Excerpt: Daniel Wolff's 'The Fight for Home'

Remembering Segregation

Fight For Home

Sitting on her bed in the trailer, a plate of chicken on her lap, Carolyn remains hopeful that things are about to get better. She says she was one of the first to apply for Road Home, and they promised her the process would be accelerated. Her mortgage was paid off a decade ago. And Carolyn adds, smiling, "They didn't have to worry about fighting over no insurance, because no insurance was there..."

At that, she puts her plate of chicken to the side and lifts her chin.

"They didn't want us back. They don't want us back. But we are back."

They're almost exactly Lathan's words. But where he's fighting for his home by doing his own repairs, investing in real estate, Carolyn's strategy has to be different. "We have the patience of Job," she says. "We gonna wait. And they gonna see. And we gonna," she pauses between each word: "still be here."

It's like a siege: ruined houses, poor medical care, few schools, the delay in relief money. Plus FEMA recently declared its new deadline: it will start repossessing trailers early this spring. Against these obstacles, Carolyn sees her only real weapon as the ability to wait. To pray and to wait.

Right now, she's especially disturbed by the latest addition to the siege: the threat to her church. As part of its post-Katrina realignment, the Catholic archdiocese has announced that its two congregations in the Lower Ninth will have to merge. They'll worship at either St. Maurice or the building where Carolyn married and baptized her children, St. David.

St. Maurice is bigger, older, more ornate, with marble pillars and a high cathedral vault. It's always been the neighborhood's white church. In the sixties, its congregation included prominent leaders of the segregationist Citizens Council. When she was a child, Carolyn remembers, "[though] we were supposed to be going to church to praise God... blacks had to go upstairs. To the balcony. And to the back..." Her eyes glint, the rest of her face unmoving. "You just took their communion and got out. You couldn't even stay there to go to mass." That, she explains, is the reason St. David was built. "Because of St. Maurice's attitude. They didn't want us there."

Though most of St. Maurice's congregation has moved out to the suburbs, the archdiocese announced at a recent community meeting that it would resolve the issue through "dialogue." "Where do people want to worship?" a soft-spoken priest had asked. A white man with a northern accent, he had instructed the mostly black congregation to repeat twice after him: "Nothing (Nothing) has been decided (has been decided). Nothing..."

Carolyn stood and spoke at the meeting. "St. Maurice, this is your home. I'm visiting you... St. David is my home... I want to go home." Now, in her trailer, she says the archdiocese has gone out of its way to close "all the black Catholic churches." Her speech slows; her eyes flare. "[It's] bringing us back to a place -- a very uncomfortable place -- that I really don't want to revisit... Nobody wants to revisit segregation."

As far as she's concerned, the threatened closing is a call to arms. But she's worried that people Kyrah's and Rahsaan's ages don't recognize that. "I hate to say this, but it look like our younger generation don't fight strong enough. Look like they just let people turn them around." She has a perplexed expression. "And you know, we came up with that 'Don't let nobody turn you around.'" Smiles at the old hymn lyric and civil rights slogan. "...I'm sorry: I can't just sit still and let you promise me you're gonna do something, and then you don't do it."

It's why, she says, pointing to her silent, flickering TV, she supports the latest protests. This week, on Martin Luther King Day, residents marched on the St. Bernard housing development in midcity. It's one of the Big Four that HUD closed after the floods. Now it's been announced that it's scheduled for demolition. In response, protestors circled the complex, found an opening in the fence, and broke in: a drop squad. As Carolyn speaks, they're still occupying a number of apartments, demanding the development be reopened.

"They're gonna stay in there," Carolyn says, "until HUD decides to either fix them, or fix something for them to move into. And I think that's a good idea." It's the same strategy she's using: to wait. "'Cause if they didn't, HUD's not gonna worry about you... What the city wants to do and HUD wants to do is tell them it's unlivable. But they told me the same thing." She gives a triumphant grin toward her double shotgun. "I'm still alive!"

To Carolyn, the fight for home goes way back. "I'm a lady of action," she explains. "I believe in action... the NAACP, the National Urban League. I got hooked up with the late great Reverend Avery Alexander." In 1960, at the time of the sit-ins that changed the South, Carolyn was in junior high, and the Reverend Alexander was helping to organize the Consumers' League of Greater New Orleans. "You see him maybe when they show the civil rights in New Orleans? He's the old man that they're dragging down the steps of city hall." She stops and stares over her plate of chicken. "Uh-huh! Beating his head on the pavement -- uh-uh-uh -- as he goes down the steps." She bobs her head, mouth open. "That was the man that taught me, really, about life and about civil rights."

