Following the publication of the Gambit Weekly cover story "The Mystery of the 364th," writer Geoffrey F.C. O'Connell received hundreds of emails (at GFOConnell@aol.com) related to violence against blacks during World War II. Some addressed directly the article's question of a large-scale shooting of members of the 364th (Negro) Infantry Regiment at Camp Van Dorn, Miss. Many detailed other violent acts against black soldiers around the country. Some were from families of black soldiers who say their loved ones disappeared during the war.
The Gambit Weekly article was syndicated nationally, and the History Channel also aired a documentary on the subject. On Sept. 24, O'Connell was among several people who addressed the Veterans Affairs Committee of the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation annual meeting.
In the past six months, the ongoing investigation has uncovered new information about racial violence in 1943. Several newly uncovered newspaper reports from the time state that three soldiers were killed within the first three days of the 364th's arrival in Centreville, Miss. The Army has insisted only one soldier was killed there.
Also significant is the wording of a telegram sent by the War Department to the sister of Pvt. William Walker -- the one soldier the Army admits was killed near Camp Van Dorn in 1943. There is no mention that Walker was gunned down by a local sheriff -- and the time of death in the telegram conflicts with all testimony. A report of Walker's funeral in Chicago described his "bullet-riddled body," although the Army autopsy reported Walker had been killed by a single bullet.
Additionally, the former clerk of the 364th, Malcolm LaPlace, has expanded his statement on his charges that the Army was covering something up in 1943. LaPlace said he was asked to change an entry in the regimental journal that read 20 black soldiers were found murdered to 20 black soldiers were AWOL. LaPlace charges he was asked three more times to change entries in that way, representing a total of 34 alleged deaths. Mississippi Congressman Bennie Thompson has called for a Congressional investigation of the Camp Van Dorn shooting.
The Kids Aren't Alright
This year, assisted in part by a grant from the Fund for Investigative Journalism, reporter Katy Reckdahl filed a series of stories about juvenile justice in Orleans Parish and in Louisiana. Here's an update on the kids and the issues we reported on:
· In an article about the issue of over-incarceration in Louisiana, we met Dustin Virella, a youth from the Lake Charles area who had pled guilty to joyriding and shoplifting at age 14 and as a result had been incarcerated for nearly four years. Upon release, a school district policy forced Virella to spend the first six weeks of this year in an alternative school; his mother Christine Hebert reports that he had little to do there except watch videos. Now, Virella is halfway through his senior year at Crowley High School, where he's maintaining a straight-A average and hopes his scores and grades can earn him a college scholarship.
· "Keisha," a 13-year-old girl from New Orleans' Ninth Ward, is one of the growing number of girls across the nation entering juvenile justice systems. Keisha was one of the last girls to go through the Female Enrichment Program (FEP), an Orleans Parish Juvenile Courts program devoted specifically to young women within that court system. FEP's funding ran out and when the program was re-funded in September, it was re-designed as SAASI (Substance Abuse After-School Intervention), a program that now serves boys as well as girls, in separate single-sex sessions.
This fall, Keisha's brother and guardian "Anthony" enrolled her in the Street Academy, a small local school focusing on at-risk kids, where she had taken up the flute and was doing better. But Anthony now reports that Keisha is acting up again. "She's cutting school, cutting class, and is about to be expelled from the Street Academy," he says, adding that he is looking into local boot camps.
· Tallulah, officially known as the Swanson Correctional Center for Youth/Madison Parish Unit, currently holds about 400 kids -- a quarter of Louisiana's incarcerated youth -- and it has been under scrutiny almost since the day it opened back in 1994. The officials at the Department of Public Safety and Corrections (DOC) say that there were some difficult times in the past but that they've now turned things around. But parents, activists, and former Tallulah residents say that it's a dangerous place that worsens -- not rehabilitates -- the behavior of its young inmates.
At the center of our story was a series of hearings -- on Aug. 6 and Sept. 5, 10, and 24 -- in which 19 witnesses testified about the allegations of a young man, "Dion," who had filed a complaint saying that his jaw had been broken on May 18 by a guard at Tallulah. David Utter, director of the Juvenile Justice Program of Louisiana, argued Dion's case. After reviewing more than 400 pages of testimony and 200 pages of exhibits, Orleans Parish Juvenile Court Judge Mark Doherty issued his decision this past Monday, Dec. 17. In his ruling, he concluded that Dion was telling the truth and that his jaw had indeed been fractured by the Tallulah guard while another guard held him in a chokehold.
