Mary Elizabeth B., Social Worker, Algiers Neighborhood
September 13, 2005
I was born in Natchez, Mississippi, November 19, 1949, to Lawrence and Dorothy. I was the second of five children. Oh, my family raised me up with a work ethic. I never knew I was poor. I always thought we were rich. I did, but we were actually poor. My father worked for the International Paper Company. It was hard for a black man to get a job of that nature back then.
My mother was a domestic. My mother would work for white people. She would go in and take over their homes. She would feed you; she was the boss. They loved her, because she had that type of personality, she was a take-over person. And, you know, young white women who were professional, but couples, they didn't know how to do things. They didn't know how to raise children. So they felt blessed to have a woman like that. And they were good to my mother, they were very good to my mother. They treated her well, with much respect. Her wisdom, they respected it. The wife would always ask her what to do, "How do you do this, Dorothy?" You know? I saw that when I would go with her sometimes. I didn't do anything, I just observed, because my father really hated that she took me with her, because he wanted more for his children. And, he didn't have to want more, because it was in us. You know, that, we would want to be much more than maids or domestics. Not that we downed my mother for doing that, but that's all she could do with her limited education-which was fine, because she was a beautiful person.
I'll tell you one thing about my family, though: my father was an alcoholic. We came out of abuse. Okay. My mother was a beautiful, shapely woman, pretty woman, pretty black woman. And my father was a jealous man. Very, very jealous. Back then he used to go out and trick. He had two jobs, the International Paper Company, and he did painting on the side, house painting and repair. He was good at it. The job with the International Paper Company, he brought that check home to my mother. The painting job, he went out a-whoring. And a-drinking. Okay. That was his, and the other was for his family. But, my mother wanted to do the same thing. She was a needful woman, who needed her husband. So she went in the street, too, to find a man to give affection to her, because she was not getting it at home. And, naturally, that caused conflict. And so the children saw them fighting, and we were scarred as a result of that, as though, you know, that was the beginning of abuse in our lives. That's what happened, I realize that. And what happens with abuse is it becomes cyclical. Always.
My mother's mother was not married to her father. My father's and his, my father's parents were married. So, I don't know about, that they never spoke of it, never spoke of it, you know. I only know what I observed in our family. And me, I took it to heart, because I loved both of them, and I felt like I had to choose sides. See, I was always a daddy's girl. My mother was the one who used to hit me, so I chose my daddy's side, and he was the abuser. And I felt like I betrayed my mom. I'd get angry with him when he hurt my mom, and I'd hit him in the head, I'd try to help him, but at the same time, I don't want to do this. I'm confused. I'm very, very confused.
Oh, Lord, have mercy, Jesus. I turned to God at a very early, early age for comfort. I was a sickly child, and my mother took care of me. Oh, she took care of me so good, so good. They treated me differently out of all the children, I was their favorite child, because I was a sickly child. I had allergies terribly bad, so she had to change the sheets on my bed every day. She had to cook special meals for me every day. And, so, my sisters and brothers were jealous. They didn't understand, you know. But, we were always, my mother was always a spiritual person, church-going, you know. And we would, she insisted her children go to church, she took us to church, she did not send us.
Back then, they had what's called the moaner's match. The moaner's match, that was revival, revival. For two weeks, two weeks. The children had to sit on that bench until they were saved. That's right, we had to sit on that bench. Every year we'd sit there, till you got saved, I don't care how many years. [Then] you didn't have to sit there any longer. (Laughing) You were saved, you could move in with the other church members. You could move up. You weren't saved, you got to sit on that front. Back then, old folks thought you had to see something to be saved. A vision, you had to have a vision. Okay, but, you know, as we grow into the knowledge of Christ, we know now that that's not necessarily true, that Christ, Jesus, God is a spirit, you know, it's in your heart that you believe that he is. I came into my own from being sick.
I loved going to church, because my mother would dress me so pretty, and I liked being dressed up. And, I'd go with her, the other children. (Laughing) I always did like to be dressed up. I like to be pretty. And she bought me the most gorgeous dresses, I was always pretty, pretty, pretty. And I didn't never want anybody to touch me, "Don't touch me, don't touch me." I didn't want to get dirty. "Don't dirty up my clothes." And, so, I was the child who always wanted to go with her. The others, yeah, the others, if they went one time, that was enough, they didn't want to go back with her. So, I was always with her, and she stayed in church all day long. So I was exposed to teaching, to Bible-teaching. I was eating it up. I always liked education, you know, if it's there, I'm going to eat it, I'm going to eat it wherever it is. So, I was getting it, and it became a part of me. And then I realized who I was, who God made me to be, and that He loved me. That I was special, you know. And I began to act differently.
