A friend on the coastal restoration advocacy side of things down here in south Louisiana put up a post on social media tonight that surprised and resonated with me. She wrote, “Across the Mississippi River from this spot is Fort St. Phillip. Years ago one of the bunkers built for war was converted into a prison. The segregationist Judge Leander Perez had barbed wire, flood lights, and electric fences installed in the fortress surrounded by impenetrable swamp. He dared Martin Luther King and Malcom X to come to Plaquemines Parish. Now the ideologies that fashioned such a terrible place are being healed by time and the hard work of so many brave people that have stood up for what is right. We’ve come a long way, but we still have a long way to go.”
I was surprised because it’s rare to hear white folks down this way make such explicit connections between the swampy landscape and the parish’s history of staunch racism. It is good to know that this knowledge is out there to be shared and perhaps used to shape work to be done in the future. It resonated with me as another clear moment in my tenure of research here where deltaic processes – swamp, inundation, accretion, subsidence – intersects with political ones – settler colonialism, racism, coastal restoration. Ft. St. Philip, like many sites in Plaquemines Parish, carries this collection of strange bedfellows as it is gradually sedimented deeper and deeper below the Gulf of Mexico. The fort served as a colonial outpost and point of defense, but the natural environment go the better of it and it sank (as did several other forts built along the lower Mississippi River). By the 19th century it was but a relic of its former self (the battle of 1812 might have been its last stand). The fort’s reputation was rejuvenated, however, under the reign of ‘arch segregationist’ Leander Perez who outfitted it as a detention center – a spot to corral any civil rights activists who dared to upset the order he set between residents of different colors and economic status in his parish. He was a millionaire arch segregationist and in desperate needs of total political power.
The legend of his civil rights prison in the swamp is no secret. A while back, I met an older gentleman one weekend on the south shore of Lake Pontchartrain in New Orleans. He happened to be from Buras, LA. Transplanted to Metairie long ago, we got to talking about the forts on the lower River. He reminisced on scavenging about Ft. St. Philip and Ft. Jackson, collecting artifacts. I asked him about Perez and the stories of his civil rights prison in the swamp. Yes, he told me. That was true. Perez even lined up cattle barges right behind this man’s house on the west bank of the river, he told me, to load activists upon to transport them across the river to the old fort. History and personal research point to the general consensus that this was largely a political stunt. He never did it, the man told me. Yet, I thought, it’s ramifications are anything but mere ‘talk.’ While certainly not the first thing most residents will talk about when I ask about the old times in the parish, Perez’s jail is a reminder of the ferocity of hatred and fear and that political power can wield. Many folks still living know these stories and some that are far darker, sharing them infrequently and only with people who, to the best of my perception, they trust want to know those stories for the right reasons.
I also had another feeling when reading my friend’s comments about Perez and how we have come a long way on MLK Day 2017 but still have a long way to go. It is the same feeling I had when crafting a syllabus on Black life in the US when I realized every week was about oppression: Economic, social, gendered, racial, emotional oppression of Black communities. Every week. And while these histories are important to expose ourselves to and learn from, one key thing was missing: Black joy. Black joy as a part of the experience of Black people in the US is something that I believe is integral to our understanding of the evolution of race relations. To have the Black experience predominately defined by the action of their oppressors – structural, societal, or political ‘bosses’ – does a disservice to our understanding of the variety and richness of an otherwise overgeneralized characterization of the “Black experience.”As an anthropologist this means teaching classic Zora Neale Hurston and Aimee Cox’s new work on dance, Black girls and resistance alongside WEB DuBois’ and Michelle Alexander on historic social and economic inqualities imposed upon Black citizens in the US.
Upriver from the colonial fort-turned civil rights jail-turned-coastal restoration project were the 2017 MLK Day celebrations in the town of Bohemia, last stop on the road following the east bank of the Mississippi River. Inside a sizable church adjacent to a 23-foot tall river levee, praise and joyous song rang out amidst celebrations of the accomplishments of civil rights activists in the parish, working during and after the reign of the arch-segregationist. Song, dance, poetry, and scripture guided the celebrations. No one talked about Perez or segregation, but they did talk about fighting for equal rights, their love for God, and for their community. Young, medium, and old showed up. Elected and unelected leaders. They read MLK’s speech on the steps of the shell of a courthouse that kept their great-great grandparents from registering to vote, celebrating their community’s accomplishments and their hope for the future. It ended with applause and, of course, BBQ and boiled crab. It was a party, a block or ‘down the road’ party. Kids swinging in the trees, men barbecuing, everyone digging into hot food and cool drinks. Black joy.
Black joy and struggle intersects in unique ways all over the US. In Plaquemines Parish it also intersects with environmental uncertainty (and its unequal distribution among coastal residents). This east bank still has a sprawling jail (another topic) although it is not Perez’s fort. But the east bank is also a place very much claimed, loved, and celebrated by the residents who call it home, not confined or defined by the symbols or actions of those who have sought to oppress and dispossess them of their livelihoods and homes. ‘Natural’ disasters, discrimination, and fluctuating economies have threatened to wipe this place and its people out many times. Every time, though, leaders emerge from the community to help them fight and rebuild the place and life they love at the farthest corners of the Mississippi River. I am very grateful to have shared this day down the road in this community and draw from their tradition, knowledge, spirit, and joy as I continue to do my best to represent their lives through my work as a scholar, teacher and friend.