Honoring Black History Month: “No testimony without the test”

Reggie McLeroy holds his print “Hands that Heal” from 2009

By Kyle Roberts

Ruston artist Reggie McLeroy is soft-spoken in person, an artist who truly lets his work speak on his behalf.

And anyone around the Ruston-area is likely familiar with his signature pencil-style strokes on illustration board, his eye for athletics and outdoor photography– passions that he began cultivating in the second grade right here at home.

“We would have art contests in my class, and I would win with my drawings,” Reggie said. “It made me feel good; I knew I had something special. My older brother and sister could both draw; I used to sit down right beside my sister and try to draw whatever it was that she was drawing at that particular time.

“I just fell in love with it. As I got older, I started to focus more on the details within my artwork.”

During the week, Reggie is an art teacher in the parish, making a drive multiple times a week between Exits 93 and 77 between Choudrant and Simsboro to teach other young minds the importance of art and the hope to elevate and cultivate his talented art students.

Reggie is more than willing to share his talent for the world to see. What many don’t get to see, however, is the long journey that he took to get to where he is today and the lessons that he learned along the way.

Reggie has lived in Ruston nearly his entire life, except for a stint as a college basketball player at Union College in Kentucky. As a young black child, Reggie was a student at Lincoln Elementary in the early ‘70s when Ruston finally fully integrated schools and he was moved to Hillcrest as a fourth grader.

“I was excited that I was going to be able to go to a different school because at the time we used to get hand-me-down books from the white schools (at Lincoln Elementary),” Reggie said.

“And they’d sometimes have some racial slurs written inside or some pages would be missing. I remember showing one to my mother one day, and she said ‘Well, baby, you can’t worry about that.’

“So when I was going to Hillcrest, I was excited for my first day. And in the mind of a fourth grader, you’re expecting to have people greeting you and welcoming you, but that was not the case. There were people who held their kids out of school that day. And people that were there, were talking about us when we got off the bus. It was a trying time for a little fourth grader.”

Reggie would continue to attend Ruston’s public schools as he grew up. As a basketball player for the Ruston High Bearcats, Reggie would earn a walk-on spot at Louisiana Tech with the promise that he would be on scholarship. When that fell through, Reggie thought he would try to teach his coaches a lesson by skipping class and purposefully failing classes.

“I became bitter about it,” Reggie said. “I did some foolish things, thinking I would pay them back. And I ended up hurting myself the most of all.”

Reggie’s college basketball career would continue when an opportunity from Bill Peterson, who was a grad assistant at the time that Reggie was on Tech’s roster, called from Union College in Kentucky to see if he would be a fit for their team (Peterson is currently on the coaching staff for the Baylor University men’s basketball team). It was Reggie’s first flight, and as the Delta airplane landed, he immediately had to rush to the court for the try out. And while all of the basketball skills were evident, his academic past at Louisiana Tech threatened to keep him off the court.

Fortunately, a successful round of summer school allowed Reggie to receive his scholarship and become a starting point guard as the season continued. The only downside at Union College? There was no art program, but that didn’t stop Reggie’s coach from helping harness his talent.

“My coach helped me find a young lady who helped me out with what I could do,” Reggie said. “And when I would come home, I would come by and visit Louisiana Tech and visit the art program. It was there that I would see Albino Hinojosa, and he would critique my work. I really envied how he did his work, and I wanted to take what he was doing and make it more like what I wanted my work to look like. I was able to create my own style with it.”

After Union College, Reggie would come back to Ruston and became an assistant basketball coach at the high school, where he started to draw his single-panel inspirational cartoon character, Lil’ Daddy. A few years later, he poured himself more into his drawing and wildlife prints, setting up exhibits in Louisiana, Mississippi, Oklahoma, Tennessee and Alabama. One incident that has stood out happened in Birmingham, Alabama, in the mid-’90s when he met an Outdoor TV show host who wanted to show off Reggie’s art to a crew member on his show.

“He brought this gentleman over to my booth and he said, ‘Yeah it’s good, but let me get this straight: y’all have taken baseball from us, y’all have taken basketball away from us, and now y’all are taking golf away from us. So now you all want to take wildlife art from us, too?”

While the man was jeered away from the booth by bystanders for his racist talk, the damage had been done.

Experiences like these have pushed Reggie to try to be the best artist he can be, while also helping him focus on the One who guides him.

“My life is designed and lined up by God,” Reggie said. “From that little kid up until now, He puts me on the path He wants me to go on. And no matter if I try to get off of that path, He draws me back to it.”

As an adult, Reggie has been back home and involved with students on the court, the sideline, and in the classroom. While he shares his talent and penchant for art, he also has the opportunity to model for youths that life will have struggles that must be overcome in order to be better people.

And that Black History Month is worth honoring, because understanding history helps shape the future.

“When I tell people my story, they can’t believe it’s real because it wasn’t very far off,” Reggie said. “There is a lot of history that has been lost and demolished through the years. I still keep it inside me and what we as kids had to go through.

“There is no testimony without the test. And I know that my life has been a test, but it’s been led by God.”

It’s fitting that Reggie now has the chance to teach students art in the same parish that he attended a school where he did not feel wanted as that little fourth grade boy.

And his experience as a teacher in Lincoln Parish has been a great one.

“I’ll admit I was hesitant at first, because I remember what it felt like as a kid,” Reggie said. “The kids who I teach now accept me for who I am. And they’ve inspired me even more to get back into my art. I’ve really loved getting to watch the kids grow as young artists in the two years that I’ve been teaching them.”

And while Reggie is happy to be known as a photographer, artist, and teacher, he makes it clear where his real identity is found: in his relationship with Jesus Christ.

“I’m a spiritual person; I believe in Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior,” Reggie said. “I believe that he died for me and everybody else. So there’s nothing that anyone can do to stop me from speaking about Jesus and the opportunity that He has given me. That’s always number one; I truly know where my talent comes from, and I acknowledge Him every time I get the opportunity.”