At eight years old, the teacher started helping us to form goals, teaching us about goals. And she asked me-in Nachez, Mississippi, some elementary school-she asked, what did I want to be when I grow up? I said, "A social worker." And the people, the children started laughing at me, because they didn't know what a social worker was. Well, I had an uncle who was a social worker, they didn't know that. I had an uncle who had finished college.
I started off at Alcorn A & M College in Norman, Mississippi. I lived there for two and a half years. That's when I met my husband. That's when the trouble started. That's when the trouble started. My ex-husband, whose name was Gerald. Anyway, I met this man when I was sixteen years old. My parents used to send me to New Orleans to the dermatologist, because I had allergies. And I stayed by my Aunt and Uncle. He lived around the corner. I had two cousins, two male cousins, and Gerald told my oldest cousin he wanted me. My oldest cousin sold me to this man, because this man was an abuser. Okay. I did not know. I did not know. But, he saw me. That's the way I know now an abuser does, he picks his target. He saw me.
But you know who told me about him and I wouldn't listen? My father. An abuser knows an abuser. My father begged me not to marry. My father begged, he said, "Baby, finish college first." I said, "But, Daddy, I'm in love. I'm in love, Daddy, and I want a baby." He says, "But, finish college, and then you can get married." But I wouldn't listen, because I didn't make the connect, you know, being young and foolish. But I know, and it took me years to realize what my father was trying to say to me. He couldn't come out and say, "I beat your mama, that's what he is." You know, and you don't need to hook up with him, because he was ashamed of what he had done, he couldn't name it. He tried, he tried. But I went ahead and did it, and in three months I was pregnant, you know? And in three months he was jealous. He didn't like the baby. Was jealous of the baby, because then I started to commute to Alcorn, so I was tired. I couldn't do all the things I used to do, and the problems began. For thirty-two years. Oooo! Thirty-two years. Thirty-two years.
You see, I did complete my degree. He brought me to New Orleans, because he could not find a job in Natchez. And he would always say to me, "You can't make it without me." He kept me like a prisoner. Yes, he had me so frightened of New Orleans, you know, I thought I couldn't walk out on the street. My children were so pale, we stayed in the house all the time. You know, and he took my self-esteem from me. You know, I was away from my parents. I was here by myself. I had an uncle, but we weren't that close. And when you are a female, you need your mother. You need your mother, I'm sorry, but you do. I believe he knew what he was doing, exactly what he was, control. Control. 'Cause he kept telling me, "You can't make it without me. You'll have to get on welfare." 'Cause I told him, "I've never been on welfare, and I will never be on welfare." I still had some strength there. I kept holding on to that little bit I had. And I had enough courage to go back to school.
He refused to keep the children. I took the children to the university with me. And they're the people to tell me to take my children out of the classroom. Because, my children need more in life, and I am the one who is going to give it to them, my husband is not. He refused to keep them, I'm coming. And I went. That's right. I went. And they used to tell people, "We go to college. We go to college. Our mama go to college." You know, there's a good thing about being with your children and exposing them to what you do. It gives them hope that there's more to life. It doesn't have to be hum-drum. They go to a library, you know, they do things. Go to the museum. They were exposed, you know, early in life. Therefore, they set goals early in life. And they didn't turn out too bad. (Laughing) Got two, two sons. My oldest son works for NASA, and he's an officer. He's not married; he's single. My youngest son has three children. One by a girl he did not marry, my oldest grandson, my heart. And, two by the girl he did marry. He just started working at some job driving some truck, but he has moved around a lot. He has been a little bit more like his father. My children were scarred from the relationship I had with their father.
