1987 Tribune Article Highlights Accomplishments
and Contributions of Black New Orleanians
To introduce the series, we have selected an article originally printed in 1987 during Black History month. The article reflects on history makers in the city and state until that time. Here, 31 years later, we can think of no better way to mark the city’s 300th birthday than to revisit the achievements, accomplishments, contributions and sometimes stark realities of what it has meant and means to be Black in New Orleans.
The New Orleans Tribune proudly revisits and reflects on the indelible role of Black people on the development of the city dating back to its founding in 1718 by republishing the article “Louisiana’s Black History Makers: 275 Years of Achievements, Accomplishments, and Contributions”.
by C.C. Campbell with updates by Tribune Staff
The history of prominent Blacks from Louisiana is both fascinating and unique. Some had their beginnings in the slave trade, while others came to this southern locale as free people.
Yet, in the true spirit of brotherhood, they worked together in the face of racism and death to achieve freedom for all, as laid down in the laws of this land. Their accomplishments impacted the whole of the nation, and it is a legacy that continues today.
The following is an overview of some of those achievers and their contributions.
Colonial New Orleans (1718-1803)
One documented history of the arrival of Blacks to the French colony of Louisiana shows that the importation of Black slave labor began in 1712. Antoine Crozat, a French baker and wealthy financier who held a royal franchise on the territory, initiated the order. It was 35 years after LaSalle claimed the land for France.
Author Hebert Asbury in The French Quarter, wrote also that the John Law’s Company of the West, (later known as The Mississippi Company and the Compagnie des Indes) ordered 3,000 more slaves in 1717. Law’s group had received a royal grant to control the French province, five years after Crozat failed at making the territory a successful commercial venture.
The slaves were sold to imported colonists. Other documents suggest that “the first cargo of African slaves reached the French colony of Louisiana in 1719.”
Whichever is nearer to the truth, one thing is certain, Blacks built New Orleans. New Orleans was founded in 1718 by Jean Baptiste LeMoyne, Sieur de Bienville, Louisiana’s governor at the time. Those Blacks in the colony during the time it was founded were said to have been free. “The first Blacks came here as freemen with the colonials from France to work,” Amistad archivist and librarian Florence Borders says. “One even brought suit in 1724. He wanted to return to France.”
Some of the first documents of free persons of color note that “on August 14, 1725, Jean Raphael, a free Negro from Martinique, married Marie Gaspart from Bruges in Flanders… on November 27, 1727; Jean Mingo, free Negro, married Therese, a Negro slave belonging to M. de Cantillon with permission of plantation manager Darby.”
The free Blacks must have suspected foul play with the institution of the Code Noir, (Black Code) which was enacted that year. The Black Code, signed into law by Bienville in March 1724, accorded the free person of color the rights of any citizen of French Louisiana, except marriage with and legacies from Whites). But the question of how to control the enslaved Blacks arose from provincial records which in 1721 recorded the presence of 600 Black slaves and 400 settlers. Bienville and his cohorts recognized that a population of free Black people and a hostile Black enslaved majority could create a coup, so to them institution of the Black Code was appropriate.
“…The presence of so many slaves formed another problem… all of the Negroes had been captured by slave traders in Africa, and most of them were untamed savages from the jungles of Congo,” Asbury writes. “Stringent laws, rigidly enforced, were necessary to keep them in subjugation.”
Meanwhile, the gens de couleur libres – the free people of color – “shared neither the privileges of the master class nor the degradation of the slave. They stood between – or rather apart – sharing the cultivated tastes of the upper caste and the painful humiliation attached to the race of the enslaved,” Charles E. O’Neill, S.J. wrote in the foreword of the English translation of Rudolphe L. Desdunes’ Nos Hommes et Notre Historie, (Our People and Our History).
Desdunes, a free man of color, who published his major account of the accomplishments of free Blacks in 1911.
Ironically, in the Code Noir, Blacks were not the only ethnic group targeted. The first article of the original Black Code ordered the expulsion of all Jews from the province; the succeeding four articled prohibited any form of worship except Roman Catholicism, made religious instruction of the slaves mandatory, prohibited mingling of the races and interracial marriages, and controlled the conduct and government of slaves.
Bleak though it was, the Code did provide for the manumission (release) of slaves by masters over 25. Manumitted slaves were accorded the same rights, privileges and immunities as free Blacks.
The growing base of free persons of color was added to by those who were freed in recognition of merit and loyalty, or by their white lovers or parents.
“Under the Code, slaves could not own property, but they accumulated money and goods by working for themselves on holidays. They then traveled without their masters’ permission and met with other slaves for dancing, eating and celebrating,” Amistad research shows.
Blacks fared better under the Spain’s dominion of the Louisiana colony. In 1763, Britain defeated France and Spain in the Seven Year’s War. Britain occupied eastern Louisiana above New Orleans, and Spain received the rest of the colony.
The Code Noir was replaced by Spanish racial law from Cuba. Cuban colonial law protected some slave rights and promoted the growth of a free Black population. Slaves gained the legal right to acquire property. The right to property went hand in hand with the slave’s chance to buy freedom.
In the first 15 years of Spanish rule, Louisiana’s free Black population multiplied more than seven times to about 1,200. Some had come from Cuba and other colonies outside of Louisiana with the original forces of occupation.
