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Taking Back Tallulah

For years, their town was known for razor wire and broken bones. Now, the people of Tallulah are showing the nation how to pull down a prison and build a school in its place.

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Photo by Donn Young

Photo by Charles Smith

Photo by Charles Smith

Photo by Charles Smith

These days, Janet Clark sits on the Tallulah City Council. But during her college days at Grambling State University, she recalls one new professor calling the class roll and asking each student's hometown. Clark's answer put a big smile on the professor's face.

"Tallulah!" said the professor. "I used to hang out there. Does it still kick it, like it used to kick back in the day?"

That's the way it was, agrees local attorney and lifelong resident Moses J. Williams. "Tallulah was where everybody came to have fun," he explains. In fact, before the razor wire went up and the broken bones began, this town held a certain status. "When you were from Tallulah, you were somebody," he says.

On weekends, streets in Tallulah used to be packed with people showing off their fashions. During the 1960s, a young Williams -- and several other local kids -- kept busy on weekends shining shoes at a stand on West Green Street. At the time, Green Street, which turns into U.S. Highway 80, was part of the route connecting coast to coast. When Interstate 20 arrived in the early '70s, it pulled much of the cross-country traffic away from the smaller highway.

A few decades later, when TV news trucks began to race down Highway 80, it had become a grim-looking strip of vacant storefronts, junk shops, and bold signs hawking payday loans and fast cash. In December 1994, just a month after the Tallulah Correctional Center for Youth opened on the west edge of town, cameras and journalists lined up outside the barbed wire to report that federal judge Frank Polozola had declared a state of emergency there "due to riots and an inability of the staff to control and protect youth."

Before long, the name Tallulah rarely referred to a small town on the Delta. To most people in Louisiana, it now meant "juvenile prison."

In October 1996, the U.S. Department of Justice wrote a letter to Gov. Mike Foster informing him of "life-threatening and dangerous" conditions at the state's juvenile facilities. The letter noted that "28 Tallulah children were sent to the hospital for evaluation and/or treatment of serious injuries, including fractures, suspected fractures, and serious lacerations in need of suturing."

In late 1999, the facility was renamed the Swanson Correctional Center for Youth/Madison Parish Unit, but everyone still called it Tallulah. In subsequent years, protesters would march with signs that read "Stop the abuse -- close Tallulah now!" The name now carried "a badge of shame," says Williams.

To locals, news reports often painted Tallulah as a town of abusers and incompetents. That took its toll. "Tired," Williams says. "People are just tired. They thought this prison was going to bring so many jobs and help this community so much."

Today, the strip along Highway 80 seems more ramshackle than ever. Fancy script still advertises hotels and barrooms, but the signs are faded and the businesses are gone. Boarded-up facades obscure once-legendary music venues like Club Flamingo, which brought in top-flight musicians such as B.B. King and Betty Wright. Only a few outposts, like the VIP Steakhouse (home of the $4.95 special) even hint at this road's past importance.

Earlier this year, prisons expert Tracy Huling visited Tallulah and took a spin down Highway 80. To her, the broken-down buildings and empty streets were no surprise. "Most current studies agree that for the most impoverished communities, prisons can be a disaster," she says. "Tallulah is a perfect example of that."

But, unlike other unhappy prison towns, Tallulah decided to fight. Last summer, a coalition of townspeople began making plans to put a community learning center on the west edge of town, on the land where the prison now stands. Tallulah became the first and the only place in the nation to propose an educational facility in place of a prison. The coalition then took it one step further, developing plans, writing legislation and getting the bill passed -- all in one year's time.

"That's extraordinary," Huling says. "And it will serve as an example for prison towns across the country."

Roadside ditches were filled with water from the previous day's rain as nine apprehensive women in a van crossed the Tallulah city limits, headed toward the press conference. Each of them wore a red T-shirt printed with the logo for FFLIC -- Families and Friends of Louisiana's Incarcerated Children.

