A “Holiday for the Disfranchised” on North Claiborne Avenue: Two Profiles 

by Greg A. Beaman/Director of Research, The Claiborne Avenue History ProjectGreg@ClaiborneAvenue.org

North Claiborne Avenue before the Interstate-10, image courtesy of the Louisiana Division/City Archives & Special Collections, the New Orleans Public Library.
Claiborne Avenue has been at the heart of the New Orleans’ African-American cultural, commercial and political experience for over 200 years. And its communities’ stories are emblematic of the ultimate American experiences: the broad themes of construction and expansion, cultural and economic boom, obliteration and devastation, and then potential resurrection, and the opportunity for art and its enduring traditions to triumph in the face of adversity.  The Claiborne Avenue History Project (CAHP) is a multi-platform documentary project that collects and curates history about North Claiborne Avenue focusing on civil rights, culture, and commerce from the Avenue’s heyday in the early 20th century, through its demise with the 1966-69 construction of the I-10 highway, and into North Claiborne today. This project places North Claiborne Avenue within its historical context as a commercial and cultural center for the African American community. We are telling this story through the eyes of the residents and businesses along N. Claiborne and across the city of New Orleans. To find out more about the project please visit claiborneavenue.org.  As we unveil the iconic history of N. Claiborne Avenue we will share selected short narratives with the public thanks to The New Orleans Tribune.

Location matters in New Orleans. Neighborhoods and public places shape our identity and influence the paths we take in life. 

N. Claiborne Avenue, running through the heart of Tremé, has played that role for countless New Orleanians, from musicians and chefs to lawyers and bankers. Our previous installment in these pages revealed the forgotten “funeral for American slavery” that paraded down N. Claiborne Avenue after the passage of the 13th Amendment. We turn our attention now to two men who witnessed first-hand the revolutionary events of the Civil War and Emancipation as they played out along N. Claiborne Avenue, Walter L. Cohen, Sr. and James Madison Vance, Jr. From the successes of Reconstruction to the defeats of Plessy v. Ferguson and Jim Crow, Vance and Cohen carried on the battle for civil rights for African Americans in New Orleans and across the United States. Through their national advocacy, Cohen and Vance helped lay the groundwork in New Orleans for the blossoming of N. Claiborne Avenue into a thriving business district and magnet for African American society and culture.

From their Fourth Ward homes, Vance and Cohen viewed first-hand the early exercises of African American political power in New Orleans. In October 1865, black and white New Orleanians gathered on N. Claiborne Avenue and its side streets to celebrate a “holiday for the disfranchised,” as the Tribune gamely described the large political rally held to fight for the right of African Americans to vote. Richard C. Baylor, a dockworker turned political organizer, called for the march to raise money for the Universal Suffrage Party. The disciplined parade from N. Claiborne Avenue to Republican Party headquarters on Union Street, near Baronne, was supported by the newly formed 73rd United States Colored Infantry and the 1st District Emancipation Club. The editors of the Tribune called the pairing of a military unit and a social club “a two-fold…display of force and a display of patriotism” and noted that “the people…readily cooperate in this kind of celebration.”  The regiment included members who had fought during the war in the 1st Louisiana Native Guards. The 1st District Emancipation Club drew its membership from the ranks of the newly emancipated black labor force. Many freedpeople who had not entered military service fought for their rights on the front lines of labor. The march was one of the earliest moments of African American political participation.

Walter L Cohen, Sr.

Walter L. Cohen, born in 1860 in the Fourth Ward, is perhaps best known today as the namesake of the high school on Dryades Street, now Cohen College Prep. From the beginning of his political career during the 1880s until his death in 1930, Cohen built a national reputation for leadership that propelled him to high-ranking federal appointments and alliances with Republican presidents. Cohen’s parents, Bernard Cohen, a Jewish merchant, and Amelia Bingaman, a free woman of color, died when Walter was young, leaving him to find employment as a cigar maker, photographer, and saloon keeper. 

James Madison Vance remains one of the unheralded figures in the history of New Orleans and the United States, even though his contemporaries wrote, “Most every movement that tends to advance the Negro’s interest in New Orleans owes its pullulation [sic] to the fecundity of [his] brain.” 

Vance was born in 1857 to the Rev. James Madison Vance, Sr. and Mathilda Edwards. The elder Vance was a minister in the African Methodist Episcopal Church (A.M.E.) and Edwards earned widespread respect as a leader of the Benevolent Daughters of Louisiana, a society for African American women. The Vance family lived near the Cohens in the Fourth Ward at 1714 Iberville Street, close to the intersection of N. Claiborne Avenue and Canal, perfectly situated to witness first-hand the political organization that took place in the streets of Tremé and the back of town neighborhoods of New Orleans. 

As children growing up in the society of free people of color, Cohen and Vance learned the centuries-old traditions of community protest and political organization. They applied these lessons to Republican Party politics, at a time when the “Party of Lincoln” was the only national party that supported equal rights for African Americans. The leadership role of the gens de couleur libre community contributed to the development of the Republican Party in Louisiana by doing street-level community organizing work and clustering political activities around popular community practices, from parading for funerals or political demonstrations to court cases challenging the legal underpinnings of white supremacy. Both Cohen and Vance carried forth the political and social traditions they learned in New Orleans to the national stage as leaders in the Republican Party. More importantly, the two men invested in the local community by establishing businesses and social organizations on N. Claiborne Avenue.

