Tom Lawson

Thomas Lawson passed away on April 2, 2017.

“I grew up a racist.  I grew up in racist culture.  [But] when I went to Vietnam, I got to see a different culture … how they lived and how little they had, and I was in the service with Black guys.  Some of them slept in a bunk right next to me, and that did not bother me.  I accepted them as my fellow service men … and friends… Slowly, over the years, I’ve lost my racism.”

Thomas Booker Lawson III was born in 1943 in Houma, LA.  Back then, Houma was a small town of the sleepy variety.  In the 1960’s, oil interests took hold in the town, and now Houma is well known around Louisiana as a bustling city.

As a baby, Tom had pneumonia and whooping cough.  These are health problems that were common at the time, and nearly killed Tom at that age.  Today, our medicine and vaccination capabilities have all but wiped out whooping cough, and turned pneumonia into an illness that is, for the most part, dangerous only to the very young or very old.

At age four, Tom’s parents separated, unusual for the time.  He lived for a time with his mother in Houma, and attended several schools as the area didn’t have enough children to support all the grades.  At age 15, his dad, who lived near New Orleans, persuaded Tom to move to a private military school in New Orleans.  Though it broke his mother’s heart for him to leave, Tom knew that if he stayed in Houma he knew he wouldn’t amount to much.  Having grown up during the Korean war, and helping to collect toiletries like soap and toothbrushes to send to the soldiers, it became his goal to attend this military school and enlist in the Air Force as a pilot.

He was in the Air Force ROTC at University of Southwestern Louisiana (now the University of Louisiana at Lafayette) for two years before choosing to transfer to Louisiana State University to be near a girl.  He continued in their ROTC program and graduated from LSU with a degree in agricultural and biological engineering in 1967.  It was then that fate took hold – Tom couldn’t receive a commission to be an Air Force pilot due to bad sinuses.  He says it ruined his life.

Near to graduation time, he discovered he was number one on the draft board for the Vietnam War.  Rather than be drafted, he enlisted in the Navy Reserves.  He served 18 months on active duty in Vietnam.  He married shortly after returning, and moved to the University of Maryland to attend a program in aquaculture engineering.  He returned to Louisiana after to take what had become his ‘dream job’ at LSU.  His first marriage was on the rocks by then, and they divorced.

Tom met Charlotte in the 1980’s.  They chose to move to Florida, right before Hurricane Ivan made history.  They built what was then their dream house, and lived in it 5 months before the hurricane.  20 feet of water inundated their new home, which ruined it for them, so they chose to move to Hammond, LA, after refurbishing.  Tom speaks with great love for Charlotte and her family, and the support they provide him.  He has Leukemia and Lymphoma, but is on a new trial drug that leaves him feeling next to normal.  He marvels at the technology medicine uses to develop new drugs, and how lucky he is to live in such a time.  But he’s also reserved with regards to personal computers.  In his words:

“My daddy was a racist of the worst kind…  I did not understand that kind of thinking.”

How can I convey what it was like to listen to a hundred years of family secrets?  Floored is the word, I believe.  When I was referred to Charlotte, I was told she grew up in the country of Louisiana.  To me, that means people who live with the land.  What I did not expect, was someone who had seen such an evolution, not just in society, but within her own family.

Charlotte Ann Robinson Lawson was born January 8, 1946 in Lizard Creek, Louisiana.  She was delivered by her uncle at home – “whoever happened to be home did the job”.  Lizard Creek wasn’t an incorporated town, but a community of farms and families that lived near and supported each other.

Charlotte spoke very candidly with me.  She said that when she heard I was coming, she began to consider the past and things that had been forgotten.

When she was a girl, people didn’t eat with “colored people”.  In fact, there was a moment of confusion when she tried to remember just how it was that the “colored people” sat in the balcony of the movie theater – she never saw them enter, nor saw a separate stair.  Segregation didn’t happen in her town until she was out of school.

Charlotte didn’t fully understand why the people were separated.  She admitted that her dad was positively racist, and mean about it.  In her own words:

It was custom in those days to witness things that one might have known were wrong.  They were brought up to not question things that they were told, and to never ask again once an explanation was given.  Charlotte learned the truth of things in their adult life – some I won’t disclose in keeping hers and her family’s confidence.

What she disclosed that I do feel can be mentioned was instances of adultery, rape, bribery, domestic abuse, and the family ‘black sheep’, Charlotte’s Aunt.  She was regularly in prison, to which point her sister illegally adopted her daughter, and kept her the next time she was out.  This Aunt once made herself a nurse, and waltzed right into the hospital to get information about their cousin when he was ill and information wouldn’t be released.  This Aunt also had two marriages, but they’re sure she had many more illicit relationships outside of those.

With respects to technology, Charlotte is rather pessimistic.  In spite of the advances in knowledge and personal reach, she truly feels today’s tech is separating families from the care they used to provide each other.  In her words:

Charlotte highlighted that their family was greatly intermarried with another family – to which point many cousins were two-time first cousins.  The family was enormous, and took care of each other.  They shared food, responsibility, and care-taking.  This became a recurring theme in the interview, as Charlotte had thought hard over the previous days about the way the family used to band together and support each other.  It was this topic that ended the interview in tears.