Some New Orleans Black History You Should Know

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Some New Orleans Black History You Should Know

 

“It is important to learn what has been done to Black people. It is important to learn what Black people have done. But it is even more important to learn about and from the collective intelligence developed through Black struggle over generations.”

—“Black Studies as Praxis and Pedagogy,”
UCSB Center for Black Studies Research, 2016

 

In New Orleans, history is just as vital an element in the city’s culture as food, music, architecture, spirituality, and celebration. In fact, history may be the most powerful force, because the stories we know shape how we view every other aspect of the culture. Because many histories in New Orleans are passed down orally, they often aren’t captured in textbooks or assessed on standardized tests. And when powerful stories of resistance, ingenuity, and solidarity aren’t told, we risk losing the power they have to inspire subsequent generations.

With the education of New Orleans’ Black students in the hands of so many white people from somewhere else, the future of New Orleans is on the line. New Orleans is a city rooted in Blackness. Nearly everything about this city that put it on the map is the work of Black people. You should know their stories.

Consider this a brief, non-comprehensive overview to give you some entry points for further exploration and hopefully get you interested in learning more from local elders, historical documents, and written histories.

From its incursion as a French colony on land used by indigenous peoples, this city has depended on Black people for its existence. Although Europeans chose the spot to establish the city of New Orleans in 1718, they lacked the skills and technology to survive in the unfamiliar environment. The colonists would have starved if it weren't for African labor and technology. The only successful crop in the first years was rice, which the enslaved West African farmers in the colony knew how to cultivate based on the expertise they developed back home.

As plantations expanded along the river, more and more Africans were kidnapped and trafficked to the Americas. New Orleans became a major hub of the slave trade. As a French (and later Spanish) colony, the rules that governed the behavior of enslaved people were different from other places in North America. The French instituted their Code Noir in 1724, which gave people who were enslaved a “day of rest” on Sundays. People of African descent were allowed to congregate, which allowed them to maintain many aspects of their African cultures. When the Spanish came to power, they relaxed restrictions even more, allowing enslaved people to sell their goods and earn money to buy their and their families’ freedom. In New Orleans, enslaved Black people gathered in a space that became known as Congo Square, just beyond the edge of the city. Today you can find this area in Louis Armstrong Park, which is fitting, since you can draw a line from the role Congo Square played in preserving African culture and the formation of jazz and other important forms of American music originating from New Orleans.

In 1791, a revolution began in the French colony of San Domingue. Enslaved people, inspired partly by the news of the American and French revolutions in 1776 and 1789, respectively, rose up against their oppressors. After more than twelve years of fighting, they were successful and established Haiti, the only country founded as a result of an uprising of enslaved people. As a result, many of the creoles (some white, some free people of color) who owned land and enslaved people were driven out. And many of them came to New Orleans. This influx of colonists from Haiti more than doubled the city’s population between 1805 and 1810 and had a profound impact on shaping the culture of the city. The West African religion practiced by many enslaved Haitians was known as vodun, and called vodou in Haiti. In New Orleans it became voodoo, where it survived partly by appropriating Catholic saints to stand in for the loa, or spirits, of their religion.

One of the most immediate repercussions of the immigration from Haiti was the revolutionary spirit in the hearts of enslaved Haitians brought to Louisiana. This spirit manifested in one of the largest slave uprisings in U.S. history: the 1811 Slave Revolt. Led by Charles Deslondes, an enslaved man from Haiti, more than 500 enslaved people killed their captors and marched to take New Orleans. Unfortunately, they were met just outside the city (near where the airport in Kenner is today) and defeated by well-armed troops. The leaders were decapitated and their heads mounted on pikes along river road to warn other enslaved people with similar ideas. But the fighting spirit of enslaved Africans in Louisiana continued to grow.

Uprising wasn’t the only means of defying the horrors of slavery. Many enslaved people also escaped captivity and formed maroon colonies in the untamed swamps that surrounded the plantations and settlements of Southeast Louisiana. Indigenous peoples helped the maroons survive in the swamps. Today many Black people in New Orleans continue to pay tribute to this partnership through the tradition of Mardi Gras Indians.

Enslaved Africans and their descendents didn’t just provide the labor that built New Orleans, but their architectural artistry continues to draw people to New Orleans today. Much of the ironwork in the French Quarter is woven with Ashanti symbols, designs, and patterns. And the Haitians who came to New Orleans in the early nineteenth century brought the iconic shotgun house with them (which originated in West Africa).