Inside the van, the mood was somber, says FFLIC founder Avis Brock.

Brock had never been to Tallulah before. But once the van reached the bridge, she broke down and cried. For years, she says, parents who visited their children here talked about this as a visible landmark -- when you got to the bridge, you were just a few minutes away from the Tallulah Correctional Center for Youth.

As the van drove over the bayou, Brock looked down and was reminded of what she'd been told growing up by family members like her grandfather, well-known New Orleans civil-rights activist Rev. Avery Alexander. "We were always taught that when you cross the waters, your troubles are left there," Brock says.

Tears rolled down her cheeks as she stepped out of the van on June 4, across the road from the juvenile prison that was officially closing that day. She'd never before seen this facility, with its putty-colored dorms and shiny coils of silver razor wire. Yet it had played a big role in Brock's decision to start this group three years ago. She remembers hearing parents' stories -- "stories of the broken bones, the rapes, the abuse, the inequalities, the lack of education, the feelings of hopelessness and despair."

A few feet away from Brock, Grace Bauer stands, watching her young daughter do backflips on the lawn. Bauer had spent countless Sunday mornings in 2001 gripping the steering wheel as she drove to this facility from Sulphur -- four hours and 52 minutes. "Many times I came here, afraid of how my son would be," she says.

Her heart often sank when she saw the condition of her 14-year-old son Corey, a redheaded kid who weighed less than 100 pounds at the time, and was sentenced to Tallulah after stealing a car radio. "We never saw him that he wasn't beat up, skinned up," says Bauer. "He had teeth that were broken and deep scrapes and scars where they had dragged him on the cement -- not just other kids, but guards too."

Brock and Bauer are part of a larger crowd, assembled today on a coalition member's lawn across the highway from the prison. This morning's press conference will announce both the closure of the juvenile prison and the plans for a learning center on that same ground.

When it's Brock's turn at the podium, she scans the crowd of a few hundred residents, many of them local civil-rights-era activists and their children. "I am reminded of my grandfather, the Rev. Avery Caesar Alexander, who would have been singing with us today," Brock says, then begins: "We ain't going to let nobody turn us around, turn us around, turn us around. We're going to keep on a-walking, keep on a-talking, walking on to freedom's way."

Brock is now holding the microphone a full arm's length away to accommodate her voice. In front of her, in the crowd, the women in red T-shirts sit next to Tallulah townspeople.

"Once we thought that we were not of one accord with this community -- now we say, ŒWe will not be divided,'" Brock says. The crowd roars with approval.

The man who everyone calls Mr. Fair, a 64-year-old church deacon and civil-rights pioneer, parks his car in a driveway across from the prison. He's dressed in full Los Angeles Lakers regalia -- purple and gold T-shirt, shorts and visor. "The Lakers were the first team in the NBA to start five blacks on the floor," he explains.

Last month, when Gov. Kathleen Blanco signed Act 721 creating the Northeast Delta Learning Center, Fair knew that the town of Tallulah was finally coming back. Most legislative pundits had believed that the learning center bill would die in committee. "Nobody gave us a chance of winning," says Fair. "But that's been our history."

In this city, which is 75 percent black, a big part of that history has to do with race. "In other places 50 miles from Tallulah, black and white are living side by side," says Fair. "But here, they are trying to live in the tradition of their forefathers." Here, one side of the tracks is still almost entirely black and the other side remains almost all white.

Fair points at the prison across the street. "This was built in the black neighborhood," he says. "They wouldn't have even proposed it in the white community." To his mind, this is what happens when voters give too much power to elected officials. "The trend was, they did it, we accepted it," he says.

This coalition, Fair believes, has reversed that trend. It received a bit of outside help from Xochitl Bervera, an organizer from the Southern regional organization Grassroots Leadership, and from Tamara Czyzyk, a young New Orleans organizer hired by the coalition. Fair and Czyzyk teamed up for hours of door-knocking, meetings and school visits. The duo spoke with 1,500 people within the past year, Fair guesses. "If we could get their ear, we talked to them."

