African American Civic Leadership in New Orleans
During the Civil Rights Movement from the 1950s to the 1970s, African Americans fought and protested against their political, social and economic marginalization that manifested in the form of Jim Crow laws, segregation, and institutional racism. This trinity of inequality became solidified in a post-emancipation society and severely circumscribed the lives of African Americans.
In New Orleans, Louisiana, a sizable portion of the urban population was and still is African American. In a post-Civil War era, where African Americans saw the disintegration of their civil rights, Black New Orleanians chose to create institutions independent of a white-led society, which sought not only to exclude them but to limit their accessibility to resources that would adversely affect their standard of living. African American communities developed despite these hardships and their members were able to foster and create leaders. This exhibition displays the evolution of African American-owned and run businesses, organizations, and institutions in New Orleans that were created to fill the void of services offered to them during the period of de jure and de facto segregation in America.
Organized as a benevolent society for Creoles of Color working in the cigar production industry, Les Societé des Jeunes Amis formed in 1867 and received its charter in 1874. Among the club's more well-known members were musicians Edmond Dédé and William Nickerson, as well as activist Daniel Desdunes and the family of Homer Plessy. The club, located at 1321 Dumaine Street, the site of the former St. Mary Institute, provided sick and death benefits for its members and annually donated $25 to the Eye, Ear, Nose, and Throat Hospital of New Orleans. This booklet is the society's constitution and by-laws which listed, among many things, how monies raised by members were to be used.
The Ladies Friends of Faith Benevolent Association was formed to furnish sick benefits to paying members. In this 1914 minute book, a glimpse is provided into the inner-workings of the organization. Application for membership and payment of dues are listed, as well as the payment of relief benefits to members. To guard against false claims of illness, a visiting committee checked on members receiving benefits.
Also discussed in the minute book is the movement of the association's meeting place to the Pythian Temple, a leading site for African American businesses and meetings.
Benevolent association members who failed to contribute to the well-being of the organization faced consequences. This notice instructed a member of the Young and True Friends Benevolent Association to attend a meeting "to settle indebtedness, or be dealt with according to Article 6, Sec. 1 of the by-laws of the constitution." This article stated that any member owing more than 75 cents would be given 30 days to pay their debt or be dropped from the roll.
People's Industrial Life Insurance Company, the second Black industrial insurance company in the state of Louisiana, was founded in 1909 by Walter L. Cohen and others. People's issued a weekly newsletter called The Weekly Sentinel, which is pictured above. The publication changed names twice where it was subsequently titled, Newsletter of the People's Life Insurance Company of Louisiana and The Mighty Pelican.
Some of the most well-known and expansive funeral home businesses were those owned and operated by members of the Geddes family. George D. Geddes opened a mortuary business on Erato Street in 1876, which was inherited by his son, Joseph P. Geddes. Another son, Clement J. Geddes was co-owner of Geddes & Moss, which was reorganized by his widow Gertrude Geddes-Willis in the 1940s. This 1942 article from The Sepia Socialite discussed the history of the family business and Gertrude's role as a leading businesswoman of her day.
The Blandin-LeBlanc Company, a funerary business, was formed in 1909 with the partnership of John Blandin and Mandeville Adrien LeBlanc. LeBlanc died in 1920 and Blandin in 1928, whereupon the company was inherited by Blandin's daughters and reorganized as the Blandin Undertaking Company.
This 1909 receipt is from the Blandin-LeBlanc Company to Molly Hutton. The handwriting says, "Transfer of remains of the late Mrs. Mary Jane Hutton from Girod Cemetery to New St. Louis #3 in small rough coffin--permit from Board of Health. Transportation of remains."
In the 1930s, the New Orleans Negro Board of Trade was formed by Black business owners of the Dryades Street corridor. Patterned on the National Negro Business League, the Board of Trade sought to stimulate and publicize African American business, promote employment for the trained youth, increase modern business practices, and bring more business and trade conventions to the city. This 1940 publication by the organization was produced "for the promotion of business in the City of New Orleans." On the cover is Thomy Lafon, a 19th century Creole businessman and philanthropist.
The Crescent City Sepia Host was conceived in 1950 by New Orleans photographer Marion J. Porter. Although not explicitly stated in the introduction or cover, this “buyer’s and tourist guide” obviously targeted an African American audience through its emphasis on Black businesses, churches, and entertainment venues. A “who’s who” of African American leaders, both men and women, in New Orleans are featured here.
