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Two women look back on their fathers' fight for equality in Plaquemine
PLAQUEMINE - Linda Johnson and Linda Harleaux are two Iberville Parish women who share plenty of similarities.
They share the same first name, their fathers—William Johnson and William Harleaux—shared the same first name, and they even grew up in the same neighborhood.
As the Civil Rights Movement swept across the country in the 1960s, they also had a shared experience during one the most explosive times in their memories and the city of Plaquemine.
“We’ve known each other all our lives really,” Linda Johnson said. “Her dad taught my dad at the trade school that was here at one time."
The relationships shared between their families was a huge part of Black life in Plaquemine at that time.
“The community had their own, but if you wanted to maneuver to the other community that was all right you would be accepted,” Linda Harleaux said. “That was the community life and you lived here with the whites, but you always know your place."
Their families shared more than just names, they also shared in the struggle that many Black families were facing at the time.
“No jobs for Black people,” Harleaux explained. “We had a store called Food Town. No Blacks work there. Not even as bag boys, because back then you had bag boys. And they tried to get, you know, Blacks in to do that. But they wouldn't accept that at all."
That was the political tone in Plaquemine in 1963 when the Congress on Racial Equality, also known as C.O.R.E., joined their fight. With area leaders like Dr. Bertrand Tyson, Reverend Jetson Davis, and Principal William Harleaux, Black people in Iberville Parish were demanding change.
“The problem really stemmed from they tried to get Blacks to be registered voters, and that was hard to do,” Linda Harleaux said. “[William Harleaux] was trying to get people to vote, and that was a problem. So he got in touch with C.O.R.E., and C.O.R.E. said ‘we have someone right there in Saint Francisville, Ronnie Moore."
“There had been some arrest made, and there were protests against the arrests. C.O.R.E. had brought in number of people, and getting people registered to vote was very, very difficult,” Johnson explained.
C.O.R.E.’s field secretary for Louisiana, Ronnie Moore, and executive director, James Farmer, were brought to Iberville Parish to assist the civil leaders.
“They set up and they used the old Plymouth Rock Baptist Church on Court Street. And in the evenings, students, children—very few adults—would come and listen at what was going on and what needed to be done in the community,” Harleaux explained.
With leaders who worked directly with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., it was largely young people learning the tactics of non-violence.
“They really taught young people how to be non-violent, in the midst of violence,” Johnson said. “That’s when the August march occurred where so many things were horrible. There was no retaliation amongst us against them because we had been taught not to be violent."
With multiple protests in Plaquemine—risking their lives and their jobs—many of their civic leaders were arrested, including William Harleaux and James Farmer.
“When he was arrested, they tried to keep him there overtime because school was getting ready to start,” said Harleaux, reflecting on her father’s arrest that could have cost him his job.
“James Farmer was scheduled to be at the March on Washington, but he was in jail,” Johnson said.
One August night in 1963 at Plymouth Rock Baptist Church, which was packed with people, local and state police mounted on horse back violently burst into one of their meetings. Chaos ensued.
“They came in with the horses, and they came in with tear gas. Everybody had to, you know, fight for themselves,” said Harleaux, remembering that terrifying night.
James Farmer fled for his life, running through Good Citizen Funeral Home. He was able to escape with his life after lying down in a casket and riding in a hearse out of town.
It’s been nearly 60 years since that night and the events that led up to it, and civic changes that resulted from those protests are simple.
“Nobody worked in grocery stores. There's probably no store here that doesn't have a large contingency of Black workers in it,” Johnson said. “There were no people working in banks, no Blacks were. A number of Blacks working in the banks here. Industry did not have anything except at that time probably manual labor. That has changed."
Today, both Linda Johnson and Linda Harleaux hope people continue to share the story of the freedom fight in Plaquemine not only for their city but also for history.
“It's all about history. And I think some of the people who are descendants of some of the people in the 60s, they know what the history is,” Johnson said. “I don't think that they are just absolutely reluctant for people to talk about it. Because it is a part of history, and they absolutely know it. You can have history or you can have his story."
Today, a Louisiana civil rights trail marker stands in the former location of Plymouth Rock Baptist Church.
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