Hayward Fair was born on a farm in 1939 and raised outside Tallulah in what locals refer to as "the rural." At that time, kids his age could only attend classes when field work was finished. "Blacks didn't go to school during September and October -- we had to pick cotton," says Fair. In 1969, he moved into town, where he worked on construction and carpentry jobs then became an insurance producer before his retirement a few years ago.

Fair comes from a long line of independent thinkers. In the 1940s, his uncle was forced to leave Madison Parish for New Orleans "because he didn't get along with the whites." Before that, his father's father left and went to California. "And my grandfather on my mother's side was a landing watchman, a black who had education, a rare commodity in the early 1900s," he says.

"So that's some background of how I got how I am," says Fair. He himself became an activist while still a teenager. Now he's widely known around town as one of the first black elected officials in Madison Parish, for which Tallulah is the parish seat.

The town of Tallulah was the site of early and ongoing civil-rights victories, spurred by a few black World War II veterans who returned home determined to no longer be second-class citizens. In 1952, after a lawsuit by the U.S. Department of Justice, the Madison Parish registrar was ordered to cease discrimination against blacks.

That supposedly gave blacks in Tallulah the vote, says Fair. But only blacks were asked to recite certain Constitutional amendments and answer other impossible questions. "You had black schoolteachers who couldn't even answer the questions they were asking," he says, "but they had white people registering who couldn't even read."

Fair remembers when the local sheriff swore that he'd walk in blood up to his knees before a black voter would register in his courthouse. "He said there wasn't a nigger in Madison Parish gonna ever vote as long as he was living and was sheriff." Fair writes off that particular comment as a bluff, "although it was a dangerous time."

Harold Ickes, who would later become President Bill Clinton's deputy chief of staff, learned that firsthand. Starting in 1963, Ickes, then a Columbia University law student, spent time in Mississippi and Louisiana, working for the Congress of Racial Equality. While in Tallulah, he was attacked by a group of angry whites and ended up losing a kidney.

"We were trained to curl up in the fetal position -- fighting back was a good way to get yourself killed," Ickes told reporter Michael Lewis for a 1997 article in The New York Times Magazine. "So I fell to the ground and curled up in a ball. And they really kicked me around." Ickes told the Times that when the sheriff arrived, he arrested Ickes for disturbing the peace and let the others go.

Around that time, Fair was highly visible, organizing a boycott of the town's businesses because they wouldn't hire black workers. "We wanted to get black people on the cash registers where we were spending our money," he says. Five weeks into the boycott, their demands were met.

Fair didn't become a registered voter until President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act of 1965. After that, he and other activists from the Madison Parish Voters League worked tirelessly on voter registration. They also began pushing for a place on the ballot. In 1970, he and Moses Williams' dad, Moses Williams Sr., became two of the first three blacks elected to the Madison Parish police jury, which makes decisions about drainage, roads and infrastructure.

The very next year, voters in Tallulah elected a mayor named Adell Williams (no relations to Moses J. and Moses Sr.), believed to be the first post-Reconstruction black mayor in Louisiana.

For more than a decade, Tallulah was in the forefront. "We were known as in the state as a bell cow," says Fair. "Everybody else followed our trend."

During the decade that the juvenile facility was open, Tallulah residents got out of bed to the sounds of boot-camp kids exercising.

"It's quiet at about five o'clock in the morning," explains Antonio Fair, Hayward's 25-year-old grandson, "and their voices were loud, everybody counting together or saying the same things together as they ran." In the still of the morning, those voices could be heard across town, he says.

Nearly everyone in this small town (pop. 9,189) knows details, big and small, about the prison. "I've had friends who've worked there -- almost everybody has," says Fair, a 2002 Southern University graduate who returned to his hometown to work on first-time homebuyer programs. Like most locals, Fair defends the prison employees, who were basically forced to endure abuse, he says. "If I'm a kid in there, I know, ŒI can do this, but the guard can't do this to me.' The kids know how to manipulate the system."