They were grown. I think it's worse. I really do, because these children have tried to control me. That's why I'm so glad to be in Austin. I am so glad God dropped me in Austin. Let me tell you, my children had me committed four times. To the Charity Hospital, when I was going through the divorce, because I was so stressed. You know, I was so stressed. I was working and having stress on the job, stress in the home, it was overwhelming. They said I was crazy. I wasn't crazy. Nothing was wrong with me, I was simply stressed, and I had nobody to support me. Nobody. You know, I felt like I was in this alone. But I knew God was on my side, and I couldn't explain my actions to you, to you, to you, to you. I was doing what I had to do. And they did not understand that, so they had me committed. But every time they did it, God broke me out. God broke me out. That's right. Every time! That's what's amazing. Every time. And then the last two times, the two doctors-and they kept telling the doctors, "My momma has bipolar." And I said, "I don't have no god-damn bipolar. Anything I have is post-traumatic stress." Which can be so close to bipolar, you know. When you've been in a war. That's what I call it: a war. Abuse is a war, you know. 'Cause you're fighting against an aggressor. When you're trying to keep your sanity there.
I got a protective order. Oh, I did it so smoothly, he didn't know what hit him. Scrawny was still in the house! This child, I taught in Sunday school, she's an attorney, she helped me. That baby helped me, do you hear me? Fontella is her name. Yes, indeed. She was so smooth. Baby, he came home one day, and that policeman was there, slapped that protective order in his hand, he couldn't even come in the house. He couldn't come in. He asked the police, could he get some clothes? The police let him got some clothes, and, bam, that was it. And then it was on. It was on. But let me tell you how long it took me to get the divorce: almost three years. Because he kept, I don't know, the justice system in New Orleans is awful. Oh, every judge would push it back, push it back, push it back. And then God did something, and one judge was compassionate and let me have my divorce. He tried, the, the husband, Gerald, tried to say something in court that day, and the judge said, "Shut up." "Shut up," you know. Still trying to justify his actions. I tell you. But he still doesn't see himself as an abuser, but he's an alcoholic, that's his problem. And the reason I stayed in the relationship so long is because I wanted to help him. I became co-dependent, and I realized it too late. I did, I did get in touch with it, and I was embarrassed.
You see, being a social worker-and I'm not a play social worker. I am a social worker who loves people and wants to empower people. I work with welfare clients. You know, people who have been consumed by a system, abused people, disenfranchised people. And I saw myself in many of those people, you know. I saw hurtful wounds, and, oh, so much, so very, very much. I couldn't help it, because they were me. They knew that I would help them. You know, with anything. I mean, staff used to laugh at me, but I'm for real, you know. The money didn't matter to me. That's who I was called to be. Everybody don't know their calling in life. You go from this to that, you jump, jump, jump. I knew it, I was blessed, at an early age. You know, like smoking cigarettes. I started smoking cigarettes at five years old, because my whole family smoked, and I wanted to smoke like them. I rolled up brown paper, and I blew the fire off it, and then it was burning just like a cigarette. I would (blowing noise) pump it, and I fell out. It was so strong, it was so strong. (Laughing) But I like smoking cigarettes. I do. And I'm a social worker in my neighborhood and my church. My neighborhood was Algiers.
I fool with people's minds. They ask me, "What's your name." I say, "Blessed Mary." And then I look at them, they go .... I say, I don't believe I'm the Blessed Mary, the mother of Jesus. I say, "Blessed only means happy. I'm Happy Mary. And I'm writing a book and that's going to be my pen name." Happy Mary. And I write poetry. Yeah, you know. I use the powers that God has given me, and when I, when God started freeing me, that's when I stopped hiding. I allowed myself to be the person God made me to be. I'm smart. I've always been smart, all of my life.
Okay, the hurricane: I don't think we were well-informed. For instance, the Mayor: before the hurricane came, I was watching T.V. And people were calling in asking him, "What should we do?" People always look to a leader to lead them. Okay? Disciples follow, and the mayor's response was, "You don't need anybody to tell you what to do." You are a leader, how can you tell your people that? You know. God is our leader, doesn't He tell us what to do. I thought that was awful of him, awful, awful. You left your people to fend for themselves. You know? I was disappointed in Ray Nagin. Okay?