By the 1820s, New Orleans was the largest slave-trading center in the United States. As slavery became more and more entrenched in America, abolitionists created a system of safehouses to support people seeking freedom in Canada. The St. James A.M.E. Church—still in operation today—was a waystation in the Underground Railroad. However, there was also a Reverse Underground Railroad. Free people of color in Northern states were kidnapped and brought to be sold in the slave markets of New Orleans.

From the Haitian migration through the end of the Civil War, New Orleans had one of the largest populations of free people of color in the South. Because they were predominantly French-speaking, they called themselves gens de couleur libres.They enjoyed a status somewhere below the white population but above the population of enslaved people. Some free people of color were very wealthy and many were highly educated. They and their descendents have shaped the culture of New Orleans in innumerable ways. Although some free people of color owned enslaved people, many fought for abolition and other political causes. For instance, Dr. Louis Charles Roudanez, a free man of color, started the New Orleans Tribune in 1864, the first Black daily newspaper in the United States.

In the early nineteenth century, free people of color settled the oldest suburb in New Orleans, Tremé, just across Rampart Street from the French Quarter and surrounding Congo Square. There, in 1841, they founded the first Black church in Louisiana and the first Black Catholic church in the United States, St. Augustine. A significant population of free people of color also settled in the suburb of Carrollton, before it was annexed by the city of New Orleans in 1874. After the Civil War, the social status of this population became the same as that of formerly enslaved Black people. Some lamented this loss of social superiority and showed prejudice against the freedmen and their descendents. The paper bag test was invented in New Orleans as one means of perpetuating this hierarchy through colorism.

Reconstruction in New Orleans was unlike anywhere else in the South. Black New Orleanians made great gains in equality, with many institutions seeing integration at levels higher than anywhere else. Though good records were not kept at the time, either all or nearly all of the public schools were integrated (though to varying degrees), despite opposition from many white people. Black people were elected to local offices (such as the school board) and Louisiana became the first state in U.S. history to have a Black governor (P.B.S. Pinchback, a resident of New Orleans) and lieutenant governor (Oscar Dunn). There were also notable conflicts, such as the 1866 massacre, where Black citizens demanding democratic participation were killed by white mobs.

Several HBCUs were founded in New Orleans during Reconstruction: Leland University, Straight University, and New Orleans University. Leland closed in 1960, but Straight and New Orleans eventually merged in 1930 and became Dillard University in 1934. The state established another HBCU in New Orleans in 1880, known as Southern University, where it remained until 1913, before being moved to near Baton Rouge in 1914. A New Orleans campus of Southern University was established in 1956 as Southern University, New Orleans (SUNO). The city’s other HBCU that still exists, Xavier University was first established as a secondary school in 1915 and then as a post-secondary institution in 1925, and was the first (and still the only) Catholic HBCU in the country.

The Louisiana State Penitentiary—more commonly known as Angola prison—was established in 1844 on what had been a plantation. Shortly after the Thirteenth Amendment was written and ratified to allow incarceration as the only remaining legal form of slavery in the U.S., Angola pushed its convict leasing program on overdrive, as its cells filled with Black men “convicted” of committing petty, newly invented crimes, such as vagrancy. Over the years, prisoners have staged protests at the conditions they are forced to endure. Angola remains a notorious, brutal prison plantation to this day, still filled disproportionately with Black men, some political prisoners, some wrongly convicted, none deserving the life they face there.

When Reconstruction ended, white people in the South moved quickly to reassert their total dominance over Black lives. But Black people in New Orleans had tasted a measure of equality and weren’t going to give it up without a fight. A civil-rights group called Comité des Citoyens—or the Citizens Committee—formed in 1891 to challenge the Separate Car Act, which had become law the year before. The law stated that railcars (including street cars), be separated by race. A light-skinned member of the committee, Homer A. Plessy, who had attended integrated schools in his childhood during Reconstruction, volunteered to intentionally violate the law, since he could pass for white. The committee arranged for a cooperative police officer to arrest Plessy, so they could take the case to court. The case made it all the way to the Supreme Court in 1896 as Plessy v. Ferguson. Unfortunately, the court used the case to establish the doctrine of “separate but equal,” paving the way for innumerable Jim Crow laws. It wouldn’t be until 1954 that the court began to reverse the unjust Plessy decision.

