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Review: The Black Side of Shreveport, by Willie Burton

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Burton, Willie. The Black Side of Shreveport. Shreveport: Southern University of Louisiana, 1983, 159. Reviewed by Steven Harkness.

With the Emancipation Proclamation, Abraham Lincoln set a race of people free from the indignity of slavery. With the Union victory over the Confederate states, the government promised reform via Reconstruction. With the contentious election of Rutherford B. Hayes though, the political will to carry those reforms forward in earnest fell subordinate to the need for compromise and continuity. Within a generation, the cause of the black citizen passed from pipe dream to political controversy to conflagration to compromise to catharsis. The white man would not help, and would not keep his promises, and could not be counted on for meaningful change. All truth existed on a continuum, and this truth was more true in the south than in the north, more true in the cotton belt than in many other southern areas, and perhaps nowhere at all more true than in Shreveport and its outlying provinces. Here, far from the reaches of the withdrawn and distracted federal government, the black man was in many ways truly alone once more, a defenseless object of scorn and contempt, powerless against the wrath of a defeated society of vengeful monsters. That anyone could survive in such an environment, against such odds, let alone grow, thrive, and prosper, is a miracle which no competent hand in history will ever fully elucidate. The black men and women of this old confederate farm town, however, have routinely demonstrated this miracle again and again over the years, proving over and over the capacity of the human spirit to overcome adversity.

Willie Burton’s The Black Side of Shreveport tells a bevy of tales which the history books have passed over. Burton’s heroes do not wear capes, as the saying goes. They are Teachers, Grocers, Oil Men, Pastors, Lawyers, Police Officers, Socialites, Entrepreneurs, and Entertainers. They are the common folk who overcame overwhelming opposition, in many cases just to obtain the privilege of leading ordinary lives, and in some cases to make extraordinary contributions to their communities and to history. Each chapter deals with a different sociological aspect of the local experience. The first treats business and development. The second discusses cultural growth. The third tracks residential expansion. The fourth traces religious proliferation. The fifth deals with law and rights, and the final chapter covers education. Each chapter includes visual insets with photographs of the people and places involved. The material itself is predominantly taken from early periodicals such as The Sun, Sepia Socialite, and The Shreveport Times, as well as the City Directory, but also draws upon contemporary authors such as Paul Oliver, E Franklin Frazier, and Lerone Bennett. The book contains an appendix in which the author includes an essay entitled “Slavery in Shreveport,” and an index of figures and features.

At the beginning of the first chapter, Burton sets the reader down on a dusty trade route between Louisiana and Texas, which still bears the name “Texas Avenue” to present day. This place, and the surrounding area, marks the geographical origin of the city's black community from Reconstruction forward. Early black landowners of the period were Norman C. Davis, Newton Smith, and David Raines (4-5). A generation later, after the first World War, settings begin to emerge, such as the Calanthean Temple and the Plamoor Dance Hall, and by the 1930’s there are black oil companies, beauty parlors, realty companies, pharmacies, insurance companies, and even funeral homes. By the 1940’s there are restaurants and dance halls and department stores, and in these are hosts of personalities who would shape and influence the world around them for the betterment of their communities and culture. Even the most mediocre of these accomplishments is amazing considering the hostile elements, the absence of voting rights or any rights at all regarding property and business.

Commerce is just one area in which black citizens had to assert themselves. Community involvement was a another critical aspect of the development of many bright personalities toward positions of leadership and influence within the city. Burton recalls the first black newspapers: The Enterprise, the Shreveport Watchman, and the Weekly Advocate, and tells the tale of Melvin Lee Collins, whom he describes as the “crusader for the Negro press in Shreveport.” (27) He tells of Ephraim David Tyler, “Shreveport’s Poet Laureate.” (32) He lists among the civic groups and aid societies the Masonic Halls, the American Woodmen, and the YMCA, which were all instrumental in providing aid and comfort to those struggling and without resources. Burton describes the establishment of Boykin Colored City Park, later called the Lincoln Park. From there, he speaks on the countless athletic enterprises which helped to instill self-confidence and team skills in young black men. The arc of each sport is similar. They are excluded by segregation. They play among themselves until their popularity enables them to compete against their white counterparts, whom they immediately and consistently displace. Notable among these stories is the discriminatory double standard employed against Satchel Paige and the integrated Cleveland Indians who visited the city for an exhibition in 1949. The black ball players could not even get a cab! Four years later, however, as Burton relates “Billy Dickey, Jr., became the first black Shreveporter to sign a major league baseball contract, when he signed as a pitcher with the Chicago Cubs on September 8, 1953.” (41)