I was disappointed with President Bush. President Bush, I thought, was a man who followed God. I have that book from Wal-Mart United We Stand, and President Bush had plans in there, and I was very impressed. But when President Bush didn't help us immediately, I was so hurt and so disappointed. And I felt, "Did he do this because we're Black and poor?" I had held such high regards for him. I was very hurt, like I knew him personally, you know? Because during 9-11, when he told us to do something, set some memorial, you know what I did? I went in my front yard, because the President, our leader, asked us to do this, and I was obedient and compliant. I made a cross in my front yard with flowers to remember the firemen and the people in New York City. I was living in LaPlace, Louisiana, and the children knocked my stuff down. But I was being obedient because our leader asked us. But if your leader don't lead you, what are you supposed to do? That's why the people acted like animals in New Orleans: we had no leader, so they did what animals do. You know? What do you do? I saw them looting. I bought hot cigarettes, because I smoke. It was so funny, I called them my little thievery friends. I said, "You looking out for me, and the President not, Ray Nagin not, the police not."
I made a "Help" sign, by my house, from the awnings of the house after the hurricane. H E L P. The hurricane had blew them, blown them off. And I made, you know, "Help." It was big enough for any plane to see, because it was white. And then I put glass on it, so that they would know. We were there, "I am here." And every time I heard a plane, I'd run out that house, I'd have this big white hat on. They knew we were there. Because, you know, from the neighbors I had heard that the National Guard was coming, but they never came. Nobody ever came to get us, to tell us anything, nothing. I was there by myself. It was frightening. The house was damaged. I was carrying around a hammer and a pair of scissors in my purse for protection. The neighbors told me, "Mary, you better stay inside, if you know what's good for you." I said, "Baby, I don't have to come out for nothing. When it's night I'm inside." When I come out in the morning, I'd say, "I'm up. I'm okay. I'm going down the street to buy me a pack of hot cigarettes." When I come back, I'd say, "I'm back." And I'd go inside.
It was hot. I was dehydrated. I was dying. I had food. I had some water, but my water did run out. And I had to drink the contaminated water from the tap. And then to cool my body, I wrapped towels to lay on, you know, my naked body, to cool myself, you know. My neck started wrinkling. I started getting, yeah, the gray collar. I was dying. I knew that. I knew that. And God had it so that- had the house, the curtains closed so it would be dark to try to make it a little cool-he had it so I couldn't see myself fully. Had I seen myself fully, I would not have been able to take it. I would have been scared, and probably stressed out. That anxiety would have taken over. You know, but I did, I made it through that! I made it. Six days. Monday the storm, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday. Five days. We left Saturday, we went to the ferry.
Mr. Payton, who's the man who lives in the back, in the B apartment, he and I left. 'Cause I told him, "Mr. Payton, my brother keeps calling." And my brother was giving me updates, and he kept telling me, "Mary, don't drink that water, don't drink that water." He says, "Boil it." I was boiling it, but it tasted worse when you boiled it. It was awful! God, it was awful. It was awful. And so, he said, "You have to get out of there, you have to get out. You have to get out." And so, I, we did. I said, "Mr. Payton, we have to go. You coming? Because I'm going." And, so, Mr. Payton say, "Yeah." And we walked to the ferry. And he had a duffle bag, and I had one of those cooler things with the handle. We only took the necessities.
Two policemen saw us, the stopped. Two female policemen stopped. They say, "Are y'all leaving?" And we said, "Yes." She said, "Good." She said, "Do you need anything?" I said, "Some cold water." And they gave us two bottles of the coldest water. I thank those two women, you know. I had seen several male police officers, and they never offered us anything. Nothing. Everytime I asked them, "What's going on?" "Oh, we got a call, we got to go." Who are these fools? You know? But, we got to the ferry. We must have stayed there about eight, nine, ten hours. A long, long time, that's all I know. It was a long.
A helicopter came. Army or Navy or Air Force or some kind, some kind. And it air lifted us. I thought we were going to the Louis Armstrong Airport, but I found out since I been here, we were air lifted to the Belle Chase Naval Airport. I didn't know where we were. I never knew where we were. 'Cause I kept saying, "This don't look like Louis Armstrong Airport. I don't remember it looking like this." I couldn't figure out where I was. And nobody ever told you where you were. It was so confusing! And I saw this barbed wire on the fence. And the people, they had us moving from this line to that line. Then they'd say, "Move to the left, move to the right, move to the middle." It was crazy. It was chaotic. There were no restroom facilities. They gave us water, water only. Babies were out there, old people, it was awful out there.