Starting in Reconstruction and continuing through the Great Depression, Black workers (mostly those working in port-related jobs) formed unions and challenged working conditions, sometimes in solidarity with white workers in the same trades. They also called and joined in several strikes, including those in 1872, 1874, 1881, 1892, 1907, 1930, and 1932. In the middle to late twentieth century, Black workers in a wide variety of fields unionized and participated in numerous strikes, often making important gains as a result. Despite dwindling union membership nationwide, Black workers in New Orleans have continued to unionize and win victories in the twenty-first century.

Racial tensions rose in the years following the Plessy decision. Robert Charles, a pan-African activist, shot two police officers who were harassing him. In the four days that followed, white mobs roamed the streets terrorizing Black people. The clashes left twenty-eight dead and the local papers blamed the Black community for instigating the violence. Famed anti-lynching journalist Ida B. Wells wrote a book about it.

Despite the restrictions of Jim Crow, a few Black people were able to prosper. Many of those who did directed resources back to the community. For instance, Smith Wendell Green, a Black millionaire in New Orleans, constructed the Pythian Temple, headquarters of the local Colored Knights of the Pythias of Louisiana chapter, in 1909. The Temple provided a venue for local Black cultural events, from high-school graduations to live performances and a meeting space for activists.

Another important benevolent organization born around this time, the Zulu Social Aid and Pleasure Club, traces its origins back to 1901. Today a venerated Carnival krewe, Zulu had humble beginnings as a foot parade, often satirizing white Mardi Gras traditions. Over the years, Zulu developed into a vital civic organization. Black New Orleanians have also developed other Carnival traditions, such as the skeletons and the baby dolls, in addition to the aforementioned Mardi Gras Indians (who also gather on Sundays near St. Joseph’s Day). And all of the songs that New Orleanians recognize as anthems of Carnival season were hits made by Black artists.

In 1900, the school board in New Orleans decided to end education for Black children at the fifth grade. This was a huge setback for the Black community, but they got organized and worked hard to win back grades six, seven, and eight by 1909. Then they could return to their fight to open a public high school for Black students, which hadn’t existed since about 1880. Many local Black universities—such as Leland, Straight, New Orleans, and Southern—had high schools on their campuses, but these weren’t free. Shortly after the legislature closed Southern University in New Orleans in 1913, a group of citizens formed the Colored Educational Alliance, led by Henderson H. Dunn and Mary D. Coghill. The group—which included luminaries such as Walter L. Cohen, Sylvanie Williams, Arthur Williams, John W. Hoffman, Pierre Landry, Samuel L. Green, Lawrence D. Crocker, and other prominent educators and activists—fought hard to improve conditions for Black students and open a high school. Their efforts, along with those of other similar groups, yielded results when, in 1917, the Orleans Parish School Board agreed to open McDonogh No. 35, the city’s first Black public high school since 1880. It remained the only such high school in New Orleans until 1942, when the school board opened Booker T. Washington and Lord Beaconsfield Landry high schools.

The relative cultural freedom of Congo Square continued to bear fruit long after the Civil War. New Orleans brass band music emerged from African-rooted celebratory funeral processions that came to be known as second lines in New Orleans in the late nineteenth century. These bands (which included both brass and percussion instruments) formed one of the seeds (along with gospel, blues, ragtime, spirituals, etc.) that sprouted jazz music in New Orleans in the early twentieth century. Pioneers like Louis Armstrong, Jelly Roll Morton, Louis Moreau Gottschalk, and “Gospel Queen” Mahalia Jackson came up in New Orleans and took jazz with them when they migrated from the South.

Jazz was a major factor in the Harlem Renaissance. One of the most famous writers from this movement was New Orleanian Alice Dunbar Nelson. The 1920s also saw the founding of The Louisiana Weekly in 1925, a Black newspaper still publishing today. (Two other Black newspapers are published in New Orleans today: the New Orleans Data News Weekly, which began publishing in 1967, and the New Orleans Tribune, which originally ceased publication in 1869, and was restarted in 1985.)

Local chapters of national and international civil rights organizations appeared in New Orleans during the second decade of the twentieth century. The New Orleans chapter of the NAACP was founded in 1915 and the local chapter of the Universal Negro Improvement Association was formed in 1920. New Orleans is also sadly linked to the UNIA as the port from which Marcus Garvey was deported in 1927.

