Published: June 12, 2020
By: Alyssa Berry and Matthew Clark, LSU Manship School News Service
BOGALUSA, La. — Fiery red dust filled the air as Henry Austan, a 21-year-old insurance bill collector for an African-American agency, sped down a Washington Parish dirt road during the early spring of 1965.
After he finished his rounds and the sun began to set, he headed east outside Franklinton, the parish seat, en route to Bogalusa. Glancing at the rear-view mirror, Austan realized a group of white men was tailing him.
His car had been shot at before, leaving holes in the driver’s door.
“A couple of times they almost caught me, and I stopped thinking of it as a joke,” Austan said. “These people seriously wanted to kill me.”
Following his usual route, he crossed a wooden bridge, turned down a dirt road and pulled into a pasture behind a line of trees. There, he positioned himself out of sight under the bridge.
After turning off his headlights, he took out a sawed-off double-barrel shotgun, shells loaded with glass and cardboard, and waited for his pursuers to reach him. When their lights approached, Austan opened fire, surprising the driver. The vehicle swerved, missed the bridge and ran into the water, clearing an escape path for Austan.
The next day, Austan went to see Charles Sims, the local head of the Deacons for Defense and Justice, an armed black self-defense group in Louisiana.
“I told him, ‘I can’t collect insurance no more. They’re out to kill me,’” Austan, now 76, recalled in a recent interview. “’I’m going to join the Deacons.’”
Austan became one of the youngest members of the group. In the months ahead, he would do something no other Deacon ever did — shoot a white man in self-defense and survive.
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