DENHAM SPRINGS — Sarah Scott remembers having to walk in the back door at stores and doctor's offices. Her memories of being a black girl in a segregated Livingston Parish also include times when her mom was cheated out of money by some white women after she ironed their clothes.
Daniel Landry, Scott's brother, faced hostile law enforcement when he took part in a civil rights march from Bogalusa to Baton Rouge in August of 1967.
The siblings were part of a three-person panel of African-Americans, all lifelong residents of Denham Springs, who discussed the years of segregation and the coming of integration in the Livingston Parish School System at a forum hosted by the parish’s library system to mark Black History Month.
Arthur Perkins, Sarah Scott and Daniel Landry were panelists for the Feb. 22 forum, which attracted about 50 residents.
The trio, all retired educators, share much in common. Scott and Landry were tutored and mentored by Perkins. All three are graduates of Southern University. Perkins and Scott had extensive military careers. All are involved in church communities and professional organizations.
The forum was sponsored by Indivisible Livingston Parish. Lori Callais, who introduced the program, explained that Indivisible Livingston Parish includes concerned citizens who sponsor programs designed to educate and inform the public about current issues that can have an effect on society.
“We don’t know what the future will bring, but we do know that we can learn from the past. Our aim is to get information out to the public so that they know the issues and they can hold their elected officials accountable,” she said.
Deb Lemoine, moderator of the forum, introduced the three panelists and explained that the program would start with panelists discussing their backgrounds and memories of the times when segregation of the races was common practice in the South.
Scott said she was born in Denham Springs and chose to remain a resident of the city throughout her life. She retired after 50 years of teaching and said living through a time when segregation changed into integration had given her life lessons.
“I learned from my family and my faith how to get along with others. Being a Christian, I believed it was right to appreciate everyone and to help them when you can. I bear no envy, no grudge and no animosity to anyone,” she said.
Scott graduated from Southern University with a bachelor’s degree and remained in school earning a master’s degree and Plus 30 certification. An elementary school teacher, she also spent time in the U.S. Army.
In his opening remarks, Perkins, 83, said he was born in his mother’s house and was raised on the Howard Hutchinson place.
“Mr. Howard took care of us. We had to walk everywhere in those days. There were not very many cars. Sometimes when we would be walking down the road, ‘meddlers’ would harass us a little bit. We knew their cars, and when we told Mr. Howard, we knew he would take care of it and those people would not ‘meddle’ with us again,” Perkins said.
Perkins joined the ROTC while at Southern University and upon graduation was commissioned a second lieutenant in the U.S. Army. He remained in the National Guard and retired as a lieutenant colonel. Perkins said he taught school during regular semesters and worked at Delta Concrete during the summers. He was named assistant principal at the West Livingston School and later became the school’s principal.
When integration came, Perkins said he was assigned to be a mathematics teacher at an elementary school. “Those of us who were principals at the all-black schools just didn’t think that was right. The matter went to the U.S. District Court, and a ruling came down that the school system had to name black principals. That was the right thing to do,” he said.
Perkins was named principal of Albany High School when that school was integrated. He was involved in the schools for 28 years and said of those years, “I never took any time off … I loved school … when I finally retired, I did it with regret.” Perkins was elected to the Denham Springs City Council and served on the council for nine terms.
Landry, 70, told the audience that like Perkins, he was born in his mother’s home. He attended West Livingston High School where, he said, he was a very good basketball player. “Later, when we met basketball players from the all-white schools, they would say they were pretty good if they averaged about 10 or 15 points a game. We would average 20 to 30 points a game. In our games, the score was often more than 100 points for the winning team,” he said.
Landry graduated from Southern University in 1970 and taught for 43 years. He served as both an assistant principal and principal during his long career in education.
Landry said that he has watched Denham Springs grow over the years and has worked with every mayor who has served the city for 50 years. He is chairman of the Democratic Executive Committee of Livingston Parish.
During the evening’s question-and-answer period, the panelists were asked if they had participated in civil rights marches during the desegregation years.
