Monday, January 22, 2007

Ernest H. Lampkins, jazzer & jazz education pioneer, makes NY Times news in the saddest way

Ernest lampkins is a gentle giant of jazz in Louisiana. A comsummate gentleman in my experience, he has been a pioneer in jazz education in Caddo and Louisiana schools. Retired from a long career in education - including earning a PhD in ethnomusicology from the University of Pittsburgh - he did what I would consider the Right Thing in 2004. He entered politics and was elected mayor of Greenwood.

But on Jan 8, 07, around midnight, 2 slugs from a 12 gauge shotgun exploded from an intruder's gun and penetrated his house. Sunday
the NY Times published columnist Dan Barry's story on the attack. The Times included a multi-media report on Lampkins' life with his wife, Shirley, and daughter Brett.

Barry's article is entitled, "Yes, the Ill Will Can Be Subtle. Then, One Day, It Isn’t."

Here's the copy.

Dan Barry / Jan 21, 2007/ Greenwood, La./ The New York Times

Midnight in a handsome one-story house on Waterwood Drive. Hours after Ernest and Shirley Lampkins say goodnight to their teenage daughter, Brett, and to the first Sunday of the new year, a Sunday of churchgoing and turkey and chili and some of those sweet frozen grapes that Ernest likes so much. Two bullets pay a call.

They explode through the living room window. They tear through the soft-yellow curtains that Shirley ordered from a catalog. They rocket past the Easter basket containing family snapshots, past Brett’s bedroom door, past Ernest’s antique upright piano, past the framed portrait of father, mother and daughter in serene pose.

One bullet strikes a golden candelabrum and splits: half whistles into a wall near the kitchen; half crashes through a French door — turning smooth glass into a spider’s web of shards — and into the sunroom, four steps from the master bedroom.

The other bullet slams so hard into the living room wall that it has to be pried out. “It was a piece of lead about the size of my thumb,” Mr. Lampkins recalls. “They use that for killing deer.”

There are no deer in the Lampkins home. Only Brett, 17, a high school junior, who has just learned to drive and wears slippers that look like kittens. And Shirley, 62, a retired high school English teacher and administrator, who enjoys gardening and makes a delectable fig cake. And Ernest, 78, a retired educator who has a doctorate in ethnomusicology and is known throughout Louisiana for reaching children through music.

Oh. One more thing about Ernest. He is also the mayor here in Greenwood, a quiet town of 2,600 a few miles west of Shreveport. Greenwood has a Dollar General store, a Mexican restaurant and some antebellum homes, including one once used as a Confederate hospital. It is predominantly white.

Oh. And one more thing about the Lampkinses. They are black.

On that night, Mr. and Mrs. Lampkins hear no gunshots, but their home alarm sounds, and they leave their bedroom to investigate. They stare at the shattered glass, and then at the holes in the front window. It does not register. Then it does.

As the police arrive to interview and to collect the shell casings from the street, it is hard to forget that several days earlier, the black mayor in Westlake, about 230 miles south of here, was found shot to death, and that some people there dispute findings that he killed himself.

The Lampkins family does not return to bed.

Ten days later, the mayor and his family sit in their sunroom, with its bullet-twisted Venetian blinds, and talk about music, food, Brett’s love for dance. But the shooting has reduced these joyous subjects to fleeting diversions from two central questions: Who? Why?

“The town of Greenwood is not a racist town,” Mr. Lampkins begins, noting that he was elected mayor with 56 percent of the vote. “There are racist people in Greenwood. That’s different.”

That said, he asserts, this was a racist act. A racist act perhaps stemming from the heated politics in town, but racist still. As racist as the For Sale sign he recently found planted in his lawn.

When asked how he can be so sure, Mr. Lampkins drops his voice, as if to emphasize that we are no longer discussing music and food. As if to underscore that this is a slave’s grandson speaking, someone who heard his century-old grandfather talk of being the “house nigger” on a Kentucky plantation.

“I’m 78 years of age,” the mayor says. “Don’t you think I know what racism is in the South?”

Mr. Lampkins was elected to the Board of Aldermen in 2002, and he immediately sensed corruption. He was right: the town clerk was in the midst of stealing at least $130,000 from the municipal coffers. She is now doing eight years’ hard labor.

He became the town’s first black mayor in 2004, beating an incumbent who did not believe in graceful transitions of government. On the day Mr. Lampkins took office, he had to find a locksmith to gain access to Town Hall.

The steps he has taken to change the way of doing business, including firing several people from the old administration, have brought praise and vitriol. The monthly board meetings have at times devolved into shouting matches, with some spectators openly ridiculing the mayor.

Ellise Wissing, a board member, says the mayor often endures subtle racism. “These people can’t stand the fact that there’s a black man that’s in control of this town,” says Ms. Wissing, who is white. “That’s so much smarter than they are.”

Contributors to a Web site frequented by those from the anti-Lampkins faction — they like to mock the articulate mayor’s pronunciation, for example — reject his assertion that racism is at play. A few even suggest that he orchestrated the shooting to shift attention from his administration.

The sadness of the suggestion is felt most acutely in the violated house on Waterwood Drive, where a decoy of a police car sits in the driveway, and a father confides that his daughter will suddenly just — cry.

Mrs. Lampkins tells her husband that he ought to return a call she just took from a political opponent of his. Maybe the man wants to express his concern, she says.

The mayor calls the man back. But the man never mentions the shooting. Instead he wants to know why a town building is closed.

Mold infestation, the mayor says. Mold.

** ** **
Having taught his terrific daughter Brett and enjoyed a long acquaintanceship with Ernest and Shirley, I must say it is embarassing and deeply saddening to know that he has to worry about fatal bullets slamming into his house in Greenwood.

Musician and community leader Ron Hardy wrote to Shreveport Blog expressing his rage over the shooting and what he sees as evidence of the region's racism.

The people of Greenwood absolutely must clear the air. Identify the shooter. Put an end to the threat and speculation and this family's worry with utmost expediency.

** ** **
Dan Turner's Shreveport Times story on conflict in Greenwood seems balanced and well written.


Anonymous said...

According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, there are several racist hate groups operating in our region. If the police wish to find suspects in this case, I suggest they examine the local Sons of Confederate Veterans, the European-American Unity and Rights Organization, United Patriots and Associates, the Bayou Knights of the Ku Klux Klan and the League of the South. I am sure someone in one of those organizations can provide a lead.

Robert E Trudeau said...

Kevan, thanks. There are definite ways to get to the truth of the shooting. Let's hope the people of Greenwood see it as a priority.

Anonymous said...

Dan Turner's article wasn't all that hot. He said repeated attempts were made to contact several people, but it sounded like he just tried to do it by phone. Greenwood isn't that far, and it's easy enough to find someone in person to actually talk to them. I wonder if he did that. A better story would have included them more.

And what's the URL of the forum these articles keep mentioning? I'd like to check it out for myself. Do you have the address?