This month, our 300 in Black focus takes on special significance in light of the theme of Black History Month 2018 – “African Americans in Time of War”. In its July 2011 edition, The New Orleans Tribune caught up with native son, retired businessman, WWII veteran and Tuskegee Airman Calvin G. Moret. As we continue our 300 in Black Tricentennial celebration, paying tribute to the city’s 300th anniversary by honoring the remarkable legacy of Black New Orleanians, we have reprinted an excerpt of our profile of Calvin Moret, originally titled “Pressing On”.
by Lovell Beaulieu
Calvin G. Moret and his wife Berenice raised three successful children, a son Bill, and two daughters, Patrice and Maria. They also have nine grandchildren, two step-grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren. While the longevity genes on both sides of the Moret family are solid, it is the family’s deep religious convictions that have seen them through all these years.
“Christ is the head of this house; the unseen guest at every meal; the silent listener to every conversation,” reads a banner in the kitchen of the Morets’ comfortable Lakefront home.
Calvin Moret makes no apologies for the family’s deep religious convictions. In fact, he makes no apologies for any of the principles or causes he has and continues to champion.
A few years ago, when the plan to merge Epiphany Parish with Corpus Christi Parish in the city’s historic Seventh Ward was gaining steam, Calvin Moret was among the many senior citizens who stood up in the St. Augustine High School cafeteria to express dissatisfaction with the Archdiocese of New Orleans’ plan to close Epiphany at 1953 Duels Street. He took his turn to talk, pointing out the injustice of such a move in the clear, distinct voice that has made him a legend in the city’s barbershop singing community.
That Sunday afternoon, a couple of African-American women chosen by the archdiocese to facilitate the discussion essentially told the gathering that Epiphany could not be saved and that a merger with the parish out of which it was born was imminent. It was clear to most in the audience that nothing would change the archdiocese’s plans.
Moret would have no such talk. In an impassioned speech to then Josephite Superior General Edward Chiffriller, Moret said Epiphany deserved to have its own church, and that the decision to close it was morally wrong, fiscally irresponsible and a shot against everything for which the Catholic Church supposedly stood.
Moret and those who spoke up for Epiphany lost that fight. Eventually, the archdiocese closed Epiphany. It has all left a bitter taste in the mouths of Epiphany’s parishioners, including Moret.
The way people lived
The house on Law Street where Moret grew up—a few feet off of the busy Elysian Fields thoroughfare—stands today. Moret’s father, the late Adolph Moret Sr., was the first person to build a home in what used to be a cow pasture and dairy.
White families followed the Morets into the neighborhood. Gentrification, if that’s what was happening at the time, never knew what hit it. It was altogether different than the urban gentrification of today that is often marked by a series of engineered economic, political, legal and social changes that typically push poor, often Black, residents out of historically urban areas to make way for homes and shops that cater to the more affluent.
“When my dad first bought that lot, there was a feed store, and Elysian Fields stopped at Florida Avenue. There was no overpass. We were it (the only Blacks). We had the biggest open yard. Most of my playmates were white. It was the way people lived.”
In the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Katrina when the city’s powerful civic and business elite were conspiring to alter the look of New Orleans, Moret took notice.
“You cannot shrink the city’s footprint,” he says of attempts to turn parts of New Orleans East and the Lower Ninth Ward into green space.
“People are already there,” he says. “Here’s this guy on Caffin Avenue, with no place to go. The feelings of the people have to be taken onto consideration. They made the decision to go there in the first place.”
The story of Calvin Moret, by most accounts, resonates with a financial conservatism sustained by his call for social justice. That’s one of the top reasons he fought so hard to prevent the closing of Epiphany.
“I grew up in the Depression,” Moret says. “The government, in those days, was not saddled with the debt we are today. A lot of us have been lured into believing we can have something now and pay for it tomorrow.”
Calvin George Moret was born on Aug. 15, 1925 in New Orleans. He attended Corpus Christi Elementary School and graduated from Xavier University Preparatory High School “The Prep” in 1942.
One of Moret’s most cherished childhood memories involved knocking on a door in the 2100 block of Law Street.
“That’s the house I saw Louis Armstrong,” Moret says of what would turn out to be an encounter with greatness. “I knocked; and he came to the door.”
In 1943, he entered the military and trained as a pilot in Tuskegee, Ala., earning his wings and commission as a flight officer on Nov. 20, 1944. During his military career, Moret also acquired a commercial pilot’s license.
Once he left military service with more than 700 hours of flying under his belt, Moret returned to his native New Orleans to work in the printing business started by his father in 1932. The Moret Press, the family’s printing operation that lasted for generations until Hurricane Katrina decimated the offices on Agriculture Street, started in the week between Christmas 1931 and New Year’s Day 1932. Moret’s father, Adolph Moret Sr., had been laid off from his job of 18 years at Steeg Printing Company; his response was to open his own business. Adolph Moret Sr.’s five sons would all work in the trade, with three of them eventually earning their livelihood in printing.
Those early years in the first part of the 20th century helped define Calvin Moret. Because of his upbringing, experiences and sensibilities, he was comfortable engaging with others in any environment, under any conditions.
And when Moret integrated the New Orleans barbershop singing community in 1970, he never gave it a second thought.
“I liked that kind of music,” he says now. “I grew up playing the violin, and I would sing.”
According to Moret, race didn’t matter to the young boys he shared the neighborhood with as a youngster. Children, for the most part, look beyond race, he says. They only learn it through their elders, ostensibly, their parents.
Since those early days of growing up in the city’s Seventh Ward, Moret said he has attended “four generations” of funerals of members of many of those same white families he grew up around.
Calvin the woodcarver
For years, Moret had a fascination with using his hands. As a young boy, he spent hours engaged in wood carving. As a Tuskegee Airman, his hands were at the throttle of the P-47 that was one of the military’s premiere fighting machines. Even today, Moret proudly holds a scaled-down model of the plane he flew in the war. He still has woodcarvings he made 70 years ago, demonstrating a knack for precision. And he has others he created recently, including one he carved from a single piece of wood found after Hurricane Katrina.
Woodcarving classes at The Prep, Moret says, served him well as a pilot. And he adds that removal of such programs from schools have hurt today’s youth in some ways.
Moret says, “I didn’t realize it then, but the skills I was using helped me coordinate my hands, my eyes and my mind to handle the throttle” of the massive airplanes he piloted in the Army.
Moret’s love for woodcarving started with his father, who made the young Calvin his first kite. The roots of Moret’s practical nature can also be linked to his father, who once owned an old model Chevrolet that he eventually sold for $15. His dad would then walk to wherever he needed to go for 15 years before getting another car.
When Moret and his wife Berenice married, to help establish a life for himself and his new bride, he sold his airplane—a three-seater Piper PA-12 that could attain a cruising air speed of 105 mph.
“If you deprive yourself, you can get yourself ahead,” Moret opines. “If you get everything you want, you find yourself behind the eight ball.”
Editor’s Note: On September 11, 2015, four years after his interview with The New Orleans Tribune, Calvin G. Moret died at his home at the age of 90. He was believed to be Louisiana’s last living member of the Tuskegee Airmen.