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A Night in St. Tammany Parish
As a young girl, born and raised in New Orleans, glad to be among family and friends, very much a kid and politically ignorant, I will never forget the first time I saw the Confederate flag and understood that it represented hatred. It was a typical hot summer in New Orleans. Already an accomplished swimmer, having learned in the well-oiled New Orleans Recreation Department (NORD), and living across from a playground with a pool, summer brought its expected swimming competitions and what we called water shows. The only thing Ester Williams had on us was Hollywood's costuming, although we glued and glitter-dusted our swimsuits and caps, transforming them into lavish sparkling water wonders. We were hundreds of young Black kids swimming to the soulful sounds of Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, creating heart shapes in the water with fancy diving, swimming in time--what we called "rhythm strokes." We were in top athletic form; we had the advantage of sincere Lifeguard trainers, often public school teachers who worked the neighborhood parks in their spare time. It gave us supervised play, regulation sports, and wonderful joy. In our dreams, we were Olympic hopefuls, but this was pre-civil rights--our parents reminded us of Emmett Till and that there was no chance of Blacks swimming for America.
Our playground Hardin (named after Dr. Joseph Arthur Hardin) often competed across town with other playgrounds and was eventually invited to perform at a summer camp in the country, outside of New Orleans, some place run by a famous football player who supported it. This was a volatile time in New Orleans as well; many of our parents were afraid to let us out late at night for fear of reprisals if we were found driving through a white neighborhood. It was only because of the adult teacher-lifeguard chaperones that our parents allowed us to drive to the country after dark.
It was a week night, and the weather was lovely; the sky was blazing red swirls with sprigs of purple across the dusk horizon. Once the Hardin crew was assembled, we met other young swimmers from playgrounds uptown off of Louisiana Avenue; the Rosenwald playground crew I remember because they had the best divers. We caravanned with what must have been some 6-8 cars. We arrived late at the spot near the Pearl River because we were lost at least once and crossed the river twice. The night was pitch black when we arrived. We swam to Dave Brubeck's Take Five, Smokey's I'll Try Something New, and the exotic Quiet Village in our glittery swim outfits; we were a hit and happy. Once the water show was over, we could smell the rain coming, quickly packed our little gear--mostly towels and dry clothes--and left the camp. [End Page 162]
Before we could say thunder and lightning, the sky poured buckets; visibility was so poor and the water rose so quickly that it was difficult to determine where the road was; soon, clearly, we were lost. Then what we thought were thunder claps turned out to be horses approaching. We stopped. Some of the kids, like Janice, who wasn't a great swimmer but my neighborhood friend, were so fair with blue eyes, they looked white. As soon as the lifeguards heard the thunder coming closer, they urged us tanned and darker kids to get under towels and let the light-skinned kids put their legs over us as we huddled on the floor of the car by the back seat. Half of us were on the floor, and half pretended to be white. The riders wore hooded rain gear and, while we couldn't see faces clearly, by their speech they were white and agitated that Negroes were in St. Tammany Parish. Now St. Tammany Parish has long been the home of the Ku Klux Klan, a fact of which I was then ignorant. The riders pulled up, knocked on the window...