I saw frightened people. I saw dying. I saw death. I saw death. I saw people drunk and scared, frightened to death. Do you hear me? Have you ever seen anybody frightened to death? Well, baby, I saw it on the faces. It was wrenching. Do you hear me? Oh, oh, and people knew they were dying. They knew it, and they wanted to get inside, to breathe, because it was so many people out there. It had to be more than a thousand, I know, or more. It was people, people, people. People were falling out and all kinds of stuff. But it was horrible. And, like, they didn't have any facilities to urinate, and stuff. And people had pooped on the floor, lights were out in the bathroom. I had to pee, I couldn't hold it no more. I had held my pee for like thirteen, fourteen hours, I had to pee. And I didn't want to pee outside like an animal. So, I asked one of these people dressed in a uniform, where was the nearest bathroom? And she pointed me to this one that was dark. And I went in there, and, oh, I stepped in poop. Oh, my feet. Oh, it was awful.
So we got in the airport finally, got some coolness. We still sit in there until about six o'clock that morning. Okay? And about six they told us we could get on, board the airplane. They still didn't tell us where we were going. So, we get on the airplane, big, beautiful airplane, big-old wide seats. I said, "My god, look at this. How nice!" And so we all settled down, sit down, people are breathing, now. Air is good, there, you know, relaxed a little bit. Because we're getting out the chaos. And, so, I asked one of the stewardesses. I say, I look at one of the books in the little pocket, it says, "Alaska." Alaska? And I asked the stewardess, I said, "Miss, are y'all taking us to Alaska?" And she says, "Why?" I said, "Because we don't have Alaska clothes!" She says, "Try 72-below zero." I said, "Oh, my god." And so, I, I didn't ask her anything else. I simply got quiet, and I prayed. And I said, "God, you have seen us thus far, and I know you will continue to take care of us. And I'm trusting you. Wherever you're taking us, I know it's going to be alright." And I went to sleep.
When I woke up, we were on the ground. I looked out the window, I saw four trees. And I said, "God, this is not Alaska." And I heard somebody say, "We're in Austin, Texas." And I just started laughing! I said, "Austin, Texas. We're in Texas?" I said, "God brought us to Texas? Why are we in Bush country?" And somebody said, "Oh, no, this is not Bush's country. Austin didn't carry Bush." I said, "Okay."
And we put our feet on the ground, and all these angels were there greeting us, and had water and snacks and love! Oh, love, and love, and love, and compassion, and oh, it was just wonderful! It was like angels were there to greet us and welcome us. "Welcome to Austin!" They were happy that we were here. They were treating us like human beings, treating us like human beings. You know, like, like we matter. Not like the people in New Orleans treated us, like we didn't matter, like nobody cared about us.
I want people to know that it's incumbent upon the leaders who have been put in place to communicate with the people so that people can make intelligent decisions about what they need to do for their families. It's wrong not to inform the people and keep them updated. That's your duty. Because, we put you there for a reason, and you should live up to it. If you can't, get out. Give it up, if you can't do it, move on out the way, and let somebody who will be committed to the people do it. That includes Bush, Ray Nagin, and whoever else. That's what I want them to know. And I want Mr. Bush to know I'm disappointed in him, 'cause I really did love him and respect him. But I did see this big old plane fly over my house, I don't know who it was. It was read, white, and blue, and it shone a spotlight on my house. I don't know who it was, but I appreciate it, because that somebody let me know they knew I was there. I don't know who it was, but I thank whoever that was.
I might find my new husband. That's what I hope to find. I want to do some graduate study. I want to do some volunteer work. I want to do a lot of things. Because I'm free. I don't have any baggage. I'm free to be me, and Austin embraces difference! I love it! I love it! I can sit in the rain, and nobody will call the police on me. You know, nobody will call the police on me and tell them I got bipolar. You know? That's what I love about Austin. The green-hair lady, I love her. Nobody bothers her because her hair is green. You know? That's what I love. I love the slogan about, Keep it weird? I'm weird.
I've heard about Leslie [the homeless drag queen mascot of Austin.] I'm waiting to meet Leslie. I love homeless people. I've been homeless. I'm homeless now. You know, I love being homeless. I've met beautiful people in here. People are beautiful. People have solutions to their problems, leave them alone. Let them make their own decisions. Just inform them.