It was Sunday, September
25, 2005. (Keep that year in mind.) Rita had just
done her worse. Having been confined to the evacuee
shelter for days due to the storm, often without electricity,
we were aching for a little recreation. In a town
as small as Marksville, that meant a night playing
pool at a small daiquiri shop on the main drag, Louisiana
Highway 1. Although it's usually completely classless
to mention this information, it's necessary here:
"We" meant a group of African-Americans
My friend Deborah and I arrived early in the evening,
desperate for a little stick action. We spent much
of the evening teaching the local gentlemen what it
means to get your ass kicked by a couple of crazy
broads. No problems there. As time passed, more of
our friends showed up and we had our own evacuee pool
tournament going. People were drinking, playing pool
and poker machines, and rockin' the juke box. All
was well. A normal fun night out with the crowd.
That was until "too many black people"
showed up. The bartender, a white woman, apparently
became afraid at the appearance of so many black faces
and called the owner. Within hearing distance of my
friend Deborah, she informed him that there were "too
many black people" in the establishment, she
was afraid they were going to rob her, and she was
calling the police. (Keep in mind that not a single
hostile word or act precipitated this call.) The owner
showed up moments before midnight and announced that
the shop was closing in two minutes and we had to
leave, despite the fact that the bartender had told
me on the phone that they closed at 2 a.m. It took
us only a few moments to settle our business and leave.
By the time we made it to the door, there were three
police cruisers in the parking lot. These would soon
be joined by half a dozen more.
Fortunately, no one was arrested and no violence
ensued. Although one African-American police officer
told my friend that "You black people from New
Orleans make me sick, coming all the way out here
to bother people." And that's precisely what
happened, you know. We were all sitting around NOLA
one day, when we decided that it'd be a real kick
to go live in a shelter in Klan country and aggravate
the local hicks. A great plan, that.
If we'd only known that we were bringing "too
many black people," we could have avoided all
this trouble. I really must know: how many black people
constitute "too many"? Precisely when did
we reach the black person quota? Are six black people
okay? How about ten? At what precise point do some
black people become "too many black people"?
Perhaps this is one of those timeless philosophical
questions that has no real answer.
If only it had ended there. But there was oh so much
more. It's easiest to just write a list; so here it
The Avoyelles Parish Ignorance Top Five List:
5. The local casino refused to serve alcohol to
evacuees, although they were free to spend their money
4. They brought in the National Guard to protect
Wal-Mart because there were "too many" evacuees
in town. Read: too many black people.
3. A police officer working at the shelter was so
virulently racist and so prone to barking at evacuees
as if they were prisoners that the two highest ranking
female officers quit the post in protest. Despite
attempts by these two officers and the captain of
the shift to have him removed, his "family connections"
kept him there.
2. A young woman and her child were invited to stay
with a local woman, until said local woman's neighbors
began calling her with racist threats. Although this
local woman refused to tell the young woman the precise
nature of the threats, she explained: "Let's
just say it's hunting season, so if they shoot you,
they can say it was an accident."
1. A town just a short distance away from Marksville
was scheduled for a FEMA trailer park. (Marksville
had already refused to house one there.) The big topic
of the town meeting: "Can we segregate it?"
And all this leads to the moment when the Red Cross
announces the next Sunday that the shelter is closing
the next day despite plans to keep it open until October
15. So, everyone had less than 24 hours to pack their
things and make arrangements either to go with the
Red Cross to a shelter in Alexandria, LA or to find
another place to go. Some shelter residents had already
gone through more than half a dozen of such moves.
Personally, I was done with living in the past, so
I moved to my mother's now habitable apartment in
Picayune, MS until my move to DC (set for this coming
In the end, other than the friendships I made, there
are two things that will stick with me from my time
in Marksville: 1.) A deep and abiding shame for the
color of my skin, a feeling that will not pass easily.
2.) The eternal question: Just how many are "too
many black people?"
Melinda Barton is a freelance writer, until recently
based out of New Orleans.