The following is copied from an article in American Legacy Magazine (Spring, 2000)which celebrates African-American history. Look in the "archives", Summer 2000.
Black New Orleans
Keith Weldon Medley
A tour of the Big Easy through the eyes of a native reveals a little-known history that runs through the heart of it
Even from the air, New Orleans is one of North America's most intriguing cities. Flying in, you can see the winding Mississippi River, vast Lake Pontchartrain, and the bayous and marshlands that define the regions topography. Claimed by the French in 1718 as a strategic outpost near the mouth of the Mississippi, the city has endured nearly three centuries of floods, plagues, fires, and hurricanes. Its nineteenth-century buildings, riverbanks, narrow streets, oak-lined avenues, aboveground cemeteries, and hot, sultry summers all have tales to tell. I urge visitors to view New Orleans more as a loosely tethered Caribbean port city than a typical American municipality.
My own childhood in New Orleans gave me an early awareness of the city's historical sweep. Most of the buildings my daddy worked on as a plasterer were more than a hundred years old. The municipal auditorium, where my sister Marilyn took in rhythm and blues concerts, stands on a portion of Congo Square, where the city's enslaved Africans gathered to make music and dance as early as the eighteenth century. The Treme' neighborhood, where my daddy raised his younger brothers and sisters, was home to many well-known nineteenth and twentieth-century black musicians and writers. In a black business directory published in 1913, I found advertisements for my grandfather Albert "Papa" Toca's ice cream factory (the source of his patented iced custard) and the funeral home my great-grand uncle Charles Medley managed.
Those who explore the city without seeking its African and African-American roots will surely miss what it means to know New Orleans. People of African descent - enslaved and free - have been there since its earliest days. Between 1718 and 1722, boatloads of Africans from the Senegambia region of Western Africa arrived in New Orleans for forced toil in the Louisiana marshes. They hacked and drained swamps, constructed buildings and levees, and dug canals. For most Africans, it was a life sentence of slavery. Their sweat is in the city's architecture, their rhythms move its music, their creativity and flair spice its cuisine's. New Orleans was home to a large number of "free people of color"; defined as those who possessed property rights even while lacking political and civil rights. They gained their freedom in a number of ways: through manumission (sometimes by a white parent), by purchasing themselves, by being bought by a loved one, or by arriving as a free person from elsewhere. They defended the city in the 1815 Battle of New Orleans when two battalions consisting of five hundred blacks from Louisiana, serving under Gen. Andrew Jackson, stood in the line of British fire. Jackson later credited a shot fired from a black sharpshooter's musket for felling the British commander, Gen. Edward Pakenham, effectively routing the enemy. As of 1820 the city's population contained approximately twenty thousand whites, fifteen thousand slaves, and seven thousand free people of color.
By this time the original city of New Orleans today's French Quarter, or Le Vieux Carre' (Old Square), had grown to include the Creole suburbs, called faubourgs, that abutted the French Quarter. In 1805 Faubourg Marigny extended the city downriver across Esplanade Avenue, and a few years later the newly established Faubourg Treme' grew northward from Rampart Street toward Bayou St. John. White Americans, who began arriving in New Orleans around the time of the 1803 Louisiana Purchase, settled on the uptown side of Canal Street in order to avoid the Creole population, a cultural mix of people of Spanish, French, and African descent.
I grew up in the 1950s and '60s in Faubourg Marigny, right outside the French Quarter. As a young boy I paid little attention to houses that are now considered architectural treasures. Many of them were built and occupied by people of color before the Civil War and remain in use today as residences and businesses. In 1820 Jean-Louis Dolliole, the son of a Frenchman and a free black woman, designed the house at 1440 Bourbon Street, typical of the pitched-roof, dormer-windowed, brick or wooden buildings known as Creole cottages. Two other black men, the brothers Francois and Julien LaCroix, amassed a wealth of Marigny property through shrewd bidding at estate sales, auctions, and sheriff's sales. Francois Adolphe LaCroix helped establish the elementary school I attended in Marigny. The free black real estate developer built upon the legacy of the West African native, former slave, and free person of color Marie Couvent, who died at the age of eighty in 1837. Her will directed that her property be used to found a free school for the colored orphans of the Faubourg Marigny. For years nothing happened until LaCroix obtained a state charter in 1847 and a year later opened the Catholic School for the Instruction of Indigent Orphans. A hurricane destroyed the building in 1915, but its replacement, popularly called Holy Redeemer School, operated until 1994, when dwindling funds forced the school to close. Today Madame Convents dream lives on at the Bishop Perry Middle School, at the same site on Dauphine Street, attended by African-American boys in the fifth through eighth grades.