During an Easter break when she was in high school, she became the first black to work at the Elmer Candy factory. Carolyn says she was hired "'cause I was passant blanc: very, very fair. With long hair." She speaks slowly, like she's revealing a secret. "Long curly hair. Like creole. So they couldn't tell." She worked there for three days making Heavenly Hash and Gold Brick chocolates. "When they found out I was black, they was really, really peeved." Her oval eyes open wide. "I went from sitting at the table, eating -- to outside in the back!" She rocks sideways with laughter. "I said [to Rev. Alexander], 'I had to eat my lunch outside! And it's raining out here. And you know I don't like getting wet.'"

A few years later, Carolyn went over to the Desire housing project, "[to] see what that Panther stuff was all about..." The Black Panthers had set up their headquarters at the Dirty D. "So the meeting was going fine," Carolyn recalls, "until for some reason, the police decided to come... And they just started a fight with the Panthers. And calling people 'niggers' and all kind of stuff." She lowers her head and gives a stern look. "Yes, I was one of them that turned over the police cars in the Desire housing project. That was not a good thing," she announces, "but it was a good thing in a way... The police was beating this boy with billies, and I couldn't stand it. And the boy didn't do nothing! They was just beating him to be beating him... If God wanted us to be beaten," her voice rising in indignation, "we would have been an animal..." She snorts a laugh. "My grandmother was really shocked with that one. They all thought I was gonna be a nun!"

She's done with her meal. It's gotten dark out, and the trailer only has a dim overhead light. Carolyn sits on the edge of the bed, facing the tiny kitchen and Rahsaan.

"My grandmother was fair," she explains, stroking her own cheek, "but you could still see she was black. But I was fair, and you couldn't tell." At age three and four, she says, she was "just like a little white girl." One day she got on a city bus with her grandmother. The driver saw the elderly black woman and the light-skinned toddler and "thought that she was my--" A breath, and then with emphasis: "Mammy. 'Cause that's what they called them back then."

At the time, buses in New Orleans had screens to segregate white riders from black. "I didn't know nothing about a screen... So I went and took me a seat in the front." As more whites entered, her grandmother "had to go way to the back..." A grimace. "Then I got up because I wanted to go sit with my grandmother. And this white lady said, 'Come on, I'll hold you, baby.'" A look of amazement. "And I said, 'No. I want to go with my grandmother.' Ooo, Lord! When I said that!? Them people!?"

She laughs again, falling to the side, then stops. "Children don't know nothin' about this. But from a baby, they made me realize it. In the worst way..." She gathers herself. "I felt that everybody should have been able to sit down on that bus. And I think that stayed in me, from a little girl. 'Cause ever since that, I been like -- well, some say like an activist." Carolyn rolls her eyes. "But I'm not an activist: I'm just a person who don't like things going the way I been seeing it being done." She shrugs. "And I just like to see it change. I like to see somebody be treated fairly."

It's time to wash and dry the dishes. Rahsaan is about to head off to his restaurant job. But Carolyn needs to make one last point. "We are a mixture of people," she says, "...and we're family. Even though some of us act stupid..." She laughs. "My momma is some from Jamaica, some from this one, some from that." Her father, she says, revealing another secret, was Mexican. "That's why I was comfortable when [the roofers] came here... A lot of them when they see me," she assumes a look of careful inspection. " 'Yeah, I'm looking at her eyebrows. Yeah!'" She laughs and brushes her thick, arched eyebrows. Kyrah, she continues, "had Mexican from my side, and Cherokee from her daddy's side. I'm telling you, the people here in New Orleans are mixed."

She grins: a big woman perched on a small bed in a dark trailer.

Then, in what seems like a switch of subject, she starts talking about the dinner she just cooked. "You had the blend: you had the Black, you had the Indian, and then you had the Cajun... 'Cause the chicken was Cajun, the potatoes were Indian, and the greens were Black." She cocks her head with a big smile. "Oh, I forgot about the rice! Your Asian." She bursts out laughing, slapping her hands together. "That's how we cook down here."

Copyright 2012 by Daniel Wolff. Reprinted by permission of Bloomsbury.