Growing Up in a Post-Integration World
The South in the 1970s
I grew up on a combination of Military Bases all over the United States, and in junior high my family settled in South Central Louisiana. Just before moving to the South we lived on a military base near Rapid City South Dakota. This was an enlightening experience for me as it was my first glimpse of prejudice.
Everyone seems to need someone to hate. In South Dakota, those objects of derision were the Native Americans. It wasn't bad enough that we'd taken their indigenous lands; we also went on to carve the faces of our presidents onto their sacred mountains. My education about equality had begun. After settling in the small urban town of Loreauville in the south of Louisiana, my equality education graduated to a new level.
In order to make spending money, I worked for the local sugar cane farmer named Mr. Judice. I have fond memories of the years I spent working as a farm laborer, and only in retrospect did it occur to me that outside of Mr. Judice and his sons, who owned the farmland, I was the only white laborer in the fields. My fellow field hands, most of whom had worked for Mr. Judice for many years, were African American men and women. These farm hands accepted me without any prejudice, as long as I did my share of the work. I never considered that the color of a person's skin made any difference. I wish I could say that was true of most of the people in the south.
After a few summers of farm work, I decided to look for a job that wasn't quite so labor intensive. The new priest in the parish was Father Groschen and my mom and I would often invite him over for dinner and spend the evening talking. Mom always went to bed around nine o'clock, but Father Groschen and I would stay up late talking for hours about everything going on in the world. Soon, because of this friendship, I began working for the church. I started out helping with the lawn and cemetery maintenance, then moved up to doing clerical work in the church office as well.
I love Louisiana cemeteries. Because the water table is so high in the southern part of the state, you can't bury a person by just putting their coffin into the ground. After a short time, the buoyancy of the sealed coffin would cause it to push its way back to the surface. So the burial customs in Louisiana have evolved to the practice of placing the coffin into a small tomb set into the ground to keep it where you placed it. These tombs, of all shapes and sizes, are the reason that cemeteries in Louisiana are called "Cities of the Dead."
I knew our cemetery grounds almost as well as the official caretaker, who went by the name of "Crip." He had a mobility handicap, which was probably how he got the nickname. I always thought it was a mean name, but Crip actually told people to call him that. I toyed with the spelling in my mind, and envisioned it spelled "Crypt" instead of "Crip."
The cemetery was divided into a white and Black section. There was a white catholic church, and one for Black people one street away, on the back end of the block. Though the days of legal segregation were long over, they were not so far removed that the signs of their presence were gone. Just down the street from the church was a cafe that still had a back entrance that was once designated for "Blacks only." The sign wasn't painted over until the mid 1970s, and even after its removal the entrance was still used by many of the townspeople.
I remembered the two years we spent in South Dakota and my first glimpse of prejudice. I knew it was wrong then when practiced against Native Americans, as well as now against African Americans. I prayed to a God I wasn't sure I even believed in, that this type of behavior would disappear, and while praying I remembered the acceptance I felt from the farm hands when working side by side with them in Mr. Judice's fields.
One of the most meaningful projects I organized during my tenure at St. Joseph's Catholic Church was an attempt to moderate some of this prejudice. There were separate white and Black areas of the cemetery. This separation was magnified by an open sewage ditch between the sections. I proposed a plan to Father Groschen to de-emphasize this obvious divide. Without asking for any parish approval and using only donated supplies, we put concrete pipes into the ditch and had topsoil trucked in to cover it. We sowed grass seed over it and soon there was an attractive spread of beautiful green Bermuda grass where once there had been an ugly putrid scar, a reminder of the prejudices that, although illegal, were still very much around.
The cook and housekeeper at the church was an African American woman named Anastasia. I remember she spoke with an accent that sounded like she came from Britain, rather than the normal Cajun accents I was used to. She always had a smile for me; regardless of whether I was actually working, or sneaking around setting up practical jokes for Father Groschen to find. She was the unintentional recipient of many of those practical jokes.
I made a stuffed shirt and pants body resembling a corpse that I placed in closets ready to fall out onto the unsuspecting opener. or leaning over, head under water, into the small pond in the back courtyard of the rectory. After finding these, she'd regain her composure, and carefully leave them as she found them, for Father Groschen to find.
The rectory always smelled heavenly. The wonderful smell of food in the air; a roast slow cooking in the oven one day, lemon pound cake the next, or loaves of fresh baked french bread cooling on the counter; a new smell every time I passed by.
When I returned to Loreauville after a 20 year absence, I stopped by to visit the old church and rectory. Many priests had come and gone over the years, but as I was reminiscing with the current pastor, I saw Anastasia come around the corner. She still worked there. I was delighted to see her again, but doubted that she'd remember me.
"I don't know if you'll remember me, Anastasia, it's been—"
"Oh, I remember you, Craig," she interrupted, with tears gathering in her eyes. "You're the one who filled in the sewer ditch in the Black section of the cemetery."
Now my eyes brimmed over with tears too and do so again, as I write this, and every time I read it. I couldn't have asked for a better remembrance.