Doherty wrote that, according to Tallulah's own records, there were a "disturbing ... number of broken bones, particularly, fractured jaws" and that the data suggested that "in any given month approximately 20 to 25 percent of the total population of incarcerated youth [at Tallulah] are involved in some event that produces an injury of whatever magnitude -- large or small. ... One question jumps quickly to mind: where in this place does anyone, can anyone feel safe?"
Doherty found that, among other things, the "outright physical abuse" and lack of mental-health treatment, educational programming, and other rehabilitative treatment violated Dion's state and federal constitutional rights. At 10 a.m. on Monday, he released Dion from the custody of the DOC and placed him in the custody of his aunt, who lives out of state; attorney David Utter and others then whisked Dion out of Juvenile Court and down the street to the Amtrak station, where he caught a 12:45 train to his aunt's house.
DOC Secretary Richard Stalder says that while he has "the highest respect for Judge Doherty," he wants to stress that fact that two
separate investigations did not find the Tallulah guards had injured Dion. As a result, he says, the two guards named in regard to the incident will continue to be employed by the DOC.
Stalder notes that Louisiana State University has had great success with their medical and mental-health programming at the Jetson Correctional Center for Youth and that they will soon be launching those same programs at Tallulah. He explains that the DOC continues to monitor Tallulah closely, and they are currently acting on suggestions offered by a team of experts that recently toured the facility. Finally, says Stalder, Doherty's ruling "is about one child and the modification of one disposition [sentence]." It does not, he says, affect the facility and its other residents.
Ultimately, he adds, he, Utter, and Doherty are looking out for the health and welfare of Louisiana's children, albeit each in his own way. "We may disagree on specific issues," says Stalder, "but ultimately our goals are the same."
Over the spring and summer of 2001, writer Eileen Loh-Harrist met several New Orleans-area people involved in the underground sport of dogfighting. The participants ranged from "professionals" who raise and train champion fighting pit bulls to "streetfighters" who steal others' dogs for impromptu matches. "You're looking for dogs that'll die when fighting, that'll fight to the death," one dogfighter told Gambit.
Everyone who is knowledgeable about dogfighting -- police, humane society officials, even dogfighters themselves -- agrees that the low number of dogfighting-related arrests in New Orleans does not accurately reflect the sport's popularity. "I'd imagine there are a couple of fights a week," a former Ninth Ward dogfighter told Gambit. "They match dogs everywhere."
A week after the article appeared in Gambit's July 10 issue, police raided the Algiers home of dogfighting suspect Eric Fontenot, confiscated two pit bulls and issued a warrant for his arrest. After Fontenot was arrested Aug. 6 on charges of dogfighting and cruelty to animals, the Orleans Parish District Attorney's office refused the charges, saying there was no proof Fontenot had engaged in dogfighting.
No arrests on dogfighting charges have been made in Orleans Parish since then. However, the Louisiana SPCA says it continues to receive a "consistent" stream of pit bulls that appear to have been fought or, at least, abused. Says SPCA associate director Kathy Grady, "It's not like the problem has gone away."
Can't Give It Away
In "The House That Dr. Calhoun Built," writer Constance Adler profiled Dr. Milburn Calhoun, the owner of the local Pelican Publishing. In 1969, Calhoun acquired Pelican and turned it into that all too rare a bird: an independent publishing success story. He also transformed it into one of the nation's leading producers of "neo-Confederate" literature -- books that offer "corrections" of prevailing views of the Civil War and Reconstruction, going so far as to suggest that the South should separate from the North all over again. Such titles as The South Was Right!, Southern by the Grace of God, and even The Confederate Cookbook are among Pelican's best sellers -- and their success is aided by the rise of chain bookstores such as Barnes & Noble and Borders Books. "The independent stores won't carry our books," Calhoun told Adler. "But I know customers want our books because they sell very well everywhere else."