As their population grew faster than the attitudes of tolerance around them, the black community had to move outward, but also had to remain together. For this reason, many local communities have remained homogeneous mirror images of their century old counterparts, however worse for the wear. Burton describes the migration path and development of the various neighborhoods, including Allendale, Lakeside, Hollywood, Moortown, Cedar Grove, Cooper Road, and Stoner Hill. For each of these, Burton endeavors to include what demographic data he was able to find. In some cases this meant the names and occupations of local school faculty members, in others it meant population density and economic statistics. Other details are novelties, such as the Cooper Road Sewerage plant, which was “the first sewerage system in Caddo parish that built a sewerage treatment plant to (chemically) treat sewerage.” (62) In each community there arose individual personalities who helped to plan and procure the necessary municipal functionality which today is so taken for granted that their origins are typically obscured by apathy. For Burton, these are the builders of a society, and their names bear remembering.

After work, home, and recreation, comes faith, or perhaps it is the other way around. Burton cataloged the many reverends and pastors who built churches and worship centers in the community. These that Burton mentions include Antioch, Avenue, Galilee, Little Union, Mt. Canaan, Trinity, Evergreen, St. Rest, Sunrise, Mt. Moriah, St. Paul's, and St. James. Early blacks were largely Baptists, as this list would seem to imply, but Burton also refers briefly to Our Lady of the Blessed Sacrament and a couple of Methodist churches. Personalities of interest are (Reverends) David Matthews, L.D. Scott, Henry Allen, Lake Allen, and (Doctors) William Graham Alston and James C. Calvin. These men and many other men and women served not only as faith leaders, but as outstanding pillars of the community, pitching their hands into the battle for education programs, fair housing, employment, and social equality, as well as attending to the spiritual well-being of congregants. Some of the churches they built are still standing. The community they built cannot be torn down with any tools which men possess.

The fifth chapter deals with crime and punishment. Though blacks had few rights to speak of, all of the same laws nevertheless applied. Moreover, the law itself was often used as a tool of repression. The old expression “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” could not be applied more accurately to any group of human beings than to the local black community in the 20th century. As Burton fairly admits, however, “This is not to say there were no serious crimes.” (81) Treatment by the justice system was usually skewed against people of color, in the best of times, and in the worst of times it could be a malicious enemy. In some instances, crime was only crime for the black man, because of institutional discrimination. Burton recalls the accounts of visiting commentator George Schuyler, the Pittsburgian de’ Tocqueville who visited the city in 1941, and noted its tragic ways: “Schuyler...noticed that a Negro in Shreveport could not obtain a license to sell liquor. The Jews, Italians and Germans had a monopoly and exclusive privilege to do so. If a Negro was in business of this nature, police would intimidate his customers until they stopped patronizing the blacks.” (82) Burton discusses homicides, theft, drugs, prostitution, integration of the police force and local governments, and the greater struggle for Civil Rights at the national level. These accounts help to place the phrase “law and order” in its proper hue, historically speaking, from the black perspective, and help the reader to comprehend the century of hypocrisy and abuse which the badge has come to represent for so many communities.

The final chapter explores the education of black children and adults. After the preceding chapters, one hopefully better understands the special significance of this subject. Starting from scratch, in ramshackle hovels often constructed of limb and brush in the early days, with often little more than a couple of hand-me-down texts, for a few hours a day, a few days a week, in the few cold months between harvest and planting season, a generation of poor black sharecroppers taught their children how to become productive members of society, while the whole rest of the world it seemed was determined to see them fail. As a father, this author has a hard enough time teaching a son multiplication and division, without having to first teach him that he isn’t a worthless subhuman species, and without having to teach him that the police will murder him for speaking out of turn, and without having to work his back and and hands to the bone from sunup to sundown, during the hottest months just to barely survive so long as illness and the contempt of peers remain graciously at bay. The amount of language used to describe this duality begins to seem exaggerated and verbose, even while remaining as intractably reductive as is literally possible.

Somehow they got from there to here. How does one measure the distance of progress between John C. Jones and Albert Harris, two men of color separately lynched in the summer of 1946 (84), and the pantheon of black leadership and representation which Shreveport now boasts? How does one explain the rise of Cedric Glover and Ollie Tyler to the position of mayor in a town where monuments to Confederate Generals still reside on public property? Historians too often think the answer lies in the works of the Democratic party from 1961 to 2016, but Willie Burton has the real answer. Hard work, character, determination, and faith were the ingredients. Prejudice and petty vitriol provided the heat and the pressure. But in the end, it was the spirit of the black man who refused to crumble, who would see his family fed, who would grasp the language and make it his own, and who would rise through the machine as if he had been its designer because in so many ways, so many times the machine had been broken and in need of repair, it was he who had to fix it. A phenomenal work. Strongly recommended.

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