During the lowest point of the Great Depression, the Orleans Parish School Board cut the salaries of all teachers, which hit Black teachers harder, since they were already paid less than white teachers. After significant pressure from teachers’ unions, the school board came close to restoring salaries to 1933 levels in 1937, but pay for Black teachers was still lower. So Black teachers formed a union, AFT Local 527, known as the New Orleans League of Classroom Teachers, in December of 1937. They worked tirelessly for years and eventually, with the help of NAACP lawyers A.P. Tureaud and Thurgood Marshall, won full equalization of pay by the fall of 1943. Their union went on to challenge school segregation and other inequities. In 1972, one of the white teachers’ unions merged with them to become United Teachers of New Orleans (UTNO), one of the first integrated locals in the South and the first teachers’ union to negotiate a collective bargaining agreement in the Deep South.

Before the integration of baseball in 1947, New Orleans had numerous Negro League teams, the most famous of which were the Black Pelicans, the New Orleans Eagles, and the New Orleans Crescent Stars. The Black Pelicans played at Pelican Stadium, formerly on the corner of Tulane and Carrollton. During the era of Jim Crow, sporting events were segregated, so having Black teams was one of the only ways Black fans could watch live sports. Black high schools sports were also popular for the same reason, though there weren’t very many Black high schools in New Orleans before the 1950s.

Redlining kept Black people from buying homes in much of the city. However, there were certain areas—often with what white people considered undesirable land—where Black people could (and did) buy land and build homes. One of these areas was the Lower Ninth Ward. From about 1940 on, Black families became homeowners in the Lower Ninth Ward. By the time of the floods of 2005, 59% of the properties were owner-occupied, compared to 46.5% in the city as a whole. Other areas where Black people were able to buy homes were Pontchartrain Park and New Orleans East, which included Lincoln Beach, a stretch of lakefront set aside for Black people to enjoy outdoor recreation and amusement. It was, of course, half the size of the white-only Pontchartrain Beach, but Black people felt safe there.

Jazz and brass bands aren’t the only music to come from New Orleans. In the late 1940s, New Orleans musicians began laying out the blueprint for rhythm and blues, which would later become rock and roll. Henry “Professor Longhair” Byrd, Dave Bartholemew, and Antoine “Fats” Domino—to name a few—made danceable, catchy music, rooted in the pulsating rhythms of Congo Square. When a young man from Macon, Georgia named Richard Penniman wanted to become a rhythm and blues star in the early 1950s, he knew he needed to travel to New Orleans to find the musicians that could put him on top. Soon known to the world as Little Richard, he recorded many early hits at Cosimo Matassa’s French Quarter studio with New Orleans musicians. New Orleans produced many more of its own R&B stars, like Allen Toussaint, Eddie Bo, Ernie K-Doe, Irma Thomas, Barbara George, Jessie Hill, Huey “Piano” Smith, Earl King, and many more. One of the hubs of Black night life in the city at this time was the Dew Drop Inn on LaSalle Street, where Black drag queens regularly commanded the stage, including Bobby Marchan’s alter ego Lobreta and Little Richard’s Princess Lavonne. New Orleans had a key role to play in the development of funk music too. North Carolina’s George Clinton and Georgia’s James Brown both trace the development of their iconic funk styles back to New Orleans musicians. And of course New Orleans had its own funk icons, such as The Meters, Chocolate Milk, and King Floyd.

WYLD, New Orleans’ oldest Black-owned radio station, started broadcasting in 1949 as WMRY. WBOK, the city’s second-oldest Black-owned radio station, started broadcasting about a year later. Together, these stations made significant contributions to the explosive popularity of R&B music in the 1950s. Both are still broadcasting today.

Although many history books like to define the Civil Rights Movement as beginning with Brown v. Board of Education in 1954 and ending with the assassination of Dr. King in 1968, the truth is that Black people had been engaged in a struggle for civil rights since they were stolen from their homes in Africa. Their activism was continuous and New Orleans was no exception. In 1943, twelve years before Rosa Parks refused to get out of her seat in Montgomery, 17-year-old Bernice Delatte was arrested for defying segregation rules on a bus in New Orleans. And not far from New Orleans, Black community members in Baton Rouge organized a bus boycott in 1953—two years before the much more well known Montgomery bus boycott. In fact, the Baton Rouge boycott served as a model for the Montgomery boycott, with Dr. King consulting the Baton Rouge leaders about tactics.