The two friends became political allies as part of a Republican faction led by Pinckney Benton Stewart (P.B.S.) Pinchback, who became the first African American governor of a U.S. state when he assumed the Louisiana governor’s chair in 1872. While Cohen’s diligence as a young page in the state legislature earned the respect of older politicians, Vance began writing editorials for the Weekly Louisianan, Pinchback’s newspaper. Together, they represented Louisiana in the national fight for political equality for African Americans. Cohen’s first federal appointment as night inspector on the riverfront, in 1885, quickly led to promotion to lieutenant of inspectors at the United States Customhouse. Ultimately, Cohen would ascend to the post of Register of the United States Land Office at New Orleans, the position he held until 1910. Both men attended Straight University, a forerunner of Dillard University, likely passing through the university building at 1423 N. Claiborne Avenue. Vance earned a law degree and admission to the bar in 1887. Though they took separate professional paths, both Vance and Cohen won party elections for key leadership positions in the Republican Party.

During the 1890s, white politicians in the North and the South continued to neutralize African American political influence by passing increasingly exclusionary laws that steadily drove African Americans from political life. In Louisiana, the defection of white sugar planters from the Democratic Party over a tariff issue marked the beginning of the Lily White movement. The aggressive move split the Republicans, giving the African American contingent a smaller piece of the pie. In a letter to George Meyers, a black Republican operative from Ohio, Cohen wrote, “Lily Whiteism must receive its death blow while it is young and tender. If encouraged and permitted to flourish and grow strong, not only will it be indigenous to southern soil but its uproads will spread North of Mason and Dixon’s line and then the political usefulness of the Afro-American will cease.” Despite the triumph of the Lily Whites at the polls, Vance and Cohen continued to hold influential positions, Vance within the Republican Party and Cohen within the federal government. 

Cohen outmaneuvered both legitimate political rivals and rising anti-black sentiment in the United States, only to see President William H. Taft abolish the position as Register of the Land Office in 1910. Out of federal service, Cohen returned to New Orleans to found the People’s Benevolent Life Insurance Company, which established its headquarters at 901 N. Claiborne Avenue. Cohen expanded his campaign to “relieve the financial burden of sickness and death among our people” by opening the People’s Drugstore at 624 S. Rampart Street, in another neighborhood important to black New Orleanians. Appointed to the post of Controller of Customs in New Orleans by President Warren G. Harding in 1923, white southerners in the Senate defeated Cohen’s appointment. In the face of overwhelming racist opposition, Cohen mobilized the support of major national figures like Booker T. Washington to aid his cause and emerged victorious. In his last years, Cohen saw his vision of access to health care for African Americans become a source of leadership in the city.

J. Madison Vance attacked the legal underpinnings of racial segregation by helping found the National Afro-American Council (N.A.A.C.). Under Vance’s direction, the legal and legislative bureau of the N.A.A.C. set out “to vigorously test the very unfair suffrage legislation in the South which aims directly at the utter disfranchisement” of black voters” and to prosecute the lynch mobs that terrorized African Americans.  The “grandfather clause” of the 1898 Louisiana state constitution permitted the purging of thousands of black voters from the rolls, resulting in state and local governments unaccountable to African American citizens. Like Cohen, Vance allied with Booker T. Washington and his national network of activists and committed citizens to raise money, enlist volunteers, and lobby legislators to reform Louisiana’s racist voting laws. 

By Vance’s death in 1919 and Cohen’s in 1930, however, Jim Crow had mostly succeeded in driving African Americans to the margins of American political life. After P.B.S. Pinchback’s term as governor of Louisiana, there would not be another African American governor in the United States until 1990, when Douglas Wilder took office in Virginia. The marginalization of black leaders would have devastating consequences, not least for N. Claiborne Avenue and New Orleans. The exclusion of men like Walter Cohen and J. Madison Vance from federal posts and positions in national party organizations highlighted what little political power African Americans possessed in New Orleans and the rest of Louisiana. 

By the 1950s and 1960s, state and federal officials exploited the lack of Black political representation and colluded to replace black neighborhoods with large-scale infrastructure projects. “I’m gonna tell you straight out,” Leah Chase asserted when asked for her memory of resistance to Interstate 10, “We were not involved in anything…it was just like we didn’t belong.” 

By giving governmental approval to plans by purported urban planning experts and excluding African Americans from the planning processes, the Interstate 10 project came close to fruition before any meaningful resistance could develop within local communities. Meanwhile, white residents were able to successfully defeat the plan for an elevated expressway going along the Mississippi River in front of St. Louis Cathedral. Opponents to the highway project focused their attention on the proposed French Quarter overpass which preservationists rightly argued would destroy any remaining links to the historic character of the New Orleans riverfront. In a future column, we’ll dive deeper into community resistance to the N. Claiborne Avenue interstate project during the 1960s.

Greg A. Beaman is the director of research for the Claiborne Avenue History Project. He can be reached at greg@claiborneavenue.org.

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