160 Years on, African-Americans Still Don't Feel Welcome in This Town. They Think Whites Want to Avoid Them. Keep Their Distance; RACIAL TENSIONS SIMMER IN 12 YEARS A SLAVE CITY; EXCLUSIVE

The Mirror (London, England), January 22, 2014 | Go to article overview

160 Years on, African-Americans Still Don't Feel Welcome in This Town. They Think Whites Want to Avoid Them. Keep Their Distance; RACIAL TENSIONS SIMMER IN 12 YEARS A SLAVE CITY; EXCLUSIVE


Byline: MARISSA CHARLES and RACHAEL BLETCHLY

Lucille Daniels used to enjoy working as a cashier in her local petrol station... most days. The friendly mum of three welcomed everyone with a warm smile and cheery banter as she took their payments and handed them their change.

But some of the locals standing in front of her kiosk wouldn't take the dollars and cents Lucille held out for them - because it would mean touching her black skin.

"They'd come in and drop the money on the counter rather than putting it in my hand," explains Lucille, 62. "They did not want me to touch their hands but then they didn't want me to put their change down on the counter either. They were insulted about that too.

"You still have some around who believe the blacks are slaves and they have to listen to what the whites say. Both the whites and the blacks still have a slavery mentality."

Lucille, 62, could be describing life in some Deep South backwater long before the civil rights struggles of the 1960s. In fact, this was Bunkie, Louisiana, in 2012, the same year British director Steve McQueen made a movie down the road about the injustices of racial discrimination.

Now 12 Years A Slave is the most powerful and talked-about film for years, a Golden Globe winner set for further glory at the Oscars and BAFTA awards. Telling the true story of a free black man, Solomon Northup, who was kidnapped and sold into slavery in 1840s America, it has won praise around the world. In the US religious and community leaders have hailed it for sparking new debates about present day inequality.

McQueen believes his film, starring Chiwetel Ejiofor, Brad Pitt and Michael Fassbender, is "a torch" for race relations.

But in Bunkie, the very town where Solomon Northup spent 10 years enslaved at the plantation of brutal slavemaster Edwin Epps, that torch may ignite a powder keg of present-day tension. Some locals fear the movie, with its scenes of lynchings and whippings, will stir up such emotion it could even spark race riots.

The racial divisions of Bunkie are also exposed in a new documentary being made by director Frank Eakin and Louis Gossett Jnr, the Oscarwinning star of An Officer and a Gentleman. Frank, 52, is the son of Dr Sue Eakin, a historian and civil rights activist who devoted her life to researching Northup's story from his 1853 memoir. McQueen based his film on her book, 12 Years a Slave. She died in 2009 aged 90.

Frank, who grew up in Bunkie (pop 4,100), began the project after hearing from a white businessman friend in the city. He explains: "He called me up saying, 'People around here are worried this movie may cause a race riot.' I thought that was a good indication that there are severe problems with the e e rdsAhtto races in Bunkie. But most whites are in denial.

Little has changed in Bunkie since I moved away about 35 years ago. African-Americans, who make up about half the population, feel unwelcome, feel that whites want to avoid them, keep their distance - 'You stay on your side of the tracks, we'll stay on ours'.

"There is considerable tension with the white-dominated police force. They t s say a powder keg is building."

Frank says his mother was so obsessed with Northup that "he felt like a brother we never met".

"She felt his story was the most compelling way to highlight slavery... allow people, whites especially, to connect the dots with history and understand the origins of a lot of issues."

But her activism stirred up resentment and the family home was burnt down twice in the 1950s as local racists tried to intimidate her.

When Frank returned to Bunkie he found mistrust in both the white and black communities. Vanity Hayward, 18, is an African-American studying chemistry at university in the state capital, Baton Rouge. She was a star pupil at Bunkie High School, where she says she saw racism almost daily. …

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160 Years on, African-Americans Still Don't Feel Welcome in This Town. They Think Whites Want to Avoid Them. Keep Their Distance; RACIAL TENSIONS SIMMER IN 12 YEARS A SLAVE CITY; EXCLUSIVE
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