At the time of her retirement nearly 13 years ago, Morial said she planned to spend more time on herself. And maybe she has, but New Orleans has noticed it. A civil rights activist, civic leader, mother, grandmother, aunt, sister and friend, Morial remains a fixture in New Orleans’s civic life, still serving on various boards and committees.
Since her retirement, she has published her memoir Witness to Change: From Jim Crow to Political Empowerment. What began in the wake of Hurricane Katrina as a personal project to record and share, with her children and grandchildren, the struggles of growing up in the segregated New Orleans and work that she and others did to challenge unfair systems, became a work for all of New Orleans and the world to enjoy and reflect upon.
by Anitra D. Brown
Like so many women, Sybil Haydel Morial has juggled family and a career. But those lifetime undertakings were punctuated with periods as the mayor’s wife during her husband’s, Ernest “Dutch” Morial’s rise to power and historical terms in the mayor’s office. She once again became a critical part of the city’s political scene when her son Marc was elected the city’s third African-American mayor. But don’t think for one second that Morial has lived in the shadows. She, herself, puts it best when she says she has always done “her own thing”—had her own interests, opinions, affiliations and passions, one of which has been her 28–year career at Xavier University, which came to an end in late June when Morial retired from the institution she has grown to love and prepared to start a new phase in her life.
For 28 years, day after day, Sybil Morial has made her way to Xavier University to do one of the four jobs she has held—at one time or another—at the school. All the while, she juggled the pressures and pleasures of raising five children, being the first lady of New Orleans for eight years, then the mother of the mayor for another eight, even as she served on various boards and committees. But now, Morial—who retired in late June from the position of associate vice president of external affairs at the school—has other, slightly more selfish plans.
“I want some time for myself,” she says. “I work out only once a week. I want to do more of that. I read very little. I want to do more of that. I have five grandchildren under (the age of) five. I can spend more time with them. I’m looking forward to moving at a less frenzied pace.”
It’s not that Morial has tired herself out over the years. The New Orleans native knows how to relax.
“Sometimes on a Sunday, I won’t do anything if the mood hits me because I need to unwind,” she says. “I’ll have more days like that now.”
Those are the days ahead of her. As for the days at Xavier University that she will leave behind—they began in 1977, when after 13 years as a school teacher in Massachusetts, Baltimore and the Orleans Parish School System, Morial decided she wanted to do something different.
The reality of a segregated South led her to the teaching profession, she says, adding that options were limited for Black women at the time.
“(We) didn’t have many choices back then. You were either a teacher, a nurse, a social worker or a secretary. There weren’t even a whole lot of choices for Black women in the North.”
Perhaps her decision to become a teacher was the result of restrictive times and options for Blacks in the South and elsewhere; but when a post-Civil Rights era broadened the options, Sybil Morial broadened her prospects.
“I enjoyed teaching, but I just wanted to explore something else.”
Morial knows quite well about history-making events. In addition to the ones that she has been a part of at Xavier, she and her family, more specifically her husband and late former Mayor Ernest “Dutch” Morial, set about making history in New Orleans during the Civil Rights era and beyond.
Of course, 1977 wasn’t the first time Sybil Morial had set foot on the Xavier campus. She attended the school as an undergraduate student; but after two years of studies at Xavier University, Morial then Sybil Haydel, transferred to Boston University to continue work toward her degree.
In Boston, she would earn both her bachelor’s and master’s degrees. And she would meet a number of folk much like herself—young Blacks from the south—who had gone north to attend schools and get away from the rigid segregation in Louisiana, Mississippi, Georgia, Alabama and other southern states.
Morial recalls that the time of segregation in New Orleans, her days before Boston, vividly.
She remembers having to sit in the balconies of some theaters and not even being able to enter into others. She recalls not being able to try on clothes in a department store and not daring to try on a hat. She even recalls once, at about age 13 or 14, that she and some friends were riding their bikes through City Park when a police officer called them niggers and told them to get out of the park—that they didn’t belong there, she says.
