Saturday, July 29, 2006

A Town in Turmoil

The Colomb-Davis saga began in 1981 when James Colomb signed up for an FHA mortgage on a brick three-bedroom home on the south end of Church Point, Louisiana. James was vaguely aware that the home was located in an all-white neighborhood, but the television news led him to believe that racial attitudes in America had shifted radically in recent years.

In one sense James was right. The Federal Housing Administration’s 1939 Underwriting Manual cited the threat of "inharmonious racial groups" and stipulated that "if a neighborhood is to retain stability, it is necessary that properties shall continue to be occupied by the same social and racial classes."

But the civil rights movement of the 1960s marked a profound shift in philosophy. Four years before the Colombs purchased their home on the south end of Church Point the Community Reinvestment Act mandated that lending institutions actively encourage applications from low-income clients.

If James and Ann Colomb believed a new day of racial harmony was dawning in Church Point, Louisiana they were tragically wrong. In 1981 the sleepy little town was perfectly and (from the white perspective) happily segregated. The black population (roughly 30% of Acadia Parish) had its own Catholic Church, its own park, its own neighborhood—it even had its own Mardi Gras parade. Who could ask for anything more?

Black residents saw things a bit differently. Compared to the shacks in north Church Point, the Colomb’s three-bedroom FHA dwelling looked mighty inviting and it wasn’t long before other black families were following where James and Ann Colomb had led. Thanks to white flight a once all-white neighborhood is now predominantly black. In the late 1980s when Sammy Davis, the eldest of Ann’s five children, started high school the demographic shift in south Church Point was just beginning to gather steam.

A stocky young man, Sammy quickly emerged as a stalwart of the football team. In his freshman year of high school he started dating a white girl. The white community was horrified and the girl’s parents threatened to disown her. Throughout the South, the legislative revolution that allowed James Colomb to purchase an FHA home on the white end of town was resented as a Yankee intrusion. Most white residents of Church Point believed that integrated communities and inter-racial dating were sins against God; as such they could not be countenanced.

It wasn’t long before Sammy Davis’s brothers, Edward, Danny and Randy, had white girlfriends of their own. The local Ku Klux Klan responded with a barrage of threatening (and anonymous) phone calls. “You better tell that son of yours to quit messing with our girls or you’re gonna find him hanging from a tree,” the callers would say.

“Well, you better make sure there’s another stout limb on that tree,” Ann would respond, “’Cause I’m gonna find out who you are, I’m gonna hunt you down, and I’m gonna string you up right beside my son.”

The bold fa├žade masked a growing sense of alarm. As the violence and frequency of the hate calls increased Ann and James had their phone disconnected.

Within the youth culture, meanwhile, the strict segregation that had long characterized Church Point society was rapidly disintegrating. The sense of alarm deepened when Edward Colomb began attracting the attention of college basketball scouts and his younger brother Danny showed early promise as a fullback. Star athletes are prime dating material and Ann Colomb’s boys were no exception to the rule.

For generations, “the Boulevard” (an oblong drag bordered at one end by the white Catholic church) had been the social centre of high school life. If you grew up in a small town you know the drill—kids circle the block in their cars looking for friends and dating prospects. Cans of beer are passed around and the local cops look the other way because they had been socialized into the same practices a few years earlier. Black people knew better than to show up on the Boulevard . . . until the Colomb boys hit high school. The thought of an integrated Boulevard sent shock waves through the white community.

As a tumultuous 1992 gave way to 1993, the racial tension in tiny little Church Point, Louisiana was palpable. Something had to give.


Anonymous said...

"Thanks to white flight a once all-white neighborhood is now predominantly black."

I wonder what the crime rate looks like now?

AlanBean said...

I don't know. Care to speculate?

Tabitha said...

It won't succeed as a matter of fact, that's what I believe.