“The census of 1788 showed 1,701 free Negroes in a total population of 43,111 in Louisiana and West Florida. In New Orleans their number grew from 99 out of 3,190 in 1769 to 1,355 out of 10,000 in 1803,” O’Neill wrote.
During the Spanish Era (1762-1802), the free Negro enjoyed a lively social life in New Orleans. The city’s first theatre had mulatto stars. Whites accepted the middle layer of society between themselves and the Black slaves, but suspected that the free mulatto might promote slave discontent and revolt. Revolution in Saint Domingue sent more refugees to Louisiana, white and Black, mixed, slave and free, young and old. Cuba also sent emigrants.
Despite Spanish slave codes, bad treatment of slaves continued and more ran away. These runaways were called cimarrons by the Spanish. Jean St. Malo, the most noted cimarron, raided outlying plantations until colonial troops drove him and his followers into the swamps. His group was captured by some American settlers. The Black leader led an escape that left several settlers dead. The Spanish recaptured the cimarrons and St. Malo was executed.
Antebellum Louisiana (1803-1861)
Napoleon sold Louisiana to the Americans in 1803, about one year after the territory was passed back to the France. During the following six years after the Louisiana Purchase, a mass migration of free Blacks from Haiti introduced planters, merchants and highly skilled craftsmen to the colony’s free Black population.
While free Blacks were pouring into the now American colony, their brethren, a human cargo of American slaves purchased in the Southeastern Atlantic states arrived to supplement the labor of slaves already present in the territory.
Louisiana was soon threatened with a British invasion. It was then in the military of the War of 1812 that the strength, bravery, and power of Blacks shone through.
“General Andrew Jackson believed that a Black free man of color rendered the fatal shot to an English General that ended the war,” Borders says. Joseph Savary was made an officer for his marksmanship in the killing of British commander General Packenham.
Americans and creoles, whites and free Blacks, successfully worked together to prevent a British takeover during the war. The free creoles of color were led by white creole planter Michael Fortier Jr., and fought bravely on the Chalmette battlefield. Drummer Jordan Noble was among the American free Blacks who also served. Louisiana entered the union as a state in 1812.
In 1812, Louisiana’s Battalion of Free Men of Color was unique in the United States, the “only Negro volunteer militia with its own line officers. Andrew Jackson welcomed the free Negro troops who fought heroically at the Battle of New Orleans, (1815).” The state legislature gratefully praised their patriotism and bravery.
During the next 30 years following the war, the city’s population was more than half Black. City slaves enjoyed greater freedom than rural slaves, even though they had to produce passes upon request. Free people of color represented half of the city’s population.
Some of New Orleans’ free Blacks were wealthier than any other free Blacks in the country. But others worked with slaves on the docks, becoming prominent as crewmen who packed cotton in the holds of ships.
Pierre Casanave owned real estate and a thriving undertaking business worth $100,000 as early as 1814. Casanave was the private secretary to wealthy merchant Judah Touro.
Free Black Wholesale grocer Julien Lacroix owned properties totaling one sixth of all free, Black-owned real estate in the city by 1860. Asher Moses Nathan’s part-Black son inherited his father’s property after Judah P. Benjamin sponsored special legislation to protect the inheritance.
Whites distrusted free Blacks as opponents of slavery, although some Blacks were slaveholders themselves. Free Blacks had to register in order to remain in the state and carry identification so they could not be mistaken for runaway slaves.
The wealthiest free Black family in the nation during the Antebellum Period was the Metoyers. This family of Creoles of color settled along Cane River near Natchitoches, the first city founded in Louisiana. The family’s matriarch, Marie Therese Coincoin, and her descendants accumulated massive real estate holdings. Her descendants held many slaves and built Melrose Plantation. Although some Blacks did have slaves, some of them spent their wealth for benefit of their fellow Blacks; particularly in the area of education.
Marie C. Couvent, thought to be born around 1757 in Africa, and her husband Gabriel Bernard Couvent obtained freedom, real estate and slaves. She became one of the city’s leading Black philanthropists. Rudolph Desdunes wrote of her and her 1832 will wherein she bequeathed and order that “my land at the corner of Grands Hommes (Dauphine) and Union (Touro) streets be dedicated and used… the establishment of a free school for the colored orphans of the district of Marigny.” She died June 29, 1837. The Institution Catholique des Orphelines Indigens opened in 1848. The school offered both French and English instruction.
The institution drew not only orphans, but the children of prominent free Blacks.
Thomy Lafon and Aristide Mary were also prominent philanthropists. Lafon, born free of a French father and Haitian mother, bequeathed large donations to the poor and large sums for the construction of Berchmans Home, The Home for the Aged on Tonti Street, The Lafon Orphan Boys’ Asylum on St. Peter Street and the Couvent of the Holy Family. The real estate broker also contributed sizable sums to the Black political movement.
But most of the donations went to various charities. Much of the growth of the Sisters of the Holy Family was made possible by Lafon. Before his death, he gave the land and a building in the French Quarter where St. Mary’s Academy was founded. Lafon also made donations to New Orleans University, Southern University, Straight University, and several nursing homes, hospitals and orphanages. At the time of his death in 1893, he left a bulk of his fortune—about $500,000—to charity
Other groups came to aid and educate Blacks. The American Missionary Association of the Congregational Church founded Straight University in 1869, while the Freedman’s Aid Society and the Methodist Episcopal Church founded the Union Normal School. Straight was later renamed Straight College and Union Normal became the New Orleans University.
