The entrance to the Forgotten City is marked by a road sign at the intersection of Louisiana Highways 165 and 112, sixteen miles south of Alexandria. Be careful as you cross through Woodworth. The town makes most of its annual revenue by doling out speeding tickets, under the regime of Police Chief James “Speedy” Gonzales. If you make it to Forest Hill, the self-proclaimed nursery capital of Louisiana, turn around; you’ve gone too far.
Depending on whom you ask, before it was effectively abandoned in 1946, it had either been Louisiana’s third or fourth-most populated city, though it wasn’t ever a real city. The temporary settlement, which had been home to a grand total more than 500,000 people over the course of its seven years, was a military training facility. No one stayed long.
In 1940, 8,000 construction workers began moving into Central Louisiana, building the entire place in less than a year. They paved miles and miles of new roads, installed underground sewerage systems, and laid gas and electricity lines. There were restaurants and barbershops and laundromats. Property values skyrocketed as a result.
Named after W.C. Claiborne, the state’s first governor, Camp Claiborne was once a sprawling boomtown, hastily built and then quickly forgotten by the U.S. government, part of the Louisiana Maneuvers. George Marshall, Omar Bradley, George Patton, and Dwight D. Eisenhower all spent time at the camp, though it is unclear whether any of them knew a kid from Fürth, Germany who trained there named Henry Kissinger or a 23-year-old black guy from Pasadena who seemed to be a natural athlete.
His name was Jackie Robinson.
Camp Claiborne, like many things in Louisiana, is buried above ground. Today, you can still find the bones of its sports arena, hollowed-out water tanks, the foundation of the bank, and the old officers club, next to its emptied-out swimming pool.
When I was a high school student, more than 50 years after the camp’s closure, kids would drive out to Claiborne to drink beer and smoke pot. There were fantastical rumors that devil-worshippers used part of the grounds for their ceremonies.
The police never patrolled out there; they couldn’t.
Camp Claiborne had been scrubbed from the map.
The places we choose to forget often contain stories we would rather not tell.
“Hell begins after you leave camp in the South to travel,” a black veteran told Elbert J. Harris in 1948. Harris, who taught history at Livingstone College in North Carolina, recalled the man’s haunting words in an essay for the Negro History Bulletin; he titled the essay, facetiously, “Southern Hospitality.”
Harris had heard a harrowing story about what black soldiers stationed at Camp Claiborne experienced during a Saturday night in nearby Alexandria in January of 1942, barely a month after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor.
There were four major military training camps within fifty miles of Alexandria, and the influx of soldiers stretched the local police force thin. On so-called “Liberty Weekends,” when thousands of soldiers would receive permits and buy bus passes into town, the cops often depended on the military to police themselves.
It was far easier for white soldiers to enjoy Liberty Weekends than it was for black soldiers. Not only were blacks forced to take an entirely different bus line, they were housed in remote corners of the camps, making it more difficult to leave. This was particularly true for black soldiers training at Camp Claiborne.
As one scholar noted, blacks lived so far away from the main facilities it seemed to have “no physical connection” at all with the camp itself. In order to catch the bus, a black soldier had to walk five miles to get to the closest station.
There were several reasons the federal government selected Central Louisiana as the staging grounds for the largest-ever military exercise in the nation’s history: The region’s mild climate meant training could be year-round; the area had been used before, during WWI, and it helped that the newly-established Kisatchie National Forest meant the federal government already owned a ton of land. But there was another factor, and the federal government didn’t make it much of a secret: Locals, they believed, wouldn’t complain about the inconvenience. Southerners were known as gracious hosts, after all.
But this was still the Deep South during the Jim Crow Era. That was an inescapable reality. Months before the violence erupted in Alexandria, the small town of Glenmora had already been declared “off limits” for black soldiers training at Camp Claiborne. While the federal government prepared young men to fight across both the Atlantic and the Pacific Oceans, for many black soldiers, hell began as soon as they wandered off-base.
A century before it hosted the Louisiana Maneuvers, 69% of the population of Rapides Parish were enslaved African Americans. It was where Solomon Northup spent ten of his twelve years in captivity. For a time, the parish’s largest slave owner had been Meredith Calhoun, the man who allegedly inspired the notorious character Simon Legree in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” According to the 1860 Census, there were more slaves in Rapides Parish than any other parish in the state. Perhaps not surprisingly, it was also home to more landholders.
