Book Review: James Borders’ Marking Time, Making Space

by Anitra D. Brown

CoverStoryJames Borders’ Marking Time, Making Place: An Essential Chronology of Blacks in New Orleans is wonderful and effortless read, a valuable resource, and a significant reminder of the contributions of Black people to the city.

Starting in 1718 with the first Black people known to have lived in New Orleans—Jorge and Marie, an enslaved couple that belonged to the city’s founder and first governor Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne de Bienville, and culminating with highlights from the past three years that include the swearing in of the Louisiana’s first Black chief justice of the state supreme court in 2013, the ordination of the first African American from New Orleans to serve as auxiliary bishop to the local archdiocese in 2015, and the naming of the first Black publisher of The Times-Picayune, also in 2015—the chronology makes it abundantly clear that Blacks in New Orleans did much more than mark time during the city’s nearly 300-year existence. To be sure, they made a place for themselves and for generations of Black New Orleanians to follow.

The chronology is full of engaging historical notes, some that readers may already know and some morsels of history that might be new them.

Borders tells that the project had its “genesis” in a timeline created by poet and writer Brenda Marie Osbey in the 1970s, saying that he “added to this seminal effort, expanded the chronology into the 21st century and filled in some mini-narratives that convey…the richness of the Black presence in this distinctive city.”

Indeed, he did.

As editor of the compilation, Borders has done the heavy lifting for us—researching and assembling in one place many of the names, moments, facts, events, actions and activities that construct and define the history of the existence of Black people in what is sometimes described as the most Africanized city in the America.

More than names and dates, Marking Time provides compelling details and interesting particulars, making what would otherwise be a simple timeline an engaging history that allows readers to make connections, note the intersection of lives and follow some of the bygone figures from entry to entry.

For instance, the reader is introduced to Louis Congo in 1725 when he is hired as the official “punisher and executor. Congo is mentioned again in 1731 when he tortures Samba and seven other enslaved Bambara men, whose planned revolt was uncovered and thwarted.

Through its detailed entries, the compilation also connects us with to modern times. A single submission for 1772 focuses on free woman of color Marie-Jeanne Lemelle who, ten years after being manumitted, leaves New Orleans and settles near Opelousas with her sons. After reading about Marie-Jeanne, Opelousas native and current federal Judge Ivan Lemelle quickly comes to mind. Surely, he is a descendant, this reader surmises. And there are quite a few instances like this, where a name triggers some sort of tie or link to modern day New Orleans. The ability of the reader to make these connections brings the chronology to life.

Not one year is omitted. And the timeline does not do readers the disservice of only spotlighting historical events and facts seen as positive, but instead pays attention to the good, the bad and the ugly while also providing context that adds perspective. For example, the conviction of former Mayor Ray C. Nagin starts the list for 2014. But the entry also includes the facts that Nagin’s political support shifts from mostly White voters in his first run for mayor to majority Black voters in his re-election as well as Nagin’s vocal resistance of what some viewed as attempts by the White power structure to keep Black New Orleanians from returning to the city after Hurricane Katrina.

Among the chronology’s the entries:

1811 The largest revolt of enslaved people in North America begins on January 8, 36 miles upriver from New Orleans. For three days up to 500 enslaved people liberate themselves, burning three plantations, picking up weapons and killing two White men, causing others to flee for their lives and marching along the River Road toward New Orleans. After traveling 25 miles toward their destination, the uprising is crushed in what later became Kenner, by military force… Altogether 84 enslaved people are killed…another 20 escape and are never recaptured. Days later, 18 of the revolt’s leaders, including Charles Deslondes, are arrested, tried and beheaded.

1813 Dutreuil Barjon Sr., a free person of color who was born in (what will become Haiti) moves to New Orleans where he will become a noted furniture maker.

1825 The first school for free children of color opens in the Tremé section of the city on a block of land purchased by Marie Aliquot…

1848 The Catholic School for Indigent Orphans opens as the first school in the country to offer free education to African-American children. Madame Bernard (born Marie Justine Cinaire) Covent, a freed woman born in Africa and widow of a prosperous Black businessman, had bequeathed the land and money to build the school in her will…

1850 Nearly 80 percent of the free people of color are literate by this point and over 1,000 of their children are attending school. And despite their relatively small numbers, free people of color in New Orleans are prosperous as a group, owning real estate valued at over $2.6 million (74 million in 2015 dollars).

1876 Francois Lacroix, one of the wealthiest Black New Orleanians of his era, dies…In 1860, LaCroix’s estate was valued at $262,000 (approximately $7.5 million in 2015 dollars). Among his more notable real estate holdings is a horse racing course on Gentilly Boulevard that will become the site of the New Orleans Fair Grounds.

1900 The Robert Charles incident is detailed and is one of the most engaging stories of the chronology. It is a must read for anyone under the impression that the Mark Essex incident in 1973, which is also included in the book, was the first such in New Orleans, which is also included in the book.

Synopsis: Robert Charles a 34-year-old Black man shoots a white policeman during what appeared to be an instance of police harassment. Charles injures two other policeman and kills two before escaping. A manhunt ensues and Charles is found days later at 1208 S. Saratoga, where he again “shoots it out with police”, who ultimately set fire to the building where Charles is hold up and shoots him when he attempts to escape. Whites who gathered

1925 The Louisiana Weekly begins publishing news and opinions by and about the African-American community. It is founded by editor O.C.W. Taylor and publisher C.C. Dejoie, Sr.

1950 Voter registration campaigns have been so successful in New Orleans that the number of Black registered voters grows from 400 in 1940 to 26,000 by 1950.

After five years of focused demands, two Black men are hired by the New Orleans Police Department (NOPD). They are not issued uniforms, however, and are not permitted to arrest Whites.

1976 Terrance Durvernay is appointed chief administrative officer (CAO) of the city of New Orleans, making him the first Black in the Deep South to hold such a position of power in a major city.

1996 Len Davis, a decorated New Orleans police officer who ran a drug-protection racket, is sentenced to death on April 26 for a hit he ordered on Kim Groves, a 32-year-old African-American mother of three… who reported Davis and his partner for police brutality against one of her neighbors.

The final entry for 2015 tells that photographers, Keith Calhoun and Chandra McCormick are the first New Orleanians selected to exhibit their work at the Venice Biennale, the world’s most prestigious visual arts exhibition.

The last three words in the chronology are simply and aptly “to be continued” as the story of Blacks in New Orleans is not an idle or static one, but will develop as New Orleans approached its 300th birthday and beyond.

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