Armand Lanusse was born a free Creole of color in 1812. In 1845, along with several others, he printed the itinerary works of Creoles of color in Les Cenelles. The book is a compilation of poems written by the community’s celebrated Black authors. Lanusse would later become active in politics and community activism.
Joanni Questy was one of the 16 poets who contributed to Les Cenelles. He was one of the most celebrated and accomplished writers in the Black community before the Civil War. He taught French, English and Spanish at the Couvent school during Antebellum New Orleans and later became its principal in 1852.
Also active in education was Henriette Delille, who along with Juliette Gaudin, founded The Sisters of the Holy Family in 1842.
Delille left a life of considerable comfort to perform educational and charitable works for all. The order now operates in the U.S., Central America and Africa. Later, The Sisters of the Holy Family kept the tradition by becoming affiliated with Catholic education. Today they can be found in numerous Catholic particularly at St. Mary’s Academy, an all girls parochial school founded by the order.
Free Blacks were accomplishing many things, but Norbert Rillieux was the most famous of Creole people of color. From the free Black population came writers, musicians, painters, sculptors and architects, but Rillieux was a scientific genius. “The invention of his vacuum pan was one of the most revolutionizing advances in the sugar refining industry,” Desdunes wrote.
In 1846, Rillieux developed the evaporating machinery that improved the method extensively. Because his invention was not readily accepted by Louisiana’s sugar producers (some say because he was Black), he returned to France in 1854. After about ten years, Europeans with sugar plantations in the West Indies began to experiment with his process and subsequently adopted it, opening the way for the revolution in the sugar industry.
Blacks, both free and enslaved, dominated the wrought ironwork trade. Remnants of the ironwork can be seen in St. Louis Cemetery, Square 3. Although the sites are generally unknown, it is true that Blacks fashioned much of the ironwork in New Orleans, including some in the French Quarter. Many were skilled in the building crafts. They developed suburbs such as the Faubourg, Marigny. Also among free Blacks, there were highly skilled cabinetmakers.
It is said that New Orleans is the birthplace of American music. During the Antebellum period, New Orleans’ free Black population produced many notable musicians and composers of American music. And as it is today, there were also families with several musicians.
The Lambert family was the most celebrated in the city from 1840 to 1879. The father, Richard Lambert taught music and his sons, Lucien and Sidney, both excellent pianists, became court musicians in Brazil and Portugal. John Lambert was a recognized cornetist. E. Lambert and two Misses Lamberts were prominent piano teachers.
Eugene MaCarthy was an excellent pianist. In 1840, the French Ambassador to the United States recommended him as a pupil in voice, harmony, and composition at the Conservatory of Paris.
Edmond Dede was a contemporary of MaCarthy. The violin prodigy went to Europe, attended the Paris Conservatory of Music, and became the conductor of the Theatre of Bordeaux’s orchestra of L’Acazar.
After 46 years in Europe, Dede returned to New Orleans amid praise and adulation. Dede had left New Orleans “after having mastered everything in his field available to a Black man in the city…he went to Europe on the advice of understanding friends,” Desdunes wrote. The musical genius was born of free parents who emigrated from the West Indies. It is speculated that Dede, an extremely dark man, left New Orleans because of insensitive treatment. After visiting his hometown, the artist returned to Bordeaux, France where he later died.
Desdunes wrote of a similar experience of another local musician. “Not long ago there lived in New Orleans an excellent musical composer. Unfortunately, the color of his skin overshadowed his genius…”
In the antebellum era, a study concludes, “free Negroes in Louisiana can be considered as possessing the status of quasi-citizenship and as such enjoyed a better position than any of their counterparts in other states of the South. Yet the free man of color continued to be denied legal suffrage, the right to run for public office and made the subject of discriminatory legislation because of his color.”
As the abolitionist movement grew, fear of the free persons of color grew also. Between 1830 and 1860, social pressure and legislative action against emancipation and the immigration of free Negroes and in favor of colonizing free Negroes out of the state increased.
Finally in 1857, legislation was passed putting an end completely to manumissions in Louisiana.
When Louisiana entered the union as a state in 1812, there were about 8,000 free persons of color. Most of them lived in New Orleans. When Louisiana seceded and joined the Confederacy in 1861, the free persons of color totaled 18,000, over half of whom lived in New Orleans.
In the Reconstruction era, Blacks came to prominence in the military and political arenas, to the point of national recognition. In 1862, New Orleans fell to the Union Navy during the early part of the war between the North and the South. Again, as in the past, Blacks fought on both sides.
Blacks fought for the Confederacy to save their lives and property. During the Civil War, three regiments of “men of color” in New Orleans were the only organized Negro soldiery on the Confederate side. And free men of color, along with newly freed slaves, composed the first colored regiment of the Federal army.
Black historian, Alice Dunbar Nelson later wrote, “Louisiana furnished more colored troops for the war than any other state,” but the majority of men were freedmen, who in the general population far outnumbered the free persons of color.
As the Union forces gathered, white and Black officers of the First Louisiana Native Guard reviewed their troops. A major campaign focused on Port Hudson. The Second Louisiana Regiment, also a Black unit, fought bravely and decisively at Port Hudson. “The conduct of Captain Andre Cailloux,” Desdunes wrote, “was adequate proof for the minds of skeptics and it silenced the enemies of the Black man,” the writer said one of courageous Blacks who fought during the Civil War.