After the Montgomery bus boycott, Dr. King and other activists decided to form the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, which would become one of the key civil rights organizations during the late 1950s and 1960s. They met at New Zion Baptist Church in New Orleans in February of 1957 to form the group. Dr. King was chosen as its first president and served in that role until his death. New Orleanian A.L. Davis was its first vice president. New Orleans also had many of its own civil rights leaders, including Reverend Avery Alexander, Oretha Castle Haley, and Jerome “Big Duck” Smith.

The fight against school segregation had been going on in New Orleans long before the Brown v. Board of Education decision in 1954. Teachers and others had confronted the school board about racial inequities in schools since segregation began. In 1948, NAACP lawyer A.P. Tureaud (the only Black lawyer in Louisiana at the time) filed suit In Aubert v. Orleans Parish School Board. In 1952, Tureaud filed Bush v. Orleans Parish School Board, which sought relief against the inequities of school segregation, just as the Brown case did. Both of these cases originated with parents in the Ninth Ward. And on May 7, 1954, Black teachers and principals led a boycott of the annual McDonogh Day celebration, in which children were brought to Lafayette Square to show gratitude at the statue of John McDonogh, a slave trader who gave money to the school board in the nineteenth century to erect school buildings. In 1960, William Frantz Elementary and McDonogh No. 19 Elementary became the first elementary schools to integrate in the South. Ruby Bridges, Leona Tate, Tessie Prevost, and Gail Etienne were the brave Black girls who faced hateful white mobs every day to integrate these schools.

Members of CORE (the Congress of Racial Equality) and others in New Orleans participated in sit-ins at several prominent segregated lunch counters, including Woolworth and McCrory’s. Protesters at McCrory’s were arrested (including Oretha Castle) and their case went all the way to the Supreme Court as Lombard v. Louisiana. And the Freedom Riders who left Washington, D.C. on May 4, 1961 were bound for New Orleans, before they were attacked and their bus burned in Alabama. The Freedom Riders were ultimately flown to New Orleans, where they were secretly housed on the campus of Xavier University for a week, for their own safety.

Tragedy struck New Orleans in 1965 in the form of Hurricane Betsy. The Lower Ninth Ward flooded as the result of broken levees. Because levees had been intentionally blown up in the Flood of 1927 to save wealthier parts of New Orleans, Lower Ninth Ward residents suspected their levees were blown for the same reason in 1965. Many school buildings were damaged, but only one was destroyed: McDonogh 35. There were discussions about closing the school, but community members fought back and ultimately secured temporary spaces before the school could be relocated to a brand new building (one of the first in the city with central air and heat) in 1972.

During the Black Arts Movement of the 1960s and 1970s, artists and writers in New Orleans made important contributions. The Free Southern Theater—founded in Jackson, MIssissippi in 1963, but relocated to New Orleans in 1965—produced plays and revived the African practice of story circles, initially as a way of democratically engaging audiences after performances. Many contributors were both artists and activists. The writing workshop BLKARTSOUTH, started by Kalamu ya Salaam and Tom Dent, was born out of the Free Southern Theater, with the goal of developing more Black playwrights, poets and prose writers. They published a journal of Black writing called Nkombo.

Black Power was also alive and well in New Orleans during the late 1960s and early 1970s. After years of inadequate funding from the state, students led a takeover of SUNO in 1969 that included kidnapping Governor McKeithen and bringing him to SUNO to address their concerns. Afro-centric schools like the Ahidiana Work Study Center were established by local Black activists. And the New Orleans chapter of the Black Panther Party was a force for community empowerment, especially in the Ninth Ward. Despite their hot breakfast program for children and other support programs, the federal government and the NOPD took an aggressive stance against the Panthers, which led to a shootout that ended in a stalemate. The police withdrew and when they returned to arrest the Panthers on a subsequent day, the residents of the Desire housing development formed a human shield and would not let NOPD officers—or their tank!—through. After a tense, hours-long standoff, the police retreated without the Panthers in hand.

The 1960s and 1970s also saw the beginning of a steady migration of Garifuna people from Central America. The Garifuna are descended from Nigerians, as well as Arawak and Carib Indians. They escaped captivity centuries ago and created a unique culture that—as is the case with Black New Orleanians—has preserved many African cultural elements. Today, the Garifuna population in New Orleans is one of the largest in the United States.