Residents agree that pay and conditions were worst during the first several years, when the facility was operated by its private owners. "When this facility opened, no question about it, it was horrible," says Madison Parish district attorney Buddy Caldwell. But then opinions start to differ. When the state Department of Public Safety & Corrections (DOC) took over in September 1999, Caldwell says, "95 percent of the problems stopped."

Other residents point to the staff's high turnover rate -- 84 percent -- and say that the place remained out of control and the jobs stressful. The pay did, however, improve.

Better wages weren't enough for one former employee, who's now working as a maid at a local motel. She folds down the top sheet on a bed as she talks about work at the juvenile prison. "The money was good -- really good for Tallulah. But the stress was just too much," she says.

Upstairs, another maid pushes the cleaning cart outside the rooms. It took her three months of applying and calling just to get this job here, she says. She had also applied at some of the grocery stores, but managers kept telling her they weren't hiring. "Ain't no jobs in Tallulah," she says. "We have no jobs here."

A few miles down the road, a man in an orange suit mows the courthouse lawn. Locals say that many of the possible entry-level jobs are worked for free or for cents on the dollar by adult inmates from the local Madison Parish Detention Center, which provides labor for the city, farms acres of land outside town, and runs its own carwash and mechanic shop.

For years now, Madison Parish has been ranked as one of the poorest regions in the nation. The 2000 U.S. Census reported the parish's per capita income as $10,114, compared to Louisiana's per capita of $16,912. In other words, the average Madison Parish resident makes less than 60 cents for every dollar made by the average Louisiana resident and approximately 47 cents for every dollar made by the average American.

In 2001, when children's advocates began politicking for the juvenile facility's closure, they ran into heavy resistance from most of the area's elected officials who, armed with statistics about high poverty and low income, fought to keep the prison and its jobs.

Last year, after much debate, the House and the Senate passed a bill that led to the facility's closure in June. But an amendment, added by Tallulah's state senator, Charles D. Jones, ensured that the DOC would continue to run a prison -- an adult prison for repeat drunk drivers -- at that site.

Those actions gave birth to the Louisiana Delta Coalition for Education and Economic Development. The coalition's basic premise was that, if the juvenile prison was going to be closed, something better -- like a learning center -- should go in its place. By this summer, the coalition's work had produced a sizeable stack of supporting resolutions from the Tallulah city council and school board, and from most of the region's mayors, councils and boards.

They even convinced Sen. Jones, who not only changed his mind about the adult prison but offered to sponsor the 2004 legislation creating the learning center. "In the past," Jones explains, "my decision to keep the facility open was due to the fact that we had 300 to 400 people working there." But ultimately, those jobs didn't outweigh the harm, he said. During his speech at the June prison-closing/learning-center press conference, Jones criticized prisons that proliferate at the expense of people and praised coalition members, calling them "valiant warriors."

No such laudatory statement was forthcoming from Theodore Lindsey, who in July celebrated his 10th year as mayor of Tallulah. When approached on the sidewalk outside his office, he said that he supports the learning-center concept but at the same time doesn't want to lose the 150 or so jobs the adult prison offers. "As mayor, I have to be concerned about both -- that's my position," he says.

Others believe that Tallulah can't afford to turn away jobs. "An adult facility would be fine out there," says Latricia Kyle, who worked as a counselor at the Swanson Correctional Center for Youth/Madison Parish.

The juvenile facility was a mismatch for the area, Kyle says, because jobs there were more likely to require a college degree. According to the U.S. Census, 4 in 10 Tallulah adults lacked a diploma or a GED. Only 1 in 10 had a bachelor's degree or higher.

