Courage Under Fire Nothing New for Man of the Year

By Woody Jenkins, Central City News.

CENTRAL — Courage under fire is nothing new for Central Mayor Pro-Tem Ralph Washington.

Over the past five years, the popular City Councilman has often stood alone during City Council debates.  His questioning of the city’s privatization contract with CH2MHILL has earned him the undying opposition of some in city government.

His business, Red Stick Cleaners, has been subject to an on-going boycott by some high-placed elected officials in Central.

Yet, through it all, Washington has maintained his calm, gentlemanly manner while consistently speaking out for the things he believes in, especially transparency in government.  “I am opposed to secrecy in city government.  If people know what’s going on, they will make good decisions,” he said.

Despite the controversies, Ralph Washington remains one of the most popular leaders in Central.  In 2006, Washington was the top vote-getter among the 12 candidates for five seats on the Central City Council.  Not bad, considering that only about six percent of Central’s voters are black.  The City Council voted to make Washington the Mayor Pro-Tem.

In the municipal elections this spring, two incumbent Councilmen were defeated.  But Washington ran 2nd in the field of nine candidates, earning about 60 percent of the votes cast.

Washington’s life has taken some surprising twists.

He was born at Charity Hospital in New Orleans in 1954, one of 10 brothers and sisters.  His father was a farmer and construction worker in the small unincorporated community of Darrow in Ascension Parish.  His mother cleaned houses.  Neither made it past the 8th grade.

Darrow was more than 90 percent black, but Washington’s next door neighbors were white, and Ralph’s dad farmed with Chester LeSage, a white farmer.

As a teenager, Ralph worked at Percy Waguespack’s grocery store, sweeping the floors and stacking groceries.

It was during the time of segregation, and he attended all-black schools.  He was happy when Ascension built a brand-new school for the blacks, John F. Kennedy High School.  But in the fall of 1969, he found himself pushed into a controversy that was not of his making.  The federal court ordered integration of the schools in Ascension.

Young 15-year-old Ralph Washington was on a school bus filled with other black kids, headed for all-white East Ascension High School.  There had been death threats and cross-burnings in Darrow.

Not knowing what to expect, Ralph’s dad and other black fathers rode in a car in front of the bus with their shotguns.  When the bus entered the campus of East Ascension, the fathers had to wait on the street.  The bus pulled up to the school entrance where an angry mob of white students was cursing and shouting the N-word.  They pounded on the bus.

“We didn’t want to get out of the bus.  I sure didn’t,” Washington said.  “Finally, a few of the black students got out, but they were pushed and shoved by the white students.  They got back in the bus.  Then the bell rang, and the white students went to class.  Everything was quiet.  So we got out of the bus and went to class too!”

On that first day, his shop teacher announced to the class, “None of you black students will make more than a ‘C’ in this class!”

After a few problems the first week, things were calm, Washington said.  For three years, the blacks and whites kept to themselves.

“I didn’t make a single white friend the entire time, but I had plenty of friends and I wasn’t miserable or anything like that,” he said.

Nevertheless, he was able to distinguish himself.  He was chosen to represent East Ascension High at Pelican Boys State, where he met Jay Dardenne, who was recently elected Lt. Governor.

Ralph was also a member of Key Club and FFA.  He was nominated for Most Successful, Most Intelligent, and Most Likely to Succeed.

To make money, Ralph worked summers picking up trash.  He picked blackberries, and in the fall he picked pecans.

He earned a scholarship to Southern University, which was still all-black.  There he worked in the Athletic Department and washed dishes in the cafeteria.  At Southern, it was a time of demonstrations and protests, and Washington took part in them.  “For the first time, I had a sense of who I really was — not someone weak, not someone who couldn’t do anything, but someone who was strong,” he said.

Washington earned a B.S. from Southern in 1975.  He put in applications at industries along the river.

When Ralph was a boy at all-black schools, the teachers would ask the kids what they wanted to be when they grew up.  “I remember one boy said, ‘I want to work at the bus station.’  But our teacher said, ‘No, you want to drive the bus!’  That impressed me!”

“As a boy in Ascension Parish, I would often see the big industries along the river.  But I didn’t dream of simply working at one of those plants.  I wanted to run the whole place!”  Ironically, Ralph Washington was on the track to allow him to do just that!

He took the test for a job at Liquid Carbonic.  He did well and a relative spoke up for him in the plant.  He was hired as a Utility Operator.  Within two years, he was a Shift Foreman.  Some people said he was too young.  Others complained because he was hired above others with more seniority.

“I looked at my check for $750.  and said, ‘Man, this is amazing!’” Soon he got a $100 raise.  Then $200.