One of the centers of Black social, spiritual, and commercial life in New Orleans was Claiborne Avenue in the Tremé. Many Black people gathered there for Carnival festivities each year under the oak trees that lined the street on both sides of the neutral ground. But when the federal government decided to build Interstate 10 through the heart of the city, white New Orleanians kept it from areas they wanted to protect and so in 1968 it was built along Claiborne, cutting the Tremé in two and tearing a vital thoroughfare out of the heart of the Black community.

Traditions of African cuisine and Black culinary artistry have had an enormous impact on New Orleans food culture. Over time, many have tried to diminish the contributions of Black people to the delicious sustenance so unique to this city, but this legacy is undeniable. The truth is, during the period of their enslavement, Black people improvised delicious dishes from the resources they had available, including animal parts that their white captors didn’t want and food they could grow easily and plentifully on their own. The red beans and rice New Orleanians still eat on Mondays was brought with Haitians who migrated here in the first decade of the nineteenth century. Before that, captive Africans made a stew reminiscent of home and called it gumbo, a word that sounds like the word for okra in many West African languages. And visitors to French Quarter during the nineteenth century would see Black women selling a variety of candies, including pralines. In the twentieth century, venerable Black-owned restaurants emerged during the Jim Crow era to both nourish and delight Black folk. Dooky Chase opened a sandwich shop in 1939 and a dine-in restaurant in 1941 and it’s still going today. Chef Leah Chase, who passed away in 2019, spent decades preparing meals for everyone from people from the neighborhood, to civil rights leaders, to the president of the United States. And Willie Mae’s Scotch House, established in 1957, has been keeping Black culinary traditions alive for more than half a century.

In the 1960s, Black candidates for public office began to win elections for the first time since Reconstruction: Ernest "Dutch" Morial (state legislature in 1967, mayor in 1977), Mack J. Spears (school board in 1968), Israel Augustine (judge in 1970), Dorothy Mae Taylor (state legislature in 1971, city council in 1986), Joan Bernard Armstrong (judge in 1974), Andrew Young (U.N. ambassador in 1977), Abraham Lincoln Davis (city council in 1975), and Bernadette Johnson (chief justice of Louisiana supreme court in 2013).

At the outset of 1972, New Orleans had no Black-owned banks. Two entrepreneurs believed that Black people needed a bank they could trust, so they established Liberty Bank, which is still in operation today and now operates branches in eight states from Louisiana to Michigan.

The #BlackLivesMatter protests we’ve seen in 2020 in New Orleans are part of a long legacy. Police violence has been an ongoing problem here, as elsewhere. For years, Black people have been organizing themselves to protest mistreatment. Rallies against police brutality were common in the 1970s and in 1981, activists conducted a non-violent takeover of the mayor’s office in City Hall on June 19 that ended on June 21.

1991 saw the birth of a new style of hip-hop music from New Orleans: bounce. Because of its heavy reliance on samples, bounce songs weren’t welcome on radio, so they gained popularity at live shows and parties. The music, though popular in New Orleans, remained underground. Many queer rappers embraced bounce, and lovers of bounce music embraced them—which hasn’t always been the case for queer rappers in other variants of hip hop. In recent years, bounce has seen a revival that has made it more well known outside of New Orleans.

Although efforts to change school names to honor notable Black people had existed since the 1960s, a coordinated campaign was begun in the 1980s to rename schools and dismantle monuments that celebrated slave owners and white supremacists. The Afro American Liberation League asked the school board in 1990 to change the names of several schools. Led by Malcolm Suber and Carl Galmon, the effort succeeded in changing board policy about school names and led to name changes of several schools. However, the struggle continued through the end of the decade and beyond, through to today. Community groups also advocated successfully to rename streets, such as renaming Whitney Avenue in Algiers to L.B. Landry Avenue in 2002.