Kyle has known many of the coalition members since she was a little girl growing up in nearby Thomastown. Still, she favors the adult prison over the learning center. "I know this is not what I'm supposed to believe. But that learning center is not going to help the poor people in Madison Parish," she says. "The upper-class people will get those jobs. And the people who don't have degrees -- where are they going to work?"

"The prison hasn't harmed Tallulah -- in my version," says Judge Alwine Ragland. "And you get 100 to 200 jobs. It can't be sneezed at."

Ragland, 91, still wields the gavel regularly in city court and volunteers at the local history museum. She notes that a nearby marker for the Battle of Milliken's Bend commemorates a bloody, hard-fought Union Army victory, the second battle ever fought by black Union regiments. "It took the Union Army 18 months to get through Madison Parish to Vicksburg," she says. That was a marked contrast from neighboring East Carroll Parish, where many of the landowners capitulated.

"In Madison Parish, the farmers burned their cotton and their houses instead," Ragland says. "I think that the farmers in Madison Parish knew they were going to be broke if they didn't have those slaves," she says. "My father told me that you always have to look behind the scenes."

Her dad, "a little Irishman," she says, also taught his daughter "to put something back into the community that gave you your occupation." She heeded his advice with countless organizations including the museum and the Girl Scouts. The previous day, she had even run the chamber of commerce meeting. There, Ragland made a motion supporting the continuing presence of a prison. The motion passed.

"I know people who live near prisons and don't mind it," she says.

Comments like those anger Janet Clark and her best friend and fellow councilwoman, Gloria Hayden, who heard chamber members speak at a recent council meeting. "Not one of them even has to drive on that side of town to get out of town," Clark says. "We've got people that are elderly and can't afford to move out -- because most of the time when blacks here buy homes, they live in those homes until they die."

Clark talks about her father, Aaron Kline, and how he advocated for voting rights and provided for his children by working at the mill that operated on the site where the prison now stands.

"Everybody in that coalition has parents who just struggled and pushed for a better Tallulah for their children. Everybody in that coalition," says Clark, rattling off the names she's known nearly all her life. "Moses, his dad owned a tire shop; Sam Thomas, his mother was an educator. Raymond Cannon, his father worked at the mill and his mother owned a little business near where that detention center is. Ms. Hayden, Gloria, her mother was a hairdresser who did odd jobs and worked at the nursing home."

"We all grew up here in this end of town," says Clark, "and then most of us either went to Grambling State University or Southern University. But we all came back, and we see how that end of town has deteriorated because of that facility."

Moses J. Williams is fired up today. "To people who suggest," he says, jabbing his index finger into the air, "that because the people in this part of town might not have manicured lawns and two-car garages, they shouldn't have a voice in their community, I want to tell you -- they are dead wrong."

He's speaking at the June 4 press conference. In front of him, in rows of folding chairs, sit members of the coalition, the FFLIC moms in their red T-shirts, state senators Don Cravins and Charles Jones, and federal judge Felicia Toney Williams -- Moses' wife.

The elder Moses Williams, dressed in a plaid shirt and black trousers held up with suspenders, stands off to the side, hunched over a video camera trained on the podium. Longtime friend Hayward Fair stands a few feet to his left, bent over his own video camera.

The two focus their lenses on the younger Williams. "Usually when Moses does something, it's pretty well thought-out," says district attorney Buddy Caldwell, who oversaw Williams' work for 10 years, when Williams worked as a prosecutor in Caldwell's office.

Ask for any of the statistics about the learning center, and coalition members reply, "Ask Moses." He's plotted out the number of jobs it could provide -- about 150 within two years and close to 500 when in full operation. He can rattle off numbers showing the relationship between low education and persistent poverty.

Along with lifelong educator and current school board member Chuck Hayden, who's in the coalition, he's examined in detail the learning center's academic offerings. The center will, says Williams, provide "a seamless educational system" -- coordinated classes for people at every educational level, from junior high schoolers to those seeking GEDs, remedial college courses or vocational training.