Landry left the crowd laughing with the following account. “During A.Z. Young’s march from Bogalusa to Baton Rouge in August of 1967, Gov. John McKeithen called out the National Guard, the state troopers and just about every other policeman they could find. They said the marchers wouldn’t get through Hammond and they did … then they said they wouldn’t get through Albany and Holden, and they did … and then they got to Denham Springs. Me and about 10 of my friends — I was a young college student at the time — decided we wanted to join the march. I kept telling the National Guardsmen all the good stuff I learned about freedom of assembly and they just kept saying, ‘Disband! Disband!’ Then an officer told the men, ‘Fix bayonets!’ I had on a flimsy little shirt made out of some funny material and when I turned my back, a guardsman cut that shirt off my back just like that. Shocked, I turned to my friends and said, ‘You heard the man! Disband! Disband!' And we off we ran.”'
He added that he did join Young’s march “after it got across the Amite River.”
Responding to a question on life before integration, Perkins said there were places he knew he could not go. "The restaurants had signs that said ‘colored’ could only be served from a window but could not enter the restaurant. If I was walking on a sidewalk and two white people were coming towards me, I would step in the street and let them pass. At the Carroll Movie Theater, the whites would sit at the bottom and the blacks had to sit in the balcony. However, there was no trouble, no animosity. I learned to work with everyone.”
Scott said that when she went shopping during segregation, blacks went into stores through the back door while whites entered through the front door. “We got along … we were taught that that’s the way things were, and we just accepted it," she said. Scott added that the same protocol applied at a doctor’s office. “The whites went through the front door, and we came in from the back. We had to wait while the white patients were treated first,” she recalled.
Scott said that she remembers how some white people would cheat her mother, who took in ironing, out of money expected for the service. “They would ball up a few dollar bills and put it in her hand so she couldn’t see the amount, and sometimes it wasn’t what she was expecting for her hard work,” Scott said. She added that she started ironing clothes in the third grade to help her mother earn money.
Commenting on the wait in the office of doctors, Landry said that once, while cleaning catfish, he stuck a barb in his hand and his hand began to swell painfully. Taken to a doctor’s office for treatment, he had to wait several hours until all the white patients had been seen before treatment was rendered for his sore hand. “We were expected to feel inferior to others, but we never did feel inferior. Our teachers made us proud of who we were despite the situation we were in. I never had a new book when I was in school. Every year we were given the castoff books from the white schools. I would look inside the cover of the book (to see) who had used the book before me and there would always be eight or 10 names in there. I wanted, just one time, to have a new book and be the first to put my name on that list,” he said.
He added that as a principal he made it a point to treat all children equally. “I was taught growing up that you had to treat people equally and fairly and that’s what I have done all my life,” he added. “Discrimination was a terrible burden, but we carried it and what you see here tonight are three people who overcame it. We were taught in school and at home to do our very best. We were told that there was a target on our backs and that we were going to have to work even harder than anyone else if we wanted to get ahead.”
Landry said the West Livingston School was the heart of the black community in Denham Springs, and he added that he regrets that the school system refused to use the school after desegregation. “The school was in great shape and it was well equipped, and we managed to keep using the gym for recreational purposes. But it was a shame that they let the school just fall into disrepair. They didn’t want white children going to a previous black school,” Landry said.
Scott said that even though she had advanced degrees, she was never offered a job as a principal. “I was young then, and shy, and it didn’t bother me. My peers in Baton Rouge were getting promotions, but I wasn’t. That was just the way it was. But I was content because I loved children and I loved to teach,” she said, adding, “Denham Springs Elementary was the best school I had the privilege of teaching at. Everyone got along fine, and those were some good years.”
The passage of laws guaranteeing the vote was a significant accomplishment at the time, Perkins said. Landry said of the voting rights laws, “Our parents had to recite parts of the constitution if they wanted to vote in the old days. I can remember that I was in the second grade, and I helped my father learn how to read so he could vote. I can remember how proud my father was the day he finally got the right to vote,” he said.
"Good things came out of integration," Perkins said. "We have better schools, we have much better relationships among the races now. Our young people grow up today in a society where they are more equal than in the old days. Small things sometimes make a difference. For example, before integration, black children could not ride on school buses. An old man had a bus and I learned to drive trucks on a job, so he let me drive the bus starting when I was in the 10th grade. Today, all children can ride the bus.”
“Denham Springs has been my home for all these years and I wouldn’t want to live anywhere else. We still have some things to accomplish. For example, our city council should be elected on a district and not an at-large basis. At the same time, we have come a long way and things have surely changed during my lifetime," he said.