About a mile away from the school in Faubourg Marigny lie train tracks where my cousin and I used to cruise on bicycles. Here, on June 7, 1892, as part of a civil disobedience campaign mounted by a group called the Comite' des Citoyens, Homer Plessy, a shoemaker and Treme' resident, defied a Louisiana segregation law and boarded a first-class coach on the East Louisiana railroad. A detective dragged him from the train and took him to jail. The United States Supreme Court denied his civil rights in the infamous 1896 decision Plessy v. Ferguson. I was eleven years old in November 1960 when I watched on television, without truly understanding, the angry faces and harsh words visited upon four black first-grade girls who were entering McDonough #19 and William Frantz schools in the city's ninth ward. Years later I came to know Ruby Bridges, Gail Etienne, Tessie Prevost, and Leona Tate as heroic six-year-old frontline soldiers in the civil rights movement. As the first black students to desegregate Deep South public elementary schools in modern times, they opened the door that the 1896 Supreme Court had closed to Homer Plessy.
Among the earliest Louisianans to fight for their civil rights were Jean Saint Malo and his colony of runaway slaves. At the entrance of Saint Maloís camp, in the dense swamps east of the city and across Lake Borgne, Saint Malo thrust an ax into a tree and declared "Woe to the White who would pass this boundary". The runaways obtained weapons from free blacks and plantation slaves, but after a series of battles Spanish troops captured Saint Malo. On June 19, 1784, he was hanged in front of St. Louis Cathedral in what is now Jackson Square. Today, in the southern part of Lake Borgne, you can boat on a waterway named Bayou Saint Malo.
No place is more closely connected to New Orleans's African roots than Congo Square, located just outside the French Quarter. In 1786 a bishop described seeing "Negroes, who, at the Vespers hour, assembled in a green expanse called Place Congo to dance the bamboula and perform rites imported from Africa by the Yolofs, Foulahs, Bambarraras, Mandigoes". Early Congo Square rituals reflected West African faiths that came to be called Vodou, from the West African word vudu, which means "spirit". This complex amalgam of animism and Catholicism shouldn't be confused with the Hollywood version, known for its zombies and dolls stuck with pins. After the successful Haitian revolution of the 1790s, in which the Vodou practices played a crucial role, authorities banned the rituals in Congo Square. Nevertheless, the faith continued to be practiced in secret, most notably by Madame Marie Laveau, a highly influential priestess of the nineteenth century.
These days the old square is part of Louis Armstrong Park. There a statue of Satchmo gazes on mayoral inaugurations, gospel music extravaganzas, and African drum lessons. Imagine the scene in Congo Square late one Sunday afternoon in the 1820s. The bells of St. Louis Cathedral have struck five o'clock, yet there is no sign of a break in the sweltering heat. Under New Orleans's Black Codes, slaves had Sundays off. Those who did not seek day jobs or sell products along the riverfront walked the Rue D'Orleans, crossed the Rue des Rempartes, and arrived at Congo Square. Women of color, wearing distinctive head wraps called tignons, sold pralines, coffee with chicory, and brown ginger cakes. In the center of the Square, drummers straddled variously shaped drums crafted from hollowed logs. As in West African societies, performers bore scarifications, or tribal markings-incisions, cuts, dots, and other irreversible markings on the skin that denoted class, family, and tribal origin. During the week, the musicians were "darkies" and slaves. In Congo Square, they were called candios: chiefs.
Two large beef bones, pounded against an empty barrel, resounded the call to gather. Women rocked slowly from side to side, holding handkerchiefs high above their heads. Tambourines were slapped against open palms to add percussion. Thumb pianos lent melody. An old, old man strummed a banjo, his instruments neck carved into the shape of a human figure.
This weekly event was like a scene out of an African village. Then, at nine o'clock, policemen fired a signal gun and abruptly ended what one writer has called a "half-day of half-freedom". The penalty for lingering was twenty lashes. So into the night the Africans walked, back to slavery. "Bonsoir dance", they chanted as they departed. "Soleil couche". ("Goodbye dance, the sun is asleep".) During the Civil War, the evolving history of black New Orleans played itself out in Congo Square. On June 11, 1864, the 4th Colored United States Cavalry and black veterans of the Battle of New Orleans joined thousands there to celebrate the Emancipation Proclamation as church bells rang across the city, and for once no cannon fire ordered people back to bondage. On April 22, 1865, Congo Square mourned the death of President Abraham Lincoln, and two years later it became home to sit-in demonstrations not unlike those of the 1960s. The protesters, wrote one contemporary observer, "called upon the Negroes who were passing in the star cars [streetcars used for blacks were denoted by a large black star] to get out and ride in the others; that they had the same right to ride in them that the white man had". A number of people did just that as the crowd chanted "stay on, stay on". The next day the companies integrated their mule-drawn conveyances, and so they stayed until streetcars in New Orleans were resegregated by the Louisiana Legislature in 1902.