Captain Cailloux (later major) a free man before the war, prided himself in being the blackest individual in New Orleans. He was said to be well educated, with polished manners, as well as bold, athletic and daring… he was killed at Port Hudson. Because of his bravery on the side of the union, Cailloux became a hero to union sympathizers. The Union camp became a sanctuary for runaway slaves who fought valiantly and won respect and praise.
The year 1862 appears to have been a catalyst for change in the Black community. Free persons of color came together to start a weekly Black newspaper, L’Union, under the leadership of Dr. Louis C. Roudanez, Paul Trevigne, and others to promote the interests of Blacks.
Dr. Louis Charles Roudanez (1823-1890) was born in St. James Parish; he died in New Orleans. He studied medicine in New Orleans and Europe. Deciding that L’Union lacked impact, Roudanez and others founded La Tribune de la Nouvelle-Orleans in 1864, the first daily Black newspaper in the United States. Roudanez was assisted in the effort by C.J. Dalloz, who became the editor, and Paul Trevigne Sr., associate editor.
Roudanez’s brother, Jean Baptiste Roudanez helped too. He was a key leader in the organized effort of Black New Orleanians to secure the right to vote. Jean Baptiste helped to initiate a national campaign for Black voting rights; and in 1864, he delivered a petition containing 1,000 signatures to President Abraham Lincoln calling for the right to vote. The federal Constitution was amended; and from 1865-1870, all citizens were allowed to vote.
A much celebrated journalist and proponent of Black rights was Paul Trevigne. The writer was a highly educated son of a veteran (1812-1815) and a mother whose family name was Decoudreau. He was a teacher and linguist who spoke and wrote in several languages. Trevigne was chosen as the editor-in-chief of L’Union and later advanced to editor of La Tribune. He also edited Le Crusader, the successor to La Tribune founded by Dr. Louis A. Martinet, a medical doctor and lawyer.
Although L’Union has been described as “a militant Republican journal that appeared tri-weekly in French and was printed in less frequently in English, the newspaper represented the first attempt to mold the energies of the Black race into a political force,” educator and author Charles Vincent explains in his book Black Legislators in Louisiana During Reconstruction.
Vincent wrote, “Initially the newspaper advocated the abolition of slavery and economic and civil equality – including suffrage for the Black population. In the first issue published on September 27, 1862, editor Trevigne launched what would be a long drive for Negro rights.”
He quoted Trevigne as writing, “regarding the relationship between free Negroes, slaves and former slaves), “Let us not forget to inculcate in our freed brothers this principle that true liberty is achieved only by practice of all the religious and social virtues.”
The Black newspapers set the tone and stage for Black political activism. Because of the Black press, the numbers of Blacks in Louisiana legislature was greater than any in the country.
Even before Blacks obtained the franchise and while the South was under Presidential Reconstruction, the Black press in New Orleans opposed the Black code and segregation. They opposed unfair labor contracts and they opposed the Democratic state legislature’s effort to pass the “quadroon” bill which was designed to permit persons with a certain percentage of white blood to vote. Blacks also expressed unity in terms of support for teaching and organizing the freedmen, “our dormant partners.”
With the end of the Civil War in 1865 came the promise and hope of freedom through the Emancipation Proclamation. Former slaves, now called “freedmen” celebrated, and twenty Negroes, one former slave, were at the state convention held in New Orleans on September 27, 1865. Some whites, not used to this new enfranchisement of Blacks showed how they felt at a mid-1866 preliminary meeting for a constitutional convention. A mob stormed the interracial meeting designed to give the vote to Blacks.
The meeting turned into a scene of mass murder. Accounts indicate that 38 people, most of them Negroes, were killed and 148 wounded. Martial law was declared so that voter registration of 127,639 citizens, 82,907 of them Black, could occur unhampered.
Unfazed by the violence, 49 whites and 49 Negroes later wrote a new state constitution authorizing schools open to all universal male suffrage. Black delegates pushed for civil rights, a bill of rights and liberal homestead laws.
Blacks exercised their new right to vote and by 1868, at the state level, a Black man, state representative, R.H. Isabell, was temporary Speaker when the new legislature met June 29. It is estimated that Blacks elected 32 Black senators and 95 Black representatives to the Louisiana Legislature during the next eight years.
State Rep. Robert H. Isabelle secured passage of a bill in the Louisiana House of Representatives making racial discrimination on common carriers, such as the star cars and in licensed public accommodations, a criminal offense.
And Isabelle was not alone. Over forty Blacks were elected to the state legislature of 1868. Many were free Creoles of color who had served valiantly during the Civil War.
Some of reconstruction’s most notable Blacks began serving in 1868. P.B.S. Pinchback took a state senate seat in late August. Pinchback, the son of a white Mississippi planter and slave mother, fought in the Civil War before getting involved in politics.
Pinchback lobbied in the senate for civil rights gains. He was principally responsible for passage of the Louisiana Civil Rights Act of 1869. He was elected lieutenant governor and head of the Senate in 1971. The following year, Pinchback’s Republican Party nominated him for U.S. Representative. He even served as governor for a little over a month during the impeachment procedures of then Governor Warmoth.
In 1873, the legislature nominated him to the U.S. Senate. Unfortunately, Pinchback was never seated in either chamber, although he lobbied three years in Washington to be seated in either capacity. In 1877, Pinchback was appointed to the state Board of Education. He lobbied for the establishment of Southern University and served on its board from 1883-1888.
