they have any spirit."
During the 1977-78 school year, Booker T. Washington High had won its first five football games, which were against other mostly-black schools. The next five games were against predominately white schools, the kind with the white lines and black backs. BTW lost all of those.
"You shoulda seen it," David Lee said. "I think they were scared to hit the white boys."
"Oh, no question about it," Martha interrupted. "They don't mess with the white teachers, either. Just the black ones. You know how we used to have May Day and Sadie Hawkins Day? These kids favorites are Hobo Day and Gangster Day."
"I probably would still be at Booker T, if I'd had white teachers," Veraetta Johnson said, "or in jail. Knowing how I was, I probably would have hit one of them just out of spite. You can't tell me that a white teacher is going to care as much as a black one."
Then Dometta Hawkins spoke, after which people sort of nodded themselves into a moment of silence.
"We didn't have half the things those white schools had and I know it. Our school books were old, marked up hand-me-downs from Byrd Hith. I remember in Mr. Hayes' biology class how our microscopes had mirrors and the ones at Byrd had electric lights so when it was too cloudy we couldn't use ours. The stoves in our home-ec classes were always about to blow up," she said.
For the most part, though, the returning class of 68 had positive feelings about their high school years.
"I don't think we were hurt that much by segregation," said James Williams, one of my commando buddies in "King of the Hill" battles at Central Free Methodist. "I took some courses at Pepperdine University and held a 3.5 average so I guess they must have put something in my head at Booker T." Williams had been in the Marines for eight years, had fought in Vietnam and was now stationed in Yuma, Ariz, where he hoped the local Mexican-Americans could keep the Ku Klux Klam preoccupied until he got a transfer.
I was 16 years old when I graduated from Booker T. Washington High. I was soon to be a freshman at the reversity, a husband and a father. William Moore, Bruce Merrick and Jack Leary roomed with me at LSU. We lived across the hall from two white boys from Plaquamine Parish for awhile.
When it all ended for me here a year later, Partly due to culture shock, my white neighbors and I had made startling new discoveries about each other, such as too much sun can cause red neck and too much cold caused ash.
The mandatory ROTC at LSU made me wear a beanie in 1968 that read, "Dawg Milloy." They made me cut the moustache that I'd been trying to grow since painting one on for the eighth grade operetta. When they assigned me a khaki uniform that had ankle length, "high water" pants, I pulled out a pair of ribless, see-through silk socks and wing tips to wear with them. My M-1 was promptly taken away from me and I was ordered to carry a flag in front of everybody.
William Moore soon left LSU. I did not see him for 10 years. I finally did one morning after he had finished the 3 p.m. to midnight shift as a nurse at VA Hospital. He had not attended his class reunion.
"Yeah, i heard about you all's thing," he said. "I just didn't feel like mixing, sort os stay to myself. Don't like people all in my business."
Bill was something of the class rough-edged intellectual, ever since the day he introduced the word "atheist" to his Bible-belted buddies at a class assembly.
"That's one thing that changed," he said. "I don't reject God, just man's explanation of God. I don't go around trying to prove God's existence anymore. Remember all thos gaps in the periodic chart?" he asked me about our old chemistry class.
"Yeah, man," I said, lying.
"I considered suicide," William went on. "I'd be in the back of those ambulances pumping hearts I'd say death sure does have an appeal, I came to recognite that nothing is nothing, so bang. But I decided to wait this sucker out. I'm really getting into life now, it's so exciting I can hardly wait to see what's going to happen next."
Sweet Bill, himself a ladies' man. He had been engaged six times, so when he finally did get married nobody came to see.
He had set up this land deal. Was going to build his own home. Bought toilets and kitchen sinks, and got stuck with them when the land deal fell through. Went to Vietnam, and pitched tent in a poppy field.
"It was kinda shaky for me a while. I handled it okay, though. They made me a drug counselor. I just couldn't afford to pay over here what I was paying $5 for over there, so I kicked it. I figure I can do these cigarettes the same way, you think?
"I used to blame our school, say we just weren't prepared. But I never knew what kind of prejudices our teachers, school officials were experiencing until I got out. They did the best they could with what they had to work with," he said.
"I have no regrets, though. Frankly, I think I've made it, not failed. I still see life as a stage, and I'm out there acting," he said.
While he talked, his two small daughters, who had stayed up to see "Daddy's friend," romped across the living room floor of his recently purchased Mediterranean-style home in one of Shreveport's recently "busted" neighborhoods near Cross Lake.
"Remenber when I used to wonder if there was a woman on earth who could handle the Kid. I think I've met my match," he said, hugging his two girls. "If anyone can teach them what kind of live to watch out for, I figure it can," he said.
This matter of children proved to be most fascinating for the class of '68, since most members had some. Many of the babies had come right after graduation, in September, October, November and December.
"I wish so bad they hadn't integrated," Patricia Brown said. She had two children. "Maybe I just hate this place, being here in Shreveport," she said. "Birmingham, Ala., is more open than here. I went to braid my boy's hair and found rocks in it where the white kids had messed up his Afro."
"This little white boy pulls up in front of our house on a bike one day and tells me, 'I sure Frank was white so we could play.' Then Frank wants to know why he ain't white. I tell him cause you're black, black, black. I don't want get into all this stuff, but the whites are teaching it and I don't want my kid to have an inferiority complex. So I tell him black is better, black is beautiful," she said.
Yeah, I knew the feeling, just another reason for leaving.
"I could make it on my own," Pat said. "You know, you can't be as mobile with children, but if I was in a place like D.C., I know I could get over could't I?"
"Yes, I think maybe you got what it takes," I said.
"They got a lot of women up there don't they?"
"Not nearly enough," I said to some hems and haws in the background. "D.C. is slick," I said. "It's heaven compared to this place."
Linda Gail Collins could take no more, "I hate people who talk like you," she said. (All I meant was that I was glad to have escaped from the Bayou State.)
"I lived in D.C. for five years," she continued. "I know how you so-called big shots live in a so-called 'integrated' environment. On borrowed time and on somebody else's property. If that's integration, I don't want it. You can't even afford a house? Can you? You can't even feel safe when . . ."
I cut her off. I got the point.
"Just because they don't call you nigger doesn't mean you're not one," she blasted again. She was serious.
"I don't like people who were raised here and got all the benefits, who leave and come back had mouthing," she said. "If you don't like it, come back and change it."
Eager to become reacquainted, yet fatigued by the 1,200-mile trip, I figured I had come far enough, for now.