For more than half a century (and likely longer), young Black people in New Orleans have shown powerful leadership. In addition to the work they did in CORE to fight public discrimination laws, they also focused their energy where they spent most of their time: schools. For instance, in 1970, students at Nicholls High School called for the school’s name and mascot to be changed. In the early 1970s, students at McDonogh 35 staged a sick-out to pressure the principal to make changes at the school. Later in the 1970s, students at McDonogh 35 started the first public school gospel choir in New Orleans, which still performs today. In 1978, students across the city organized to support their teachers, who were on strike. In 1994, sixth graders at Charles Gayerre school successfully petitioned to have the school’s name changed to Oretha Castle Haley. In 1995, students at McDonogh 35, unsatisfied with their English curriculum, developed a new writing program, Students at the Center, designed to make their experience part of the curriculum and challenge them intellectually. In 2007, students at John McDonogh formed the Fire Youth Squad to demand improvements to their learning conditions. In 2012, students at Walter L. Cohen High staged a multi-day walkout to challenge the takeover of the school by a charter operator without input from the school community. In 2013, students at Clark and Carver protested conditions in their schools using tactics from the Civil Rights Movement. There are, of course, many other examples of student activism from young Black New Orleanians; most every Black person who grew up in New Orleans has a story like these they can tell.

When hurricanes Katrina and Rita struck New Orleans in 2005, a poorly designed levee system failed and flooded 80% of the city. The 20% that didn’t flood was significantly whiter than the sprawling square miles that did. Blocks and blocks of homes in the Lower Ninth Ward were leveled, as suspicions that levees were again deliberately detonated again ran rampant. Black activists formed the People’s Hurricane Relief Fund, to fight for the rights of returnees and provide critical oversight of the alleged relief efforts of national organizations.

The loss of housing wasn’t the only blow to Black New Orleans. With the city still largely evacuated, school privatizers hatched a plan to take over New Orleans schools, fire everyone who worked in them, and build a new system of charter schools in place of the traditional school system, which was largely run by Black people. Firing all the employees had several intended effects: devastation to the Black middle class, reducing union membership to zero, and—with both of these two missions accomplished—weakening the formidable political power of the Black electorate. Veteran teachers were largely unwelcome in the new charter schools, many of which were awarded to white people from out of town who believed they had come to save Black children from their own communities. Veteran teachers took their talents elsewhere, often helping lead districts in other states forward with pedagogies that were new in other places, but old hat to teachers from New Orleans. Poverty rates—especially for children—climbed dramatically after the floods.

UTNO worked hard to rebuild its membership, despite the anti-union hostility present in so many charter schools. Teachers also won two court victories in a suit challenging their wrongful termination, but eventually lost the case at the Louisiana Supreme Court in 2014. In 2015, teachers at Benjamin Franklin High School negotiated the first collective bargaining agreement with a charter school operator in New Orleans, and teachers at Morris Jeff Community School followed in 2016 with a contract of their own, as did teachers at Mary D. Coghill Charter School in 2018.

The colonization of the education landscape led to the closures and proposed closures of many schools. Unlike many other cities, New Orleanians take great pride in the schools they attended and continue to feel a strong affiliation with their alma mater into adulthood. Carver High School, which had been opened in 1958 on the largest plot of land (64 acres!) owned by the school board, was not listed on the school facilities master plan proposed after Katrina. Carver alumni and Ninth Ward community members organized, fought, and got Carver put back into the master plan. The school was rebuilt in 2016 because of their efforts. L.B. Landry was the first high school after Katrina to get a brand new building. However, after a few years, the Recovery School District wanted to let O. Perry Walker (a historically white school) move into and take over Landry (a historically Black school). The Landry community wasn’t having it. They organized and pushed back hard, eventually ensuring that their school’s namesake—a Black doctor from Algiers who had delivered as babies some of the very people fighting for the school—would continue to be honored in the school’s name, which became Landry-Walker High School. Other alumni and community groups fought, but weren’t so successful. The John McDonogh High School community fought hard to get the school building renovated and continue operating as a high school with the same name. However, the building was renovated and given to a K-8 school, Bricolage Academy.

The throughline of these stories is action. Black New Orleanians have a long history of stepping up, standing tall, and fighting back. But this isn’t just history. Black people in New Orleans today stand on the shoulders of their elders and ancestors in their struggle for liberation. Groups like Take ‘Em Down NOLA, Rethink, Families and Friends of Louisiana’s Incarcerated Children, Justice & Beyond, Women with a Vision, Guardians of the Flame, the New Orleans Workers’ Center for Racial Justice, UTNO and others keep this spirit of resistance alive and well. This spirit is the inheritance of every Black child in New Orleans. If you teach Black children, nurture this spirit in them. Collaborate with them to dig deeper into these stories and to reveal other stories their families and community elders know. Encourage them to find out who they are, where they come from, and what they were born to do.

 

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