Pinchback was not the only Black politician denied his elected seat to the U.S. Congress. Pinchback’s denial followed the rejection of the state’s and the nation’s first Black Congressman. John Willis Menard, chosen to represent the Second Congressional District of the State of Louisiana, was “the first Negro elected by an overwhelming majority to the U.S. House of Representatives, but he was not allowed to take his seat.”
In 1868, the Illinois-born Menard received the nomination for an unexpired term of the Fortieth Congress. Menard, in addressing the U.S. Congress, became the first Black man to deliver a speech on the floor of the U.S. Congress. But Congressman James A. Garfield offered a motion that, “It is too early to admit a Negro to the U.S. Congress.”
The Louisiana Legislature after Pinchback’s failure, elected James Lewis to the U.S. Senate. Lewis had served as a colonel in the state militia. He did not press the senate to honor his election, but he remained in Washington. Pinchback left Louisiana around 1893 and died in Washington on December 21, 1921.
Charles E. Nash, in 1874, became Louisiana’s first and only Black Congressman. Nash, born on May 23, 1844 in Opelousas to a slave family, also served in the military and was the night customs inspector in Louisiana in 1865. He went to Washington in 1864 to represent the Louisiana Sixth District in the Forty-fourth Congress.
Back in 1868, a contemporary of Pinchback’s, Oscar James Dunn became one of the first Blacks to be elected to a high executive office. Dunn became the state’s first Black lieutenant governor in April 1868.
During the time he was lieutenant governor, he served as president of the Board of Police Commissioners of New Orleans. He also worked for the racial integration of the New Orleans public schools and was a member of the Board of Trustees of Straight University.
Dunn was in a strong position to become the Republican nominee for the governorship in 1872 and maybe a U.S. senator, but his career ended with his sudden death on November 22, 1871. Some speculate that he was poisoned.
C.C. Antoine, a Creole of color from Shreveport, and a state senator, also served as lieutenant governor of Louisiana and Antoine Dubuclet became the state’s first Black treasurer in 1868.
Black political power began to wane in 1874 with a riot and attack on Blacks by members of the White League, whose purposes were to bring back the confederacy and disenfranchise Blacks.
The riot occurred where today stands the Liberty Monument… the tribute to white supremacy at the foot of Canal Street. Legally, the handwriting was on the wall in 1878 when during a civil lawsuit, it was decided that a Reconstruction law, one the Black legislators fought for guaranteeing equal rights and privileges to Blacks on public conveyances, was unconstitutional. It was the beginning of the end of Reconstruction and a prelude to the onset of the “Jim Crow” era.
Louisiana revoked its old Reconstruction acts in the 1890’s and replaced it with Jim Crow’s laws that required separate accommodations in public facilities. Booker T. Washington’s credo of “separate but equal” became a reality.
Having gone out of business in 1869, there was no La Tribune to take up the cause. But Le Crusader, founded in 1890 by Dr. Louis Martinet, filled the void. Martinet, a doctor and lawyer, was born in 1849 in St. Martinville. His father, Hippolite Martinet, was Belgian. His mother was of mixed Creole ancestry. He represented St. Martin Parish in the Kellogg legislature from 1872 through 1875, while simultaneously teaching French and attending law school at Straight University. The attorney sat on the board of Southern University with P.B.S. Pinchback. His wife taught at the university. Martinet was graduated from Flint Medical College in New Orleans around 1894.
Martinet was the individual most responsible for bringing the famous case of Plessy v. Ferguson in 1896. The case had been five years in the making. Martinet, in 1891, led the establishment of the Comite des Citoyens, a group of mostly New Orleans Creoles of color who sought to test the constitutionality of the separate car laws.
Le Crusader, edited by Paul Trevigne, was the official voice of the Citizen’s committee in waging legal battles against post-Reconstruction discrimination. The paper appeared first as a weekly, then as a daily, before discontinuing in 1897.
“The 1890s were a discouraging decade, for not only did the United States Supreme Court uphold racial segregation in 1896, (despite Plessy v. Ferguson) but also the state of Louisiana revised its constitution in 1898 so as to disenfranchise the Negro,” Desdunes wrote.
Rudolph Lucien Desdunes not only wrote about native Blacks, he was active in the struggle for civil rights. Desdunes helped organize the Comite des Citoyens. The committee included philanthropist, Aristide Mary and others.
Although they fought valiantly for equal rights, Plessy v. Ferguson served only to reinforce the Jim Crow laws and sanction segregation which, as the law of the land, would remain on the books for more than a half century, until Brown vs. the Board of Education in 1954.
The writer/activist was born free in New Orleans on November 15, 1849. His father, Jeremiah Desdunes was forced to leave Haiti during a political struggle and his mother Henrietta was a Cuban. The family owned a cigar factory with a tobacco coming from their own plantation.
Desdunes held several government jobs before becoming a journalist. His original French edition of Nos Hommes et Notre Historie, (Our People and Our History) is a lasting tribute to his skills and his people. Desdunes also wrote for Le Crusader and published several pamphlets about the Negro condition.
The condition of Blacks grew worse during the 1890s. One of the most ingenious devices to curtail Black political power was Louisiana’s 1898 “grandfather clause.” The ruling excused any man from meeting stringent voting requirements, if his grandfather had voted before 1867, “of course, no Blacks in the South had voted before 1867,” a passage in the Encyclopedia of Black America confirms.
