By Carolyn Roy, Carolyn@natchitochestimes.com, 318-352-3618 ext 219
Natchitoches Parish Voters and Civic League, and John Winston, League president, are asking the question, “Where do we go from here?” The question is directed to Mayor Ronnie Williams Jr. since the City elected its first Black mayor and councilperson-at-large in addition to two other Black City Council members. The questions are included in a letter to the Mayor and League members.
“I wrote the letter,” Winston says. “With the election, the African American community is our base and we want to see West Natchitoches improvements.” Winston has knowledge of what the Mayor and City Council members can accomplish if their focus shifts to West Natchitoches. Winston is a retired educator and businessman who served on the City Council several terms. He says in the letter to league members that the election of the first Black mayor is what can happen if the members work and vote together. “Now the question is where do we go from here? What do we expect from our new City administration?” Winston elaborated on the points of the letter to Williams.
1. Begin the process to make the City government look like the Black/White ratio within the city. This includes the administration and all departments, including fire, police, utilities, etc. We know that this cannot be done overnight but we do expect satisfactory progress over the next four years. “We expect to see Blacks in responsible positions of authority,” Winston says. “There’s no excuse we can’t find them and feel good about Natchitoches like everyone else does. Since 1714, there have been no Black positions of authority.” He says the organization wants more equity and parity in decision making. “There are qualified Black people all over the country. You can find them if you want to.”
2. We expect the City to develop an aggressive Community Development Program, emphasizing the rehabilitation of housing on the West side of town where possible, and removal of dilapidated housing where rehabbing is not possible. And finally, secure grants and other means to build affordable housing on the West side of town. Winston says there is neglect of African American housing in the West side that has been allowed to deteriorate and likens it to a third world country. He believes the City can help turn that around with a vital community development program. He cites the federal community development programs that began in 1964 that were once a priority. During that time, there was rehabilitation of housing, new streets and drainage and start of the 235 Housing program. He says Town South Subdivision is an example of what can happen. But from 1980-83, under the administration of President Ronald Reagan, the policy reversed. “There’s been no money for housing in 24 years. The money has been put on downtown and the West side continues to deteriorate. Forty percent of the population there is on assistance with the problem being the lack of jobs. Winston also believes that major companies apply a 5 percent rule when hiring Black employees in cities with a population of 50,000 or less. “It’s an unwritten rule but it’s been that way from the beginning. There is institutional racism in Natchitoches and across the state.” Winston says a major problem is that there is a lack of a Black middle class. That began in 1976 when Supt. of Education Kelly Nix instituted the National Teacher Exam and set the passing score 50 points higher than the highest Black score. “At that time, there were nearly 500 Black teachers. It had a deleterious affect on Southern University and Grambling State. Educational progress dried up and so began the decline of the Black middle class,” Winston says. “The whole community suffered. The City can begin and be the advocate to hire more Blacks. They can hire and train more over time.” He believes the Mayor should be an advocate for that. “There’s no good housing without a good job.”
3. An aggressive effort, again through the Community Development Dept., to improve drainage, streets and lighting on the West side of town. Winston says one problem is that there are not enough grants sought by the City and the Parish. He points to the Bayou Jacko drainage structure that is partially concrete but not the length of the canal. He says the concrete is sloughing off. “There are trails and alleys for streets. We can make it better. So much more can be done. The former administration changed the emphasis. I get upset when I don’t see the money being used in the right way.”
4.HUD Section 108 Minority Business Loans The Dept. of Housing and Urban Development allows up to $2 million a year to refurbish homes. If the City invests in the program, it will be a win-win for all. 5.We don’t know how the City might choose to do this, but we are asking the Mayor and City Council to develop an affordable transportation system that will allow all children access to Parc Natchitoches on University Parkway. Winston says he has no idea how this can be accomplished right now but is sure there is an answer.
5. Form a commission of key stakeholders to come up with a strategy for securing meaningful employment that will allow the purchase of affordable housing within the city and present it to the Mayor and City Council in the first six months of the new administration. Winston says it’s time for Blacks and Whites to sit down and develop a five or 10-year plan to attract industry. “It’s here. The city’s economy should be booming with the port and I-49. We also have one of the best small airports in the state and NSU and the technical college. He asks how poor people can make a living in a “retirement town” without industry.
“How can we sustain a middle class?” Winston says being mayor is a hard job. “He’s had his hands full. Usually a new mayor has three to four month to adjust but he (Williams) had three or four days. He’s had no time to build his administration. “I wish the Mayor well and hope and pray that the council will work with him because there are so many much-needed things to be done and they can make Natchitoches a better place for all of us to live. “The Black community of Natchitoches is and does not advocate government being one-sided. Just be fair and equitable to all, Black and White. We don’t want to treat the White folks like we were treated. We want to be an example of how it should be.”