Currently, townspeople are asking Williams about the project's two biggest remaining stumbling blocks: getting fully funded and gaining ownership of the learning-center site.

Each year, the state of Louisiana pays $3.5 million to the private owners who originally operated the juvenile prison, an arrangement brokered during Gov. Edwin Edwards' administration that has raised some eyebrows over the years. Local officials like Buddy Caldwell have testified at the legislature that backing out of that bond would hurt the state's bond rating.

Williams believes that, with some hard work, these barriers, too, will fall away. And the town will become a different place, he predicts. "I talk to people about this all the time. If you grew up in a mill town, which Tallulah used to be, you grew up wanting to work at the Chicago Mill." In those days, says Williams, the town moved on the mill's whistle. People went to work, got off work, ate lunch on the whistle.

When the mill moved out and the prison was built on that site, he says, residents began moving to the rhythms of the prison. They also started looking at the world through the eyes of corrections. In a prison town, Williams says, "If you see a kid playing and something happens, you say, ŒLook at that bad kid.'

"On the other hand," says Williams, "if the town is centered around a learning center and you see the same thing, you say, ŒThat kid should be in school somewhere.'"

After the press conference ends, Hayward Fair shakes a few hands, then focuses on the work at hand.

He and a few other men form an assembly line of sorts, folding up the beige metal folding chairs and loading them all into a van parked in the driveway. People leaving the press conference honk as they drive by the lawn. Fair nods, both hands full of chairs.

Under a nearby tree, the Rev. Charlie Trimble, Jr., head of the Madison Parish Missionary Baptist Association, lags behind, gazing at the prison complex across the highway. He sighs. "We need help here and there's no getting around it," he says.

He led the prayer at today's press conference and passionately believes in the coalition's plans. "A learning center would help our children, put them on the right track," he says.

Trimble strolls slowly toward his car and stops when his foot hits something in the lawn. It's a yellow No. 2 pencil, the kind used in schools. He picks it up and holds it against the background of razor wire and smiles. "It's a good omen," he says, slipping it into his suit pocket. &127;

Coalition leaders Moses J. Williams and Hayward Fair with three of Fair's 15 grandchildren. From left: Korea Fair, Donna Fair, Williams, Hayward Fair and Ka-mario Fair. - CHARLES SMITH
  • Charles Smith
  • Coalition leaders Moses J. Williams and Hayward Fair with three of Fair's 15 grandchildren. From left: Korea Fair, Donna Fair, Williams, Hayward Fair and Ka-mario Fair.
To locals, news reporters often painted Tallulah as a - town of abusers and incompetents. That took its toll. - CHARLES SMITH
  • Charles Smith
  • To locals, news reporters often painted Tallulah as a town of abusers and incompetents. That took its toll.
Inspired in part by her grandfather, the late civil rights - pioneer the Rev. Avery Alexander, Avis Brock founded - Families and Friends of Louisiana's Incarcerated Children. - DONN YOUNG
  • Donn Young
  • Inspired in part by her grandfather, the late civil rights pioneer the Rev. Avery Alexander, Avis Brock founded Families and Friends of Louisiana's Incarcerated Children.
Judge Alwine Ragland made a motion in the - local chamber of commerce supporting a prison in - Tallulah. "I know people who live near prisons and don't - mind it," she says. - CHARLES SMITH
  • Charles Smith
  • Judge Alwine Ragland made a motion in the local chamber of commerce supporting a prison in Tallulah. "I know people who live near prisons and don't mind it," she says.
School board member Chuck Hayden and his wife, - council member Gloria Hayden, are among the Tallulah - residents in the Louisiana Delta Coalition for Education - and Economic Development. - CHARLES SMITH
  • Charles Smith
  • School board member Chuck Hayden and his wife, council member Gloria Hayden, are among the Tallulah residents in the Louisiana Delta Coalition for Education and Economic Development.

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