The Civil War altered Rapides Parish forever. Alexandria was burned to the ground by the Union, and emancipation upturned the region’s economy, which had been largely dependent on slave labor and the slave trade. Reconstruction shortly gave way to an era of resentment and retribution, stunting growth and ensuring wealth remained concentrated in the hands of a small handful of white families. In 1940, Alexandria had a population of more than 27,000 people, and although nearly half were African American, there were only 17 black registered voters in the entire city.
In the 55 years between Reconstruction and the Second World War, time may have moved, but in Central Louisiana, almost everything else remained still. The primary difference was that in 1942, unlike 1877, the region’s white establishment welcomed the federal government.
There were few places in the country that would have looked the other way like Alexandria had in the aftermath of the night of Saturday, Jan. 10th, 1942, when a white military police officer incited a riot that allegedly resulted in at least 10 and as many as 15 black soldiers killed and dozens more injured outside of a movie theater in the middle of downtown, on a street named in honor of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee.
Today, outside of Central Louisiana, what transpired that night in Alexandria, in a part of town that was called “Little Harlem,” has been either completely forgotten or entirely misremembered. For the past thirteen years, every Memorial Day, members of the city’s chapter of the Buffalo Soldiers Motorcycle Club, one of the largest black biker organizations in the country, place a wreath in honor of the men who lost their lives on Lee Street.
However, in recent years, the commemoration has featured a temporary sign with an incorrect date (off by two full years) and the assertion that 200 people had been killed, a number so wildly exaggerated that it undermines the credibility of scholars and journalists who have spent decades working to reveal the historical truth.
But their error pales in comparison to the government’s.
“I don’t know how I got to safety after the riot,” a black trainee at Camp Claiborne recalled. “I only know one thing and that is, whenever anybody says, ‘Remember Pearl Harbor,’ I will say, ‘I will remember Lee Street.'”
While there is now no question whatsoever that black soldiers from Camp Claiborne were among the primary victims of what was quickly dubbed the “Lee Street Riot,” Col. Ralph Holiday, a commander at the camp, had initially claimed that none of “our boys participated in the unfortunate outbreak.” It was a part of a pattern of denials, obfuscation, and brazen lies that would be repeated countless times by the military’s brass, one that the pliant and obsequious local paper, the Alexandria Daily Town Talk, was more than willing to report as fact.
In one of its first reports about “the unfortunate outbreak,” the Town Talk even boasted about how pleased the military was with the paper. Despite the scores of contradictory eyewitness accounts and widespread rumors that morticians and funeral parlors with government contracts had been called to work throughout the late night and early morning, the Town Talk reported the official line: Zero deaths, 28 injured, including a white state trooper who “suffered a badly injured hand in wielding a flashlight over the head of a negro.”
The Town Talk urged its readers not to believe “the worst,” arguing that, although the military had been reluctant to even acknowledge the riots and needed to issue a more definitive report, there was still no reason to doubt the official line.
This much is known: The rioting started at around 8PM, after a white M.P. allegedly fired his gun at a black soldier leaving the Ritz Theater, attempting to arrest the man for disorderly conduct. (There were subsequent reports the soldier had been accused of assaulting a white woman, though those reports seem to be based on pure speculation. Notably, it was generally acknowledged, even- implicitly- by the government, that the soldier had not been responsible for provoking the violence).
By most accounts, between 2,000 and 3,000 people, the overwhelming majority of whom were African American, had been present that night on Lee Street, and almost immediately after the first shot was fired, black soldiers began protesting. The soldiers were all unarmed; the military police and state troopers, however, had an arsenal at their disposal. For nearly two hours, 90 white officers were called to respond, and according to witnesses, including a handful of local police and state troopers, some of those 90 men attempted to quell the unrest by shooting indiscriminately at black soldiers and civilians- men, women, and teenage children. (60 of the 90 men who responded were military police officers who had been stationed at nearby training camps).