Additionally, disenfranchisement was accomplished in many other ways: violence, gerrymandering, stuffing ballot boxes, secret shifting of polling places, muddling potential voters with extremely complicated ballots and enforcing cumulative poll taxes.
“At the dawn of the new century the ways of Southern racism came in as a swell upon a mounting tide of national sentiment and was very much a part of that sentiment,” Ann Woodward wrote in The Strange Career of Jim Crow. She added, “…the South toward the end of the nineties was the perfect cultural seedbed for aggression against the minority race.”
Although the signs of the times signified greater disenfranchisement on one hand, Blacks continued to make great strides in different arenas. Their accomplishments during this time of aggression against Blacks remains today a sterling example of what can be accomplished by indomitable spirits.
One such Black hero, Dr. Rivers Frederick, conducted a medical career in New Orleans that spanned over five decades, beginning in 1897 when he received his medical degree from the University of Illinois, after completing studies locally and graduating from New Orleans University with distinction in 1892.
Frederick, born in Pointe Coupee Parish, Louisiana, opened his office for practice of medicine and surgery in his early career. He left the city to accept a position as surgeon in the Government Hospital in Spanish Honduras.
He returned home to resume practice, while also accepting an appointment as associate professor of surgery in a Negro teaching institution organized in 1889 as The Medical School of the New Orleans University.
The school’s name was later changed to the Flint Medical College. Dr. Frederick was also named chief surgeon of the Sarah Goodridge Hospital which was associated with the New Orleans University and the medical school. He was now a surgeon of stature.
Frederick continued his affiliation with the medical facilities even after Sarah Goodridge Hospital and Flint Medical College merged 10 years later to become Flint-Goodridge Hospital. He became the hospital’s surgeon-in-chief and chairman of the surgical department.
Over his long tenure, he dedicated himself to the surgical training of Black physicians and to teaching in the hospital’s post-graduate programs. Because of him, the Flint-Goodridge Hospital became a medical center for the entire Deep South and was the only institution in New Orleans where Blacks could get medical training and treatment. Frederick was active in the national Urban League and the NAACP. As a businessman, he was one of the founders of The Louisiana Life Insurance Company.
A former student remembers him as “a pioneer and profound student of medicine, a master technician in surgical procedures… a man sympathetic toward younger men, who are studious and show signs of scientific advancement.”
20th Century Louisiana
At the turn of the century, in 1900, Black workmen were bricking the main street in Natchitoches; in Baton Rouge, Blacks were digging new sewerage lines; and in New Orleans, Black workmen bore the brunt of the most taxing physical labor.
New Orleans was a regional manufacturing center at the time, and Blacks did their share of producing such things as canvas awning, men’s and ladies shoes and inexpensive metal furniture.
According to Amistad research, there were Black messengers and a few clerical employees and Black workers in shipping and receiving in various factories. Black women in manufacturing did piecework at home.
Disenfranchisement resulting from literacy, property and poll taxes had taken its toll in Louisiana, as evidenced by the number of registered Negro voters in Louisiana. In 1896, there were 130,334. By 1904, there were only 1,342. And in 1896, while Black registrants were in a majority in 26 parishes, by 1900 they were not the majority in any of the state’s parishes, Woodward documented.
During the anti-Negro Charles Riot of 1900, in New Orleans, full-fledged white supremacists took over the city and robbed and assaulted Negroes for three days. White supremacy was the order of the day and segregation was everywhere.
Meanwhile, Black New Orleanians made many of the contributions at the turn of the century occurred in music. Black musicians that got their start in Storyville, the legalized Red Light District of New Orleans, later achieved national acclaim. Ferdinand Joseph LaMenthe, perhaps better known as Jelly Roll Morton, was said, by some, to be the “father” of ragtime. Morton’s colleague, ragtime pianist Tony Jackson also played in Storyville and produced such notable songs like “Pretty Baby.”
Cornetist Buddy Bolden is credited with founding the institution of Jazz, although some of his contemporaries like Freddie Keppard were reportedly playing jazz too. The city’s most famous musical son, Louis Armstrong started his career on the trumpet under the direction of Joe “King” Oliver, who left for Chicago in 1917. Armstrong’s fame began to grow when he organized “The Hot Five.”
Although space will not allow the telling of the accomplishments of all of the city’s musicians during those years, it is well noted that numerous marching brass bands and social and pleasure clubs existed. These clubs and bands can all take credit for the founding and perpetuation of jazz. Some were Manuel Perez’s Imperial Orchestra, the Onward Brass Band, the Olympia Orchestra and the Original Creole Orchestra.
During the turn of the century, Blacks formed benevolent associations to provide entertainment, burial and services unavailable to most Blacks from White-owned firms at the time.
Although education was provided on racially segregated basis, job training was emphasized, especially domestic work. Some schools had print shops, but only a few schools of higher learning for Blacks had chemistry labs or formal musical departments.
Xavier Preparatory High School formed by Mother Katherine Drexel in 1915, was the forerunner to Xavier University which by 1925 had evolved into a full university.
Country Blacks worked in lumbering, the seafood business and mostly in agriculture. However, some Blacks continued to make strides, particularly those born free men of color.
