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Editor’s Note: This article is a narrative reconstruction based on court documents, news reports from the time, government documents, and recent interviews with eyewitnesses and other Shreveport locals.
All direct quotes come from these sources.
This article also contains expandable liner notes with additional context for this story. To view the notes, simply click on the arrows to expand.
This all started around 9:30 pm on a balmy late summer night, when two white girls drove to the Sack & Pack grocery store. Cynthia Johnson, the blonde, was in the driver’s seat and Tamala Vergo, her brunette counterpart, was riding shotgun. Vergo was only 17 years old.
Johnson parked in one of the outermost spots and left the engine running.
“Got any rock?” she said.
A few men approached — all young, all Black. They’d been hanging outside of the Sack & Pack, which backed up to A.B. Palmer Park, for hours already. Emboldened by a few too many swigs of whiskey, one of them leaned down, scooped up a few pieces of gravel, and handed them to Johnson.
Meanwhile, on the passenger’s side, a teenage boy gave Vergo a small cellophane bag. She inspected it, then passed it to Johnson. Johnson shook her head and handed it back.
A neighborhood dealer named Hot Rod came along. “You girls better get your asses out of here,” he told them.
This was Shreveport, Louisiana in 1988. Johnson and Vergo had driven to a low-income, predominantly Black neighborhood called Cedar Grove, where it was notoriously easy to score drugs. Between layoffs at the AT&T plant and the oil bust — two of the main industries in town — unemployment was high, and Black men were especially hard hit. A.B. Palmer Park got progressively more crowded with guys killing time.
The park is along a busy street, Line Avenue, but otherwise surrounded by small single-family homes where people sit on their porches when the weather is nice. There’s a baseball diamond and basketball courts often crowded with pickup games.
After games, guys could walk directly from the courts to the Sack & Pack for something cold to drink. The store was something of a neighborhood institution. Somewhere between a 7-11 and a big-box grocery store, the Sack & Pack had a full butcher shop and an assortment of other food and household items. It offered check cashing and interest-free credit accounts for the folks who couldn’t afford groceries until payday. It was even one of the few shops in town that still delivered groceries, in a little makeshift delivery truck.
All this to say, it was a normal Tuesday night for A.B Palmer Park and the Sack & Pack — except for the two white girls who pulled in.
Without warning, Johnson threw the car in reverse. As they drifted back, the alternator light flashed on the dashboard; the car, a 1975 Ford Grenada, stalled. The teenage boy standing on the passenger’s side reached in the window to snatch the bag back from Vergo. Later, she would accuse him of stealing her necklace.
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