Ellis Marsalis Sr., a prominent New Orleans businessman, began his business career in 1936 as the manager of an Esso service station, along with his business partner, William Wicker. When the station first opened, it was located at Eighth Street and Howard Avenue, but it later moved into the Uptown neighborhood of New Orleans at the corner of Sixth Street and Claiborne Avenue. Ellis Marsalis Sr. was not only known for his entrepreneurial endeavors, but for being the patriarch of the prominent musical Marsalis family.
In 1943, Marsalis purchased a property in the Shrewsbury community of Jefferson Parish and converted a chicken barn into a forty room motel, complete with a swimming pool, restaurant, and lounge. The business was one of the only motels open to African Americans traveling to New Orleans at the time of Jim Crow segregation laws. Guests to the motel included prominent civil rights activists, politicians, and musicians, such as Martin Luther King Jr., Adam Clayton Powell Jr., Thurgood Marshall, Ray Charles, and numerous celebrities who visited the New Orleans area.
While the motel flourished during segregation, after the civil rights legislation in the 1960s, hotels and motels across the city that once blocked African American guests opened their doors to all travelers, and business to Marsalis' motel declined drastically. On September 26, 1986, Marsalis closed the motel and it was demolished in 1993. A historical marker was erected in 2015 at the former site of the motel to honor the contributions of Marsalis Sr.
Food is a fundamental aspect of New Orleans and Dooky Chase's Restaurant has long been a pillar of the city's food culture, as well as a meeting place for civil rights activists and politicians. Founded in 1941 by Emily and Dooky Chase, Sr., the restaurant began as a sandwich shop and lottery ticket outlet.
This banquet invitation honoring the Freedom Riders, a group of civil rights activist that challenged the non-enforcement of laws against Southern segregated buses, speaks to the restaurateur's role in the New Orleans civil rights movement.
The Louisiana Weekly was founded by New Orleans community leaders O.C.W. Taylor and C.C. Dejoie Sr. in 1925. Taylor was a former teacher of the New Orleans Public Schools system and C.C. Dejoie was President of the Unity Industrial Life Insurance Company. The Weekly's original headquarters was at 303 Pythian Temple Building. Dejoie used his business entrepreneurial skills and persuaded insurance agents to sell subscriptions and copies of the publication and use their contacts in the community to relay stories and issues of importance to African Americans.
The first two issues of the newspaper appeared under the title of The New Orleans Herald. By October 17, 1925, the newspaper had 4,500 subscribers, which its founders called a "record in Negro journalism.
The image above is the cover page of the first issue of the Louisiana Weekly.
Adolph J. Moret entered the printing business as a teenager when family circumstances forced him to leave school and obtain employment. He worked for eighteen years at Steeg Printing Company in New Orleans before founding his own printing company, The Moret Press, in 1932. The company began in his backyard garage and eventually expanded into new quarters. Moret added new equipment and technology as the printing business evolved. The Moret Press existed for seventy-three years until it was destroyed by Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
This picture of Adolph J. Moret is from an article discussing the history of the Moret Press.
In 1869, the American Missionary Association (AMA) established Straight University in New Orleans. The campus was originally located on Esplanade at Burgundy, and later moved to Canal Street between Tonti and Rocheblave streets. Straight, the first school for African Americans that furnished elementary through postgraduate education, included among its disciplines the Law, Normal, College, Theological, and Medical schools.
The university prided itself on being "the pioneer school in this section of the South, in offering the recently emancipated race, the opportunity for an education leavened with the spirit of the Gospel." George Henderson, a Straight graduate, writing in 1900 stated, "Straight never loses sight of the home as the center of social life, and as the sanctuary of purity and virtue." The institution's name was changed to Straight College in 1915 and merged with New Orleans University to form Dillard University in 1930. The university exists as an institution of post-secondary education to this day.
Above is an 1893 commencement program from Straight University. One of the graduates listed, Albert Wicker, began his career as a New Orleans school teacher at the Bienville Street School in 1896. He became the school's principal in 1901 and continued in this capacity until his death in 1928. After his death, the name of Bienville was changed to the Albert Wicker School in November of 1928 to honor the legacy and service of Wicker. The life of Wicker is an example of how Straight University was instrumental in educating African American New Orleanians.
Located above is a 1904 commencement program from Straight University. Straight's Normal School graduated many students who would evolve into education and civic activists in New Orleans. One of these students, Fannie C. Williams, whose name is listed under the College Preparatory Department of this program, would come to embody Straight's goals of instilling service and virtue into its graduates.
Williams became a pioneer in the field of African American education in the South and worked for the holistic development of children. From 1912 until her retirement in 1954, Williams taught and was principal of Valena C. Jones Normal and High schools.
Prior to the establishment of New Orleans' first African American high school "McDonogh No. 35" in 1917, African Americans, when their families could afford it, received their education