Walter Louis Cohen, born January 1860 in New Orleans, rose from cigar maker to a position of power in the Republican Party. He began his career in politics as a page in the Louisiana Legislature during the 1870s. He became the secretary of both the Republican State Central Committee and the Orleans Parish Republican Committee. In 1922, Congress created the office of Comptroller of Customs at New Orleans and President Harding put Cohen in charge of the area from Mobile, Alabama to Nogales, Arizona. He was reappointed by President Coolidge. Cohen was also president of the People’s Industrial Life Insurance Company which he founded in 1922, and remained its head until his death in 1930. He was a Mason, an Odd Fellow and a Knight of Pythias. The contemporary high school is named in his honor.
Rene Calvin Metoyer, the great uncle of present-day New Orleans Tribune publisher Dr. Dwight McKenna, also served as a page in the Louisiana Legislature during Reconstruction. Metoyer was graduated in law from Straight University in 1866 and admitted to the Louisiana bar the same year. Metoyer became the only Black notary public in Louisiana on June 27, 1917. He was appointed by then governor, Ruffin G. Pleasant. He died in 1937.
The Black cause was advanced with the founding of The Louisiana Weekly in 1925 by editor O.C.W. Taylor and publisher C.C. Dejoie Sr. Education concerns continued and in the 1930’s Dillard University was formed as a result of a merger between New Orleans University and Straight College. Dillard had the first accredited collegiate nursing program in the state.
During the 40s, many brave, Black men fought for their country in WWII, only to return to civilian life more critical of and impatient with the segregation that persisted. But it didn’t stop those fighting for equality.
Meanwhile, during the 40s and 50s, Black businesses were flourishing during segregation. Blacks in the funeral industry continued the legacy of their founders and firms like Gertrude Geddes Willis and the Rhodes Funeral Homes were all patronized by Blacks.
Meanwhile, New Orleans’ renowned gospel songstress, Mahalia Jackson, and pianist, Antoine “Fats” Domino were putting New Orleans back on the music map.
Dooky Chase Restaurant provided Blacks with a first class restaurant, and Blacks insurance executives got into the fight for total equality. Black attorneys joined the struggle and made many successful cases which would later lead to full enfranchisement.
One such attorney was A.P. Tureaud. Attorney Alexander Pierre Tureaud had been fighting since he received his law degree from Howard University in 1925. He was born February 26, 1899 in New Orleans. After receiving his degree and working for a year with the United States Department of Justice, Tureaud returned home in 1926 to assume the position of deputy controller of customs in New Orleans. The following year he joined the NAACP and served as their attorney.
He was organizer and president of the Eight Ward Civic League and the co-organizer and vice-president of the New Orleans Federation of Civic League between 1928 and 1935.
As vice president of the New Orleans Federation of Civic Leagues, Tureaud urged Blacks to pay their poll tax and to register and vote. In 1931, Tureaud worked with the committee on the first registration case of A.M. Trudeau.
A.M. Trudeau was a businessman and the founder of the Seventh Ward Civic League. Trudeau, a founding member of the Safety Industrial Insurance Company, was an avid NAACP member and proponent of Black voting rights, according to a 1942 article in The Sepia Socialite. Trudeau brought suit to outlaw a part of the “grandfather clause” that prevented Blacks from voting.
His colleague, A.P. Tureaud worked with him and later aided Rev. Roger Coleman between 1931 and 1948 in his efforts to open up the use of the Municipal Auditorium for Blacks.
In 1935 he co-authored with C.C. Haydel, M.D., The Negro in Medicine in Louisiana. That same year, the attorney was admitted to practice before the United States Supreme Court.
In 1940, Tureaud followed in Metoyer’s footsteps and became the only Black appointed by Governor Earl K. Long to hold the position of notary public.
Tureaud, a prominent member of the Knights of Peter Claver, began the following year, to take on the type of civil rights lawsuits that would ultimately change the face of the South.
That year, he began the successful arguments which lead to the first teacher salary equalization case in Louisiana. From then on, he was involved in a litany of civil rights cases dealing with, among other issues: voter registration, equalization of school facilities, legal matters for the Louisiana Education Association, investigation of lynchings and beatings, filing suit to open New Orleans City Park facilities to Blacks, the founding of the Orleans Parish Progressive Voters League, the integration of Orleans Parish public schools (51-67), gaining admission to LSU for his son, A.P. Tureaud Jr., successfully litigating a suit aimed at desegregating the state’s trade schools, integrating Baton Rouge public schools, desegregation of Gulf Coast beaches, suing to end segregation where alcoholic beverages were sold (62-67), won judgments to desegregate Northwestern and Nicholls State College, and from 1969 to 1970 forcing the state to supply public schools with textbooks and other materials on Afro-American history.
Tureaud died on January 22, 1972. He is credited with integrating public schools and colleges in Louisiana. He is considered the most important civil rights lawyer in Louisiana.
Other Blacks joined the fight for better education during the 1940s. Fannie C. Williams sparked the movement to make Valena C. Jones a first class school. Ernest J. Wright, history remembers, was the first Black social worker hired by the City of New Orleans, but he was a driving force in the fight for voting rights. Active in labor organization and anti-lynching efforts, Wright frequently went to jail for his activism. During the 40s and 50s, Wright promoted Black voter registration statewide.
He was also an active member of the People’s Defense League which undertook the dangerous task of mobilizing voter registration drives, speaking out against white supremacy and police violence and advocating the rights of working people. After WWII, the league set up the most intense Black voter registration that had ever been witnessed by the city.