By the 1890s the Treme' neighborhood had absorbed Congo Square and its spirit. Treme' is still a place for writers, artists, and musicians. Stroll through the area and you will get a good idea of what it must have looked like when it was thriving, with its early-nineteenth-century Creole cottages still standing.
Before the Civil War, blacks owned 80 percent of the property in Treme'. The Ross Cottage, at 1131ñ33 Governor Nicholls Street, received its name from Phillipe Ross, a free black who built the double Creole cottage around 1837. From 1821 to 1883 the family of Anne Barron, a free woman of color from Kingston, Jamaica, occupied the Laurent-Roux Cottage that still stands at 1014ñ16 St. Claude. St. Augustine's Catholic Church has held the corner of St. Claude and Governor Nicholls since 1842, the same year Mother Henriette Delille founded the Sisters of the Holy Family, an order of black nuns that had traditionally cared for the poor and enslaved. Today, St. Augustine's pastor, Father Jerome LeDoux, ministers to a culture as well as to his flock in Treme'. Speaking and singing in a golden voice, he eulogizes New Orleans musicians and leads processions to centuries-old cemeteries to reconsecrate restored tombs.
Crossing Basin Street from Congo Square brings you to St. Louis Cemetery No. 1, the oldest cemetery in New Orleans, established in 1789 and racially integrated from the start. You can spend hours there examining the aboveground grave architecture, the wall vault tombs, and the elaborate memorials put up by benevolent societies. It is the final resting place for the Vodou priestess Marie Laveau, Homer Plessy, and the city's first black mayor, Ernest N. "Dutch" Morial, who served from 1978 to 1982. St. Louis Street was home to Storyville, the city's famous red-light district, from 1897 to 1917, where sporting houses provided music and more. Louis Armstrong, as a young boy delivering coal to the neighborhood, often lingered at Lulu White's Mahogany Hall at 325 Basin Street, where, he recalled, the champagne flowed like water. There he listened to Joe Oliver, Bunk Johnson, Manuel Perez, and other musicians who had honed their skills in Storyville's parlors and juke joints. The Navy demolished most of Storyville in 1917, concerned about its corrupting influence on troops shipping out to fight in World War I. The Iberville housing project stands there now.
Just past the project is St. Louis Cemetery No. 2, built in 1826. The least visited of the three St. Louis cemeteries; it is the most enlightening for visitors in search of Louisiana's African-American history. Among those buried there are Oscar James Dunn, the son of an emancipated slave who was the nations first black lieutenant governor from 1868 to 1872; Antoine Dubuclet, state treasurer from 1868 to 1879; Mother Henriette Delille, who founded the Sisters of the Holy Family; and Marie Couvent, who bequeathed her land to the school for orphans. Also interred there is Jordan Noble, the fourteen-year-old free black drummer boy of the Battle of New Orleans who never ceased beating his drum, even in the thick of fighting.
Trying to get a fix on the city's culture is like trying to catch a moving streetcar. Jazz funerals, as Louis Armstrong once explained, are events in motion: "Funerals in New Orleans are sad until the body is finally lowered into the grave. After the brother was six feet underground the band would strike up one of those good old tunes, like "Didn't He Ramble?" And all the people would leave their worries behind. Once the band starts, everybody starts swaying from one side of the street to the other, especially those who drop in and follow the ones who have been to the funeral. These people are known as the "second line", and they may be anyone passing along the street who wants to hear the music".
The personalized, dancelike stepping that accompanies the music of a brass band is called second-lining. But a second-line parade does not necessarily involve a funeral. Indeed, over forty social clubs such as the Jolly Bunch, Chosen Few, Black Men of Labor, Sudan, Lady Buck Jumpers, Lady Zulu, Treme' Sidewalk Steppers, and Perfect Gentlemen radiate energy during Sunday afternoon dancing parades. Members display matching shoes, hats, suspenders, umbrellas, handkerchiefs, and fans; spectators come as they are. Last year, on Labor Day, I watched the New Orleans Police Department stop all traffic in front of Sweet Lorraineís on St. Claude Avenue while the Treme' Brass Band and the Black Men of Labor passed by.