Calls to local independent stores did reveal that a few shops do choose to stock the neo-Confederate books. But Pelican Publishing made national headlines recently when one institution declined to place The South Was Right! on its shelves: The Dorchester County Library in St. George, S.C. The Associated Press reported in late November that a local resident had offered the book as a donation, but it was declined. A group of about 50 members of the Sons of Confederate Veterans met with the library board, and the director is currently reconsidering the decision. At one point in the meeting, reported the wire service, the library argued that it couldn't accept all books offered it because of a space shortage. Several at the meeting offered to build shelves.
Wilbert Rideau, Louisiana's famed prison journalist, will likely greet 2002 just like he has started every day since Feb. 16, 1961 -- locked up for the brutal kidnapping-murder of Lake Charles bank teller Julia Ferguson. The big difference is that Rideau is out of Angola state prison and back in a Lake Charles jail, where he is awaiting a fourth trial in as many decades for the Ferguson murder.
Rideau has spent most of his four decades behind bars at Angola, where, for 26 years, he has overseen the rise of the award-winning Angolite prison news magazine and co-directed the documentary The Farm: Angola, USA. His three previous convictions have been thrown out on appeals. Last December, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans ruled that the Calcasieu Parish system for selecting the grand jury that indicted Rideau in 1961 discriminated against African Americans like Rideau. Ferguson was white.
On July 19, Rideau was abruptly handcuffed, shackled and transferred from Angola to a trusty dormitory of the Calcasieu Correctional Center at Lake Charles. The next day, Calcasieu Parish District Attorney Rick Bryant re-indicted Rideau for the Ferguson murder. Rideau's new case was initially assigned to Judge Michael Canaday using a "bingo hopper" system in which judges are supposedly assigned to cases at random. Rideau challenged the "bingo" process, arguing that Canaday's name was the only one of seven judges in the "hopper" when his indictment appeared at the top of the docket. On Nov. 30, the Louisiana Supreme Court agreed with Rideau, effectively ordering that seven balls for seven judges be put back into the hopper for Rideau's case. Rideau next drew Judge Wilford Carter, who the convict's supporters say is the first African American to have any decision-making power in the Rideau case in 40 years.
The specter of racism has shadowed Rideau's case for 40 years. The Lake Charles chapter of the NAACP has called for the plea-bargained release of Rideau, citing Calcasieu Parish's "egregious history of institutional racism." Bryant, who is up for re-election in November, says the judge's race doesn't matter, and emphatically denies any political motivations for prosecuting the murder. Judge Carter has not set a hearing date in the murder case, which had originally been scheduled for trial on Jan. 7, 2002.
From Screen to Green
Not a single film was screened at Movie Pitchers in 2001, but the quirky neighborhood movie house -- or at least the pocked, gutted, graffiti-embossed shell that stood vacant on Bienville Street for the past year -- remained an issue.
Reacting to a petition originated by Gambit, which is located next door to the old Movie Pitchers, Sav-A-Center agreed to develop and maintain a "pocket park" detailed with greenspace and trees. City Hall approved the demolition permit over objections by some members of the Mid-City Neighborhood Organization (MCNO), a group that was heavily involved in the fight to save Movie Pitchers in 2000.
"What you have with that park is an open expanse of flat nothing," says MCNO chairman Sundance Morgan, who wanted to keep the building standing. "They're going to plant some trees, plant some grass and let somebody else deal with it. The neighborhood group has nothing to do with maintaining the park, but believe me that we'll have plenty of bitching to do about its lack of maintenance."
Earlier this month, the final curtain fell with little fanfare on Movie Pitchers when a demolition crew tore down the structure. Under an agreement, Sav-A-Center will be responsible for building and maintaining the park, and providing security and lighting. A spokesperson for Sav-A-Center did not respond to a request for comment by presstime.
Meanwhile, La Fin: Last Days of Movie Pitchers, a 62-minute documentary directed by Eddie Walker, debuted at the 2001 New Orleans Film Festival in October. The work sought to capture the struggle for the small, independent cinema to survive the threat of demolition at the hands of Sav-A-Center.
A Door and a Dog on Dryades
In March, Stacey McRoyal's door was broken and her black-and-white pit bull Debo shot after NOPD Task Officers entered her apartment on Dryades Street while in pursuit of a fleeing suspect. A week after we published a story about McRoyal's door and dog, McRoyal called to say that she had come home and found a $300 check in her door, along with a note from a local doctor saying that he hoped the money would help her to fix her door and, when the time was right, to buy a new pet.