The most serious and compelling scholarship on the subject of the Lee Street Riot was by Dr. Bill Simpson, a former history professor at Louisiana College. Simpson spent several years interviewing witnesses and researching the event, widely believed to be the most significant “race riot” during WWII, and when he published his findings in 1994 in an essay titled “A Tale Untold? The Alexandria, Louisiana Lee Street Riot,” it generated renewed (albeit temporary) local interest in the subject.
For those familiar with my previous reporting about Louisiana College, I should note that Bill Simpson worked at LC before its credibility as an academic institution was effectively destroyed in the aftermath of a hostile takeover by a fringe group of disreputable, corrupt, and anti-intellectual bigots. To his enormous credit, Simpson was one of a small number of respected academics who fought, unsuccessfully, to save the school.
In the wake of Simpson’s scholarship, even the Town Talk had been forced to publicly acknowledge its own complicity in manufacturing what now was clearly revealed to be an egregious cover-up. Simpson estimates that between 10 to 15 black soldiers were killed, a number that is supported by the accounts of several notable witnesses.
Among others, Simpson spoke with David Iles, the longtime principal of Peabody High School who had been injured that night, and Louis Berry, a local civil rights pioneer and the first black attorney admitted to the local bar association. (Berry was “introduced” to the bar by another well-known legal giant, Camille Gravel, and today, the city’s municipal court building is named in honor of both men).
Iles and Berry were certain that lives were lost; it was impossible to reach any other conclusion after observing the carnage. It was a nightmare, total hell.
Simpson also spoke with one of my distant cousins, State Trooper Charner Lyles, who revealed, somewhat reluctantly, he had seen at least one dead man on the street that night, which was 100% more than the government acknowledged.
Like other black-owned newspapers at the time, the Afro-American, a paper based in Baltimore, was immediately skeptical of the government’s version. They sent Ralph Williams, an award-winning correspondent, to Central Louisiana.
Williams filed a report alleging the riot had been premeditated and that there were vastly more fatalities than the zero the military had claimed. While there is scant evidence of premeditation or planning, his initial reporting on deaths was later corroborated, at least in part, by white officers themselves.
The four-block area had been hastily cordoned off, and the military commanded black soldiers to return to their respective bases, either Livington or Claiborne. And just as they’d been ordered to stay away from Glenmora, black soldiers were told that Alexandria was also now “off-limits.”
We may never know the full and complete story of what transpired on Lee Street.
The majority of the black soldiers who were present were from Michigan and Indiana, a detail that the Town Talk emphasized several times in a brazen attempt to assign blame to “outside agitators” and to deflect the city’s own culpability. Today, most of those soldiers and most of the civilians who witnessed the pandemonium are dead; records are missing or were destroyed. The camp, of course, is a ghost town.
There is one bit of folklore that continues to persist: the story of what a small group of black soldiers had attempted to do once they returned to base.
As legend has it, someone got the bright (and likely drunken) idea to hijack a tank and drive it into town. They were apprehended before they got anywhere, and the army ordered the unit’s swift transfer to a camp in Texas the very next day.
Lee Street would never again be the same kind of bustling commercial corridor it had been. The Ritz Theater was demolished in the late 1970s, as were several other buildings.
Today, Lee Street is a pastiche of empty lots and neglected buildings, with very few prospects for revitalization.
In 2003, in preparation for the city museum’s “Heart of Spain” exhibit, three local artists painted a mural on the side of a vacant building on Lee, directly across the street from the since-demolished Ritz Theater; the mural had honored prominent African Americans in Central Louisiana’s history, including David Iles and Louis Berry.
Twelve years later, after a white businessman, Oday Lavergne, purchased the majority of the Lee Street corridor, the mural was taken down, though not before Lavergne and an African American consultant named Von Jennings vowed to preserve its “message.”
“We’re very excited about it. I truly don’t believe this is a loss,” Jennings told the Town Talk.
It was a loss, though, and whatever grand plans there may have once been for the area have not yet materialized. It had been the most significant work of public art honoring African Americans in the city. Today, it exists only on a website Lavergne’s company, Kinetix, built for the organization that had commissioned the mural.
It is unclear why there had been such a sense of urgency to remove instead of restore the mural, but regardless, it echoes what one discovers at Camp Claiborne.
The places we choose to forget often contain stories we would rather not tell.