Not only on Mardi Gras Day but also on the evening of Saint Joseph's Day, a more local celebration every March 19, about thirty-five distinct black Mardi Gras Indian tribes - also called Indian gangs - with names like the White Eagles, Yellow Pocahontas, and Guardians of the Flame - appear after dark in elaborate, hand-sewn garments covered in beads and feathers. They race through the streets, tambourines in hand, singing warrior songs to engage rival tribes in competitions of costuming and chanting. In years past, the parade was a time to settle old scores, and fights broke out between gangs. Today, on the "Super Sunday" after Saint Joseph's Day, the downtown tribes, brass bands, and crowds of civilians parade from Bayou St. John to Huntress Field at St. Bernard Avenue for a big soiree'. The rivalry is now over whose costumes are deemed the prettiest.
Trying to get a fix on the culture of New Orleans is like trying to catch a moving streetcar.
Darryl Montana is Big Chief of the Yellow Pocahontas gang; his father, Chief Allison "Tootie" Montana, now in his seventies, "masked Indian" (that is, designed and created his own new costume every year) for more than fifty years. The younger Montana views his own participation in the Mardi Gras Indian tradition as an homage to Native Americans who gave haven to runaway slaves. The Indian parades may have come into being simply as a way for blacks to join the traditional Mardi Gras celebration. Montana, who is in his forties, has scarred; callused fingertips that bear witness to the long hours spent sewing his annual costume from scratch. On Mardi Gras Day, after the Yellow Pocahontas run through the crowd gathered in the 1600 block of North Villere Street to greet Big Chief Darryl Montana, the gang gathers in Congo Square for a moment of silence. "It's a love. It's a respect for your ancestors", says Montana of the tradition. "When I put my suit on, I live out my ancestors dreams".
When we were children, my older brother Big Al and I used to make our way to Canal Street, board the Freret Bus, and ride uptown to the Dryades Street YMCA. There we learned boxing, baseball, swimming, and respect for others. In the 1960s and 1970s I attended many Free Southern Theater productions at 1240 Dryades that were inspired by the student movements of the era. A few years ago I came across a 1913 publication called the Woods Directory that allowed me to imagine myself in the streets historic past.
Eighty-seven years ago Allen T. Woods, a black stenographer and entrepreneur, sought to increase his business by soliciting ads and business cards for the Woods Directory, which he distributed throughout the city. His publication showcased the black-owned insurance companies, photographic studios, and shops on the then-thriving Dryades Street. Strollers on the strip could buy a fashionable wool suit for fifteen dollars from Porters Tailoring company at 1010 Dryades. On hot summer days the Cut-Rate Pharmacy beckoned from 1832 Dryades, with its ceiling fan and pure fruit sundaes. At 2850, the Dryades Pocket Billiard Hall billed itself as the finest colored billiard hall in town with "strict decorum maintained at all times".
The Treme' and Dryades Streets of today have seen better times. Since 1950 New Orleans has lost more than a hundred thousand residents. Dryades Street fell victim to the same economic forces and urban blight that have undercut the downtown districts of other American cities. In Treme' a 1970s urban renewal project demolished sixteen square blocks of historic architecture, and miles of oak trees, along with Homer Plessy's residence, were destroyed to build an interstate. As I witnessed the neglect and government demolition that took down many of the historic houses built and occupied by nineteenth-century people of color, I felt like I was watching an old family album go up in flames.
In the past the black Indian parades were a time to settle old scores; today the rivalry is over the costumes.
I recently returned to Dryades Street, now renamed Oretha Castle Haley Boulevard, to chat with my friends Carol Bebelle and the artist Douglas Redd. From a former grocery store, they've carved a 6,800-square-foot performance space and auditorium called the Ashe' Cultural Arts Center. Upstairs are residential lofts. This renewal effort is buoyed by lending institutions, nonprofit organizations, city government, and private individuals. And other once-abandoned buildings are also springing back to life. Although much work remains to be done, Carol Bebelle can see a future for the boulevard as a "cultural tourism corridor".
Other parts of the city are likewise working to rejuvenate themselves. From the Preservation Resource Center's offices on Julia Street, vice president Edgar Chase III and Annie Avery, program manager of Live in a Landmark, strive to save the homes of early jazz artists such as Kid Ory, who lived at 2135 Jackson Avenue, and Luther Gray, a conga drummer, initiated the push that successfully added Congo Square to the National Register of Historic Places. In the graveyards, Friends of the New Orleans Cemeteries has restored the crumbling tombs of some of the city's more famous citizens. And Big Chief Darryl Montana's plan for a Mardi Gras Indian museum on North Claiborne Avenue is nearing fruition. I find it heartening that black New Orleans and its ancestral neighborhoods are being saved not only by historians and entrepreneurs but also by people such as Luther Gray and Darryl Montana. Together they ensure the future of the African-American past in New Orleans.
Back to the Home Page