A coalition was formed, consisting of Wright, Rev. A.L. Davis (whose 1975 appointment to the City Council to fill the unexpired term of Eddie Sapir made him the first Black person to serve on the New Orleans City Council), Raymond Tillman of the Transport Union, and former insurance agent Daniel Byrd, then state president of the NAACP.
The collation, along with the league, organized fleets of cars, trucks and church buses to ferry people down to the registrar’s office. Because of that drive, 4,176 Blacks gained the right to vote.
By 1950, the People’s Defense League had established branches in 26 parishes in Louisiana. Black registration in New Orleans climbed to 26,000. In 1963, Wright pulled nearly 40,000 votes as a candidate for state lieutenant governor, although he did not win. He died on October 25, 1979.
New Orleans continued to be a pivotal point in the contemporary Civil Rights movement and in 1957 saw the founding of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference organization at Reverend A.L. Davis’ New Zion Baptist Church. Judge Israel Augustine, the Reverend A.L. Davis’ attorney, was appointed to the SCLC’s board along with Davis, Rev. T.J. Jemison (president of the National Baptist Convention) and Clarence “Chink” Henry, the late longshoreman president.
Judge Augustine later became the first general counsel of the national SCLC and was in the vanguard of the local and national movement. The civil rights attorney became the first Black judge in the Deep South since Reconstruction. The door had been opened and there would be no turning back.
Young activists began to make their mark on the local civil right s movement—taking part in protests, sit-ins and freedom rides and serving as plaintiffs in civil rights lawsuits. Oretha Castle Haley, Rudy Lombard, Don Hubbard, Jerome Smith among many others are surely counted among those who forced changed in our city, state and nation.
As the second half of the century rolled on, Ernest “Nathan” Dutch Morial, a protégé of Tureaud, also continued to fight for civil rights as an attorney and president the local NAACP. He later moved his fight into the political arena. After a few unsuccessful bids for public office, he became the first Black person elected to the state legislature since Reconstruction in 1967, the first Black elected as a juvenile court judge in 1970, and the first Black elected to the state’s Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals in 1974.
Ultimately, Dutch Morial broke the race barrier in elected city government by becoming the first Black elected mayor in 1977. He served two full terms and would be immediately followed by three other African-American mayors, including Sidney Barthelemey, Ray Nagin and his son Marc Haydel Morial.
Also among a string of relatively recent firsts as it relates to Blacks in politics since the original printing of this article: in 1991, William Jefferson became the first Black elected to Congress from Louisiana since Reconstruction; New Orleanians elected their first Black state supreme court justice (Justice Revius Ortique) in 1992; the first Black criminal sheriff (Marlin Gusman) was elected in 2004; and the city’s first Black coroner, Dr. Dwight McKenna, was elected in 2017—a year that also included the election of the city’s fifth African-American mayor and the first woman to hold the post, mayor-elect LaToya Cantrell.
And while strides have been made, it is always important to be reminded that we have not come so far as it may seem at times. Since gaining statehood in 1812—some 206 years ago—Louisiana has only had four Black representatives in the U.S. Congress, including our current representative for the state’s second congressional district, U.S. Rep. Cedric Richmond. And not one African American has served the state as a member of the U.S. Senate.
300 and Beyond
Of course, it is impossible to talk about the recent history of Black New Orleans without discussing 2005’s Hurricane Katrina.
Despite the many accomplishments and gains of Black New Orleanians over the course of 300 years, a natural disaster followed immediately by the failure of the levy protection system exposed the impact of deeply entrenched racial and social inequities in New Orleans. While nearly 80 percent of the city flooded, two of the hardest hits areas were bedrocks of the Black community—New Orleans East and the Lower Ninth Ward, which had one of the highest rates of homeownership in the state before the Katrina.
With the city under a forced evacuation, talk of shrinking the New Orleans’ footprint and chatter about “transforming” some of the more decimated areas into green space coupled with policies and procedures surrounding how New Orleanians would return and rebuild (such as the state’s Road Home program) made it especially difficult for many working-class Black and poor residents to return after the storm. Meanwhile, the state literally hijacked public education, firing the school’s system mostly Black teaching staff without cause—an act that devastated the city’s Black professional and middle-class population; the City Council demolished traditional public housing, replacing it with smaller quasi-private developments not large enough to accommodate the number of New Orleanians that relied on affordable and subsidized housing before the storm thrusting the city further into an affordable housing crisis that it has only now begun to address; and the state would never reopen Charity Hospital—all forever changing the landscape of public education, affordable housing and public healthcare in a city saddled with sickly statistics—44 percent unemployment among working age Black men; a median income for Black residents of less than $26,000, but more than $64,000 fir Whites; a poverty rate among Blacks that is more than double the rate of White New Orleanians; and 45 percent of Black children living below the poverty line compared to 16 percent of White children.
As New Orleans celebrates 300 years, it is time for serious reflection on where we are as a city and how we got here to be strategically combined with a genuine commitment to ensuring that all New Orleanians, regardless of race or class, have equitable opportunities to live their very best lives right here in the 300 years to come. As New Orleans celebrates its Tricentennial, it leaders must be committed to ridding the city of its permanent underclass by expanding access and expectations for every New Orleanian through education, economic development, equity, and justice.
Achieving that would be worth celebrating, indeed.