Charles Vincent, armed with a trash bag and a grabber tool, was quietly scanning the entrance of Baker’s Parkwood Terrace subdivision for paper and flattened beer bottles when a driver stopped to tell him that Saturday night partyers were leaving bottles and trash near his home. Vincent apologized and offered to clean the area next when the man assured him, “No, Doc, I’m going to be like you; I started going out on Sunday and cleaning it up myself.”
Impacting unsightly piles of litter and inspiring neighbors are the two major goals of the Friendly Neighbor Keeper Initiative formally adopted by the city of Baker in May 2016. Vincent, a history professor and city councilman, started the effort and local officials and concerned residents recognize the third Saturday of each month as the beautification workday.
The city proclamation argues that “Strong friendly neighborhoods lead to strong and friendly cities” and Vincent is determined to lead by example in his district in hopes that his efforts will keep Baker beautiful and instill a sense of pride and ownership across the city. “This is where we live and you want to be prideful, you want your neighborhood — your subdivision — to look nice and you can do this without any great cost to you or anyone else,” he said. “And it says a lot about you as a citizen. As a resident, suddenly you don't throw out paper, but those who are less concerned may throw out paper. So, you can be an example by helping us pick it.”
The councilman has seen the bandwagon effect and times when he is an army of one, especially when the pandemic limited gatherings and community work. “The city has done a good job at various times in terms of reaching the whole city,” he said. “But, you know, people are so busy with this pandemic and all like that so, I come out every third Saturday, and just pick up paper.”
Picking up paper may not seem like a fitting job for a grandfather, professor and city official, but Vincent has come full circle in his life experiences that include farm life and work as a janitor. Vincent, the youngest of 10 children, grew up on a farm in Hazlehurst, Mississippi. He said his mother died when he was 17 and his father gave up on farm work shortly after.
Young Charles did well in junior college and soon got a job as a janitor at Jackson State University. “Somebody saw something promising in me during President Johnson and the Great Society’s War on Poverty,” Vincent said. “He told these White schools they needed to give these Negroes a chance and I came to LSU on a little fellowship in summer of ’66 and fell in love with the campus. I just fell in love the history of Louisiana and eventually came back to the state and stayed.”
Those humble beginnings paired with his time raising a family in Baker has colored his perspective on community involvement and giving back. “Boy, what I wouldn't do for my city because I love it,” he said. “it has been so good to me and my family.”