Gunshots rang out, but no one could agree where they originated. Two pops here, three pops there. Some said it came from within a mostly black crowd in A.B. Palmer Park, while others claimed Tamala Vergo, a 17-year-old white woman, fired toward the park unprompted. The only thing that’s certain is 20-year-old David McKinney was killed by a gunshot wound to the back of the head, and the bullet matched Vergo’s pistol.
McKinney was black, unarmed and by all accounts, an innocent bystander to the events that precipitated the shooting. Some tried to explain away McKinney’s death as a wrong-place-wrong-time sort of bad luck, but in Shreveport, Louisiana in 1988, it hit a nerve rubbed raw by decades of discrimination and violence against the black community.
What happened next was unprecedented, though not necessarily surprising. Vergo fled to a nearby liquor store, where the owner offered her and a friend a safe haven until police arrived. A mob gathered outside, shouting things like “police ain’t going to do anything to those white girls!” One man told a reporter the state should “fry them the way you would fry us.”
(“Gruesome Gertie,” Louisiana’s electric chair, was used for executions until 1991.)
The crowd outside the liquor store grew from several dozen people to several hundred. Rocks and bricks started to fly, aimed at store windows, police and reporters. Once Vergo was removed from the scene, the gathering escalated to a full-blown riot — the first in Shreveport’s history — that lasted well into the night.
Memory is a funny thing. The things we try to forget can influence our lives just as much, if not more, than the things we remember. This is a story about racial injustice and collective memory in what was, at least at the time, a willfully ignorant southern city. Many in Shreveport tried to forget the civil rights movement. They tried to forget Ku Klux Klan violence. Then Tamala Vergo pulled the trigger and those memories came rushing back. Now, more than 30 years later, what do we remember about that night in 1988?
Who is writing this story?
Laura Thompson, Freelance Journalist reporting from Houston, Texas
Why are you writing this story? What makes you the best person to write this piece?
I’m a first generation Texan, born to two Shreveport natives. Growing up, I spent most holidays at my grandmother’s house, less than three miles from where the riot started. My uncle owns a local business just one mile away. Yet I never heard a word about Shreveport’s history of racial unrest, nonetheless shootings and firebombs, until I was an adult.
I assumed my parents had tried to shield me from the realities of southern race relations — as suburban white folks are prone to do. Only later did I learn that they honestly had no memory of a riot in 1988 (which was, in their defense, a few years after they moved away).
As a freelance journalist, I typically write about civil and human rights. I’ve covered the Black Lives Matter movement for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, child welfare for The Texas Observer and gender issues for Rewire.News, Broadly and more. I’m especially excited about this story because I get to combine topics I cover professionally with personal interludes about my own family’s attitudes and memories.
When is the deadline for the piece? And why does the story require this much time?
This story will be published six months after it gets funded. I’ll try my hardest to get it to you sooner, but reporting stories like these never goes as smoothly as I would like. Simply gathering all the information I need to write about takes months. The writing process itself only takes up about ten percent of my time on any given project. Then there’s the editing phase, which could take a month or more, and is there to ensure that you’re getting the high-quality story you were promised.
Why does the story cost as much as it does? Where does my money go?
The rate for this story breaks down to approximately 67 cents per word. It’s difficult to paint the freelance journalism industry in broad strokes, but between 50 cents and $2.00 per word is pretty standard for longform magazine features.
Stories like this one require more time and energy than your average blog post. For example, most of the documents necessary for researching this piece haven’t been digitized, so I’ll be periodically making the 8-hour round trip drive to Shreveport to gather hard copies. It also takes time to track down witnesses from events 30+ years ago and build a rapport in interviews. All this to say, I want to be able to deliver details and nuance in this sensitive story, and that requires resources.
I won’t wax poetic about the ways that freelance rates affect the quality of modern journalism, but if you’d like to learn more this essay is a great place to start.
What happens after the money is raised? When do I get to hear from you again?
Once we’ve met our fundraising goal, I get to start the reporting process in earnest. I’ll be sending you short email dispatches monthly until the story is published so you get a feel for what’s happening behind the scenes. It’ll be a long process, but I’m excited that you’re along for the ride.
This is our most basic ask to create great journalism. Contributing at this level will give you exclusive access to the story once it is finished as well as monthly dispatches from your journalist about the reporting process.