Paulette Dunams Robertson, Class of '69
My first job was with the Small Business Administration, also known as SBA.
I was originally hired by the SBA to work in New Orleans, on Camp and Common Street. But, in the aftermath of Hurricane Camille in 1969, the SBA sent me and two other black women representatives to work in the tiny town of Happy Jack, near Port Sulphur, Louisiana, very close to the mouth of the Mississippi. Camille was a monster Category 5 hurricane that did heavy damage to the Louisiana and Mississippi Gulf Coasts, even though it spared New Orleans for the most part. Our task was to process loans for small businesses that had been impacted by Camille and were in dire need of assistance. It wasn’t until 1979 that FEMA was founded for this same purpose; so, our agency was the government organizations that could help small businesses get back on their feet after a natural disaster like Camille.
Happy Jack, Louisiana is in Plaquemines Parish, Judge Leander Perez Country. As many Louisianians know, Perez was one of the most powerful political figures in Louisiana during the 40’s, 50’s and 60’s, and a leader in the fight to maintain segregation. He was also proud – and bragged publicly – about now successful he was in disenfranchising black voters in his and nearby parishes. After he died, it was discovered that he stole as much as $70 million in oil revenues through a complex network of businesses that he controlled. One thing I remember about Happy Jack is that all of the cows we saw were white. Really!
Until the early 1960’s there were still very few registered black voters in Judge Perez Country. Even by 1969, the year Hurricane Camille struck Louisiana, the pro-segregation forces and discriminatory attitudes were very bad in both Plaquemines and St. Bernard Parishes where Perez’ sons were still in office. As black women we were apprehensive about going there and so were our bosses. The situation was so bad for us, that while we were working in Happy Jack, we had to be escorted to work by U.S. Marshals for our safety, even though we were working on something for the benefit of the local businesses in need. Our office was located in a church with no cafeteria in the building. We either had to go to the local restaurant or bring our lunch.
If we wanted anything from the local restaurant, Frost Top, the only service we could get was at the back door. So, one day, the Marshals told us we were going to the local restaurant to eat lunch. We told them we didn't want to go, but they insisted. We agreed to go and sure enough, they would not serve us. That is, they wouldn’t serve us until the Marshals told the manager to take our orders. I don’t recall what, if any, threats or ‘persuasive arguments’ the Marshals used to ‘encourage’ the manager to comply with his order…and our hamburger order! What I thought was most funny was that everyone in the kitchen was black.
While at the SBA, I worked in the legal office. I didn't have to take shorthand but my typing skills were much appreciated. I worked there for six months and transferred to the U. S. Coast Guard. I worked at the Coast Guard for 18 years. I went from a GS-3 to a GS-11 at the Coast Guard. I left the Coast Guard and went to work for a division of the Defense Department, located at the Michoud space facility, near New Orleans. I worked there for 13 years. I retired as a GS-12 in 2003 with 33 years of service.
Despite my experience, I still remember liking Frost Top hamburgers and their malts!