Ralph met his future wire, Carolyn Franklin, a native of South Baton Rouge and a graduate of McKinley.  They were married and began raising a family.  “We lived in a little trailer in Darrow,” he said.  “It was three bedrooms, two baths, very nice, and only $200 a month.”

The trailer was located on his grandmother’s land — 17 acres in Darrow.  The land has been in his family’s name since the 1800’s.  And that land led Ralph Washington to information that changed his perspective.

“My mother never told me this, but I found out on my own that my great-grandfather was white.  He was an Irishman who came to live in Darrow.  What was unusual was that my great-grandfather, who was white, and my great-grandmother, who was black, were married.  That was almost unheard of in the 1800’s, but I found their marriage certificate in the Ascension Parish courthouse!”

The Irish great-grandfather came into some ill-gotten money, which caused a split in the marriage.  He departed but left behind the house, the land, and a few dollars.

Ralph’s wife Carolyn earned her degree at Southern and taught special education at Buchanan Elementary, Southdowns Developmental Center, and Westdale Special Ed.  The family moved to South Baton Rouge.  Daughter Marquesa (now 26) and son Ralphael (now 24) were born.

At Liquid Carbonic, Ralph was promoted several times and rose to assistant plant manager, which meant he ran the plant whenever the plant manager was off-duty.

Then, after years in supervision, Ralph faced a major challenge.  The company was sold three different times, and the last owner decided to bring in his own people.  Ralph had a big decision to make.

“I told Carolyn I wanted to be in business for myself.  I’d cut lawns if I had to.  We ended up buying Red Stick Cleaners,” he said.

In 1996, the Washingtons wanted to move to the country.  Ralph told his brother-in-law, “We’re moving to Central!”  The brother-in-law said, “Central?  Are you sure?”

The Washingtons love their home in Comite Hills.  “It backs up to the woods.  It is peaceful!” Ralph said.

Ralph and Carolyn were active at their children’s schools, serving as PTA and PTO presidents and helping lead Boy Scout and Girl Scout troops.

When the movement began to incorporate Central as a city, Ralph was encouraged to participate by people like Russell Starns, Louis DeJohn, and Gil Matherne.

“I saw it as a way to give back to this community,” he said.

When Gov. Kathleen Blanco appointed the first mayor and City Council in 2005, Ralph Washington was appointed to the Council.  The voters elected him in 2006 and re-elected him in 2010.

The last five years have been spent helping to create a new city and have been one hectic blur of meetings and public events.

Ironically, most people in Central don’t see Ralph Washington in racial terms but simply as a dedicated public servant.

Local realtor Jr. Shelton summed up the feelings of many when he said, “Ralph Washington is the ultimate public servant.  He puts the citizens first and is a shining example of what public officials should be like.  He’s not just a fine Councilman — he’s a fine gentleman as well.  Truly one of the great individuals I have ever met.”

City Councilman Tony Lobue, the only Councilman candidate to poll higher than Ralph Washington in the last election, said, “Ralph Washington is a man of great character.  His character exceeds anything I’ve seen.  He doesn’t waiver.  He’s a hard worker.  He gets up at 4 a.m. to go to work at his store and then will work right through to a Council meeting late at night.  He always does what he thinks is right for the people of Central.  He’s a great father and a great husband.  He is very knowledgeable because of his years in industry.  And he never forgets who he is or where he came from.  He was the little boy on the bus who had to confront the reality of segregation.  But he’s also the family man, the businessman, and now a role model for our community.  He’s a splendid choice for this award!”

Washington said he’s surprised by how well he’s been received in Central.  “When people stop you in Wal-Mart and thank you for what you’re doing, it means a lot.  They’re judging you not for your color but for what you stand for.”

Only once since he’s been elected has Ralph Washington been known to use his race.

In April 2006, the House Committee on Education was considering whether to approve a constitutional amendment to create the new Central Community School System.  A parade of opponents, including black leaders, condemned the proposal as an attempt to create an “all-white” school system.

The bill seemed to be in jeopardy and about to fail.  Then Ralph Washington rose to speak.  With calm eloquence, he told the committee that he was the Mayor Pro-Tem of Central.  He spoke about his childhood and the racism he faced growing up.  He said he had lived in Central for 10 years and that he’d never had a problem here based on race.  He said that this proposal wasn’t about race, but about what was best for the children of the Central community.

The day was saved.  The committee approved the bill, and the rest is history.

[Note: Red Stick Cleaners is located at 10211 Greenwell Springs Rd.]

Copyright 2010 by Central City News


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