by Anitra D. Brown The New Orleans Tribune
Fatima Shaik says her father’s best friend was the last living member of the of the Société d’Economie et d’Assistance Mutuelle (Economy and Mutual Assistance Society).
That is how proximate the history of the organization founded 185 years ago is.
But the world came even closer to never discovering that history at all. The original handwritten journals of the Economy and Mutual Assistance Society, were rescued from the trash by her father Dr. Mohamed Shaik in 1965 when the Economy Hall was razed.
Thankfully, they were not thrown away. Instead, they were stored for decades.
Those books, some 3,000 pages, dated as far back as the 1850s. Shaik honed in on the records of one of the Society’s secretaries, Ludger Boguille. It was his meticulous notes, handwritten in French that served as a primary source for the historical accounts detailed in Shaik’s book Economy Hall: The Hidden History of a Free Black Brotherhood.
What she discovered in those records was the story of a free, thriving, educated community of Black people in New Orleans that came together to uplift one another, to celebrate and enjoy life, all while fighting for their rights as men.
Strength in unity—that is biggest lesson Shaik learned in researching and writing Economy Hall, she says.
“We can be successful by joining with each other and believing that our institutions should exist that we should keep them going,” Shaik told The New Orleans Tribune. “This building—they kept it for more than a century. And it was a safe place. It was a good space.”
It was a space of support. Economy Hall was located in the 1400 block of Ursulines Street in Tremé. It was the meeting place of the Economy and Mutual Assistance Society, an organization founded in 1836 by free men of African descent in New Orleans. For more than a century, the Economy Society assisted with medical and funeral costs, supported education and the poor, and sponsored balls and dances.
It was a space for culture and entertainment. In the 1860s, Economy Hall was also the site of concerts and recitals that featured classical musicians such as Samuel Snaër, Edmond Dédé and Basile Barès. Economy Hall also incubated early 20th-century jazz music, hosting performers the likes of Kid Ory, Joe Oliver, and Louis Armstrong.
It was a space of resistance. Members of the Economy and Mutual Assistance Society also opened Economy Hall’s doors to New Orleans for progressive causes, mass meetings and efforts organized to secure the rights of Black men. According to America’s first Black daily newspaper, The New Orleans Tribune, it was “the hall where the oppressed and the friends of liberty in Louisiana first met in council.” To be clear, many of its members were early Civil Rights activists rallied for the rights of Black people, free and enslaved. And Economy Hall doors were open for this activity as well.
“We were doing some incredible things in the 19th century,” says Shaik. “There was a huge population of free people of color that owned real estate and property. We had a lot going on. We had some rights, not all. But we were able to form a pretty tight-knit community.”
A native of New Orleans’ 7th Ward, Shaik says her research revealed truths about the community that go against myths and misconceptions.
“They say the people of the 7th Ward kept to themselves, but Economy Hall opened its doors to everybody,” she says. “It’s members formed coalitions with the formerly enslaved. If you look at the record, Ludger Boguille was the grand marshal of the emancipation celebration held in Congo Square (in 1864). That goes against what we have heard.”
To be sure, the history and impact of this community of people—people of African descent who were free prior to the Civil War—has remained largely unknown until recently times despite there being communities of free people of color who numbered well over a quarter million residing throughout the United States during the antebellum period, with New Orleans and south Louisiana home to one of the oldest and largest populations. Just before the Civil War, in New Orleans alone, there were 18,000 free people of color who owned and paid taxes on $15 million of property.
And while some general truths may have been widely known, specific details—the particulars that illuminate the lives and legacies—like the ones unearthed by Shaik’s combing through records that were stored for another 50 years after they were almost thrown out, are often even more obscure.
Thanks to Shaik’s research and book, her first non-fiction offering, along with the efforts of Le Musee de f.p.c, a house museum dedicated to the sharing the story of free people of color through art, artifacts and other material culture believed to be the only of its kind in the country, those stories of unity, culture an resistance are more widely known.
Later this month, Shaik and Mark Roudane, the great, great grandson of the founder of the historic New Orleans Tribune and author of The New Orleans Tribune: An Introduction to America’s First Black Daily Newspaper, are the featured speakers in a virtual discussion that explores the history of Economy Hall. The event is sponsored by the Louisiana Creole Research Association.
“What struck me about the history of Economy Hall was that these records were nearly lost to us,” says Kimberley Coleman, curatorial manager & education specialist at The McKenna Museums, of which Le Musée de f.p.c. is a part.
“I lament the potential loss of this history and am extremely grateful to the Shaik family, especially Fatima, who was felt called to tell this story. As a historian and a curator, I believe these stories are vital. They fill in gaps on major events and give us access to different perspectives. In my opinion, history is all about various perspectives centered around various events. In all, it’s a history I didn’t know I was missing but now need. It’s already changed how I talk about and how I talk about the events this text covers.”