by Orissa Arend

Medley2In his engaging new book Black Life in Old New Orleans Keith Weldon Medley creates a context for the cultural understanding of our city. How do we celebrate, interact and treat each other? And, given our history, why? What does a specific neighborhood or plot of ground mean, signify, or hold in secret?

Most histories hit the high points, the flash points or the very low points of a saga. Medley takes a different approach. His meticulous research reveals details of ordinary lives through occupations, street addresses and songs. He picks up fragments of daily living and dying from newspaper articles, directories, letters, public documents, and tombstones, then arranges them for us along a timeline from 1790-1960. The reader can discern patterns and catch a glimpse of something that has disappeared and yet provides clues to the meaning of what grew up to replace it.

Medley tells us, “The purpose of (the book) is to explore different eras of Black New Orleans by focusing on specific institutions, social movements, and individuals. Each chapter is self-contained. When read cover to cover, the book provides a timeline of Black New Orleans.”

He allows his characters to speak for themselves: “My name is Marie Justine Cirnaire. I was born in Guinea. When I was perhaps seven years of age I was carried to St. Domingue. I am as a result not aware of the name of my father or my mother, nor do I know my age. I was married to Bernard Couvent, free Negro, whose widow I now am. We have had no children.” (From the 1837 last will and testament of Marie C. Couvent.)

Parentless, childless, uneducated, and ripped from everything she knew as a child before she was old enough to remember her family name, Couvent became a patron for orphans and literacy. She brought the gift of learning to thousands of eager students in a school on the corner of Touro and Dauphine Streets. Many of her students had been orphaned by the yellow fever outbreaks which began in 1793 and lasted into the 1900’s. At the Catholic Indigent Orphan Institute “full-orphans” received free tuition; “half-orphans,” children with one surviving parent, paid 25 cents, and children with both parents 50 cents. The school provided paper, pencils and books.

Faculty included scholars and literary greats of African descent. Paul Trevigne, who taught at the school for 40 years, edited L’Union newspaper after the Civil War. Until 1900, the school issued individual progress reports rather than grades.

In 1866 Harper’s New Monthly Magazine found the method of instruction at the school admirable. It reported that “pupils have mastered the principles of arithmetic, and progressed as far as the square and cubed root.”

In fact, students were reading aloud in both French and English with great fluency.  (It begs the question: How have we devolved? How many of us can explain a cubed root or speak French? What an amazing accomplishment by those diligent indigent children of color and the former slave who founded their school!)

The school’s president, board of directors, and legal adviser were all key actors in the civil disobedience that resulted in the 1896 Supreme Court case of Plessy v. Ferguson, the doomed legal challenge to racial segregation.

On the same land, the school has changed names over the years: Catholic Indigent Orphan  Institute, The Couvent School, St. Louis School of Holy Redeemer Parish, Holy Redeemer School, Bishop Perry Middle School, and now St. Gerard Majella Alternative School.    

Another of Medley’s windows into Black New Orleans was Allen T. Woods, born circa 1884, a visionary who in 1912 published a “Colored Business, Professional and Trade Directory of New Orleans, La.” In this chapter Medley documents some amazing accomplishments of the Black New Orleanians such as the Pythian Temple at what is now 234 Loyola Avenue.  It was built at a cost of over $200,000 and operated by people of African descent. A 1909 Times-Picayune headline read, “New Orleans Negroes Lead Their Race in Enterprise.” The six-story building housed a bank, a theater, a stock company, a college, and a roof garden for orchestral concerts.

The Woods Directory also shows how Black leaders dealt with problems of inequity, for instance, by focusing on private education because no public high school existed for Blacks in New Orleans during the time of the directory. McDonogh #35 opened in 1917 and was the only Black public high school in New Orleans until 1942. This is one of Medley’s many examples of Black New Orleanians making the best of a deplorable situation. Lucian Victor Alexis, a strikingly good-looking young man, a Harvard cum laude graduate, and a commissioned officer in World War I, became its principal in 1926. At age 31, he set a dynamic tone and induced a surge in student activities.

One of his students, Annabel Nash Egana recalled in 1994, “Students were well disciplined and friendly, the teachers were good, and everybody was interested in school and learning. We learned how to be citizens.”

Meanwhile, a block down the street from McDonogh #35 the Louisiana Weekly came into existence in 1925. It covered the Negro Literary Renaissance and served as an educational watchdog for the Black community.

In civil rights as well as education, Medley makes New Orleans trailblazers come alive. The chapter on Ernest Joseph Wright explains how his People’s Defense League in 1941 designed objectives and strategies that would carry the New Orleans civil rights movement through the 1950s and 60s. Wright held forth at Sunday rallies at Shakespeare Park and wrote a column, “I Daresay,” for the Louisiana Weekly.

Whether it’s the legal scholars, the families that integrated the public schools, innovative musicians, young people resisting segregation across the South, or Zulu maskers, Skeletons, Baby Dolls, and Indians, Medley shines a light on all of the players with an intimacy born of acute observation and careful research. Black life in old New Orleans has never seemed so near or so dear.

Orissa Arend is author of Showdown in Desire, The Black Panthers Take a Stand in New Orleans. You can reach her at

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