It was incidents like that which Morial’s parents and the parents of her friends tried to shield them from. They didn’t want them going to the theaters that shunned them or treated them second class. They didn’t want them riding their bikes through City Park. They wanted to spare their feelings, their tender pride. Like all parents, they just wanted to protect their kids.
Her father Dr. C. C. Haydel was a physician and surgeon; and her mother, Eudora Arnaud Haydel—a teacher before she married—gave up her profession for her family, which was customary for women of the time, Morial says. So despite the harsh times suffered by African Americans in the city as a result of segregation and Jim Crow laws, Sybil Morial also remembers living a relatively good life as a young girl—the daughter of a doctor—growing up in New Orleans in the 1930s and 1940s.
Still, in the backdrop of a middle-class life, there were lessons to be learned. Morial explains that the city’s “housing patterns” during her youth often placed the well-to-do with the poor.
“We lived a comfortable life,” she says. “On my block there was another doctor and an insurance executive, but everyone else were renters. So I played with children everyday who had less than we did. It really taught me about respecting the worth of people. Our parents taught us that we were as good as anyone else, and we could do whatever we set our minds to do.”
As a young college student in Boston in the 1950s, she experienced a different world, all together. She was treated better in that world than in the city of her birth. So it was no wonder that she and the other Black students from the South at northern universities felt like they were in the “promised land.”
“(In Boston) everything was open,” Morial says. “It was a new way of life, and I enjoyed it.”
At schools like Harvard, MIT, Boston College and Boston University, which Morial and a graduate student named Martin Luther King, Jr., attended during the same time, these young Black students formed tight social circles, Morial says, created easily along the lines of their associations in Black fraternities and sororities.
“We all knew each other,” she says. And in the late Spring of 1954, they were all talking about the same thing—going back home. That spring was when the U. S. Supreme Court handed down the Brown v. The Board of Education ruling.
“We were all talking about coming back because change was going to be in the South, and we wanted to be a part of that.”
And even if it crossed her mind to live out her days in Boston and never return to the South, something wouldn’t let her do that.
Of course the change didn’t come about as rapidly as some in the group might have envisioned, and Sybil Haydel would get married in New Orleans before she could try on a hat in D. H. Holmes.
She had known Ernest Morial while she was in high school and in college at XU, but while at home during the summer of 1954, the two would cross paths at a Great Books meeting, not the one held at the Orleans Public Library at that time because Blacks were not allowed to attend. This one was organized by young Black New Orleanians as their own alternative. And after a meeting in June of 1954, she and Ernest Morial along with another friend went out to talk about the changes and progress they believed were in the air. She and Dutch would date all that summer, be engaged by Christmas and marry the following February.
It was also during this period that Ernest Morial had told her about a poll that had been taken of Tulane students. The result was that 86 percent of the students “wouldn’t mind if Negro students” began attending the school. She could take six hours of classes at Tulane as a part of her graduate school studies, he told her. She went to the school’s admissions office, explained that she didn’t have her transcripts from Boston University at the time, but wanted to take classes there. The man in the admissions told her to have Boston send the transcripts and in the meantime she began classes.
That admissions counselor knew she was Black; she is certain as of much. She is fair skinned. But she doesn’t look white, she says.
Nonetheless, she enrolled in two classes, went to lectures and was very talkative. She borrowed a classmate’s library card and even went into the cafeteria on an occasion, but not without some stares and glares. Several days would pass before that admissions counselor would call her into his office, this time with an application for her to fill out—an application that asked for race identification. She knew that it was the end.
“Immediately they told me I had to go,” she says. “But I let him say it all. I let him suffer through having to tell me they didn’t want me.”
She would see that man again decades later at Tulane affair. Both she and her husband Dutch were now on the Tulane Board of Visitors. The man’s wife told her at the event how terrible it made him feel those many years ago to have to tell Morial she couldn’t attend he school. But she couldn’t. So shortly after marrying, she and Dutch went to Boston, where she finished her degree.
When they returned to New Orleans in 1956, the couple started their family. Dutch was president of the NAACP and dove into his legal efforts to bring about change in New Orleans. Sybil Morial became active in the Urban League, she says, pointing out the twist of fate that has her son heading the national organization she became a part of in New Orleans early in the Civil Rights struggle.
Soon things began to happen, the things those Southern students in the North had expected to see more of a few years before, perhaps. There were the sit-ins, the protests, the boycotts and the lawsuits.
“All of that was going on all over the country and here in New Orleans,” Morial says.
Her husband was still working on the legal front, in fact, filing a lawsuit in which his wife was a plaintiff against the state of Louisiana. Knowing that the enforcement of Brown v. The Board of Education was on the horizon, the Legislature had passed a law that made it illegal for any public school teacher to belong to an organization that had taken a position on integration. With her ties to both the Urban League and the NAACP, Morial knew that such a law would have her pegged to be fired. So she challenged and won.
“I was the plaintiff and Dutch was the attorney,” she says with obvious delight. “We knocked that one down.”
Perhaps it was his spirit that motivated her or hers that prodded him, or perhaps two flames burning at equal measure, but Morial looks back on her husband’s stances, accomplishments, his fights in the classrooms and courtrooms and his bids for offices and tenures in elected posts with pride and approval.
“I just loved his spirit,” she says. “I loved that he felt he had a right to everything every American had. I loved that and I supported that. But there was the downside. We got the crank calls. We got the death threats.”
They also had determination—a will not to quit despite it all. Perhaps for Morial, that determination was steeped in the lessons that she had learned as a child playing with other Black Children in her New Orleans neighborhood who didn’t have as much as she had.
As a teacher and married to Dutch, by then a lawyer, their lives were surely comfortable by standards of the time. They could have hid behind their educations and their middle-class professions, but they would not settle for mere comfort and the status quo.
“We worked to make things better for everybody,” she says. “They say all ships rise with the tides. It wasn’t just a personal thing. We wanted a better lot for everybody, for all of our people.”
The fifties gave way to the sixties and ushered in more change. The seventies brought with them more gain for African-Americans in New Orleans, particularly on the political front. Sybil Morial had grown accustomed to watching her husband become a string of “firsts” in the state and city’s political arena. He was the first African-American to graduate from law school at LSU in 1954. He would become the first Black assistant U. S. attorney, the first Black elected to the state Legislature since Reconstruction, the first Black juvenile court judge, the first Black elected to the Louisiana 4th Circuit Court of Appeals. And in 1977, he became the city’s first Black mayor. He was re-elected to a second term in 1981.
All of this, of course, meant late nights and a lot of time away from home, but Morial makes it clear her family never suffered for it. Many times, Dutch would bring the children along with him to the meetings and the churches and to the Legislature.
But then there was the public scrutiny that inevitably comes with public life. While she and her husband tried to protect their children from it, they didn’t necessarily try to shield them from the reality of life in the public’s eye.
“We talked at the kitchen table about what was going on,” she says. “We didn’t try to hide that from them. Sometimes it wasn’t a happy time. You’re under scrutiny. You’re a fishbowl, and people are not always kind. But I always felt I was representing my people—Black People. Black women—and I always took that seriously. And I enjoyed my public life.”
As for how she balanced those lives—working for Civil Rights and being a school teacher, then being catapulted in the public limelight—Morial contends that it was the lives, especially her life at Xavier, that gave her balance.
“I needed it. It was a respite. It was getting out of that and into here. When I walked into the doors, I shed all of that and put on a new coat.”
She echoed that sentiment at the reception held in her honor in June at Xavier’s University Center.
“This is a very special place,” she told the gathering. “My experience here has enhanced my life and I have become a combination of my Xavier career, my family life and my public life, all of which contributed to what I am today.”