When I was 10 years old, I saw something that proved to be a turning point in my life.
It also would have a bearing on my old neighborhood and, to some degree, on the discussions we’re having in the wake of the recent Alton Sterling killing and the assassination of three law enforcement officers.
Melba Simmons invited our fifth-grade class to spend a Sunday afternoon at her house in the Southern Heights subdivision. The then-relatively new community of brick houses and manicured lawns was home to African-American educators, doctors, lawyers and business owners.
There were some brick houses, here and there, where I lived, but not a sea of them. Mrs. Simmons even had a water fountain IN HER HOUSE! Southern Heights was black heaven!
Then I returned to my house — 908 Howard St. — no hot running water, no TV, and three small rooms encased in drab wood and topped by a tin roof. We had love, but that took you just so far on a 90-degree day and a hot night.
I wanted what Mrs. Simmons had.
Now I do, minus the water fountain. I, and many others like me, now live far away from our old neighborhoods. Our departure has had consequences and has contributed to the economic divide in Baton Rouge and the frustration of people who could have been my neighbors.
The racial divide, because of forced segregation, was always there. But, it revved up in a new way in the 1960s when my neighbor girl got into a taxi that took her to all-white Robert E. Lee High School.
During the next two decades, white people bolted to new suburbs and rural communities in the parish to evade school integration. But, soon after, the black middle class and wealthy followed them.
That departure was devastating. It has robbed our community of some of its intellectual property and economic strength. We could have built nice homes right where we were and improved our communities. We could have been the economic and educational engines to drive our communities.
But out there, somewhere, was better.
My old community lost summer Little League baseball, softball and girls basketball coaches. We raised our children someplace else. They could have tutored other children or they could have been part of study groups.
Many of us never returned to the community to assist in its development. As more folks left, and the situation worsened, we moved farther away. We watched what was happening from afar, mostly on television or in the newspaper.
Over the years, we have demanded that those left behind be just like us. We ask: Why can’t your school test scores be higher? Why do your streets look the way they do? Where are your grocery stores? Why do you have so much crime?
I see what we have left.
According to conversations I have had, there are teenagers who have never been on a family vacation or spent any extended time away from home. Some have never been to a restaurant other than fast food stops.
For some, their only connection to “the other side of town” is visiting the Mall of Louisiana. The idea of a family gathering is going to a big box grocery store. Some don’t know one or both of their parents.
Many children have no access to computers after school or even in their school. There is no family car.
Contrary to popular belief, the vast majority of the adults there work every day. Some carry two minimum-wage jobs, struggling to make a way. Like my pastor says, some folk are down so low, they have to look up at the sidewalk.
And then we ask why are they so frustrated.
In recent days, various groups have joined in marches, met at churches and other places to discuss mending a divide in the community in the wake of Sterling’s death and those of the officers.
I suggest that the next gathering be marches through the communities so that people can see the weed-choked ditches and no sidewalks.
They need to check out the battered school buildings, and see how different they look from Lee High and Baton Rouge High. Take a look at the public parks and see if they look vastly different from those in some of the more affluent areas.
They better be careful, though, because some neighborhoods have a smorgasbord of serious and dangerous mental heath problems walking the streets.
While on these excursions — they need to take several — ask the residents what they need. They might be surprised that most of them will provide insight and ideas that would be very beneficial.
And, lastly, I suggest that the “they” in all of this include people like me. There are a lot of us who need to help and should help. And, since we all say we want to improve all of Baton Rouge now, then, let’s do it, dammit.
Email Edward Pratt, a south Louisiana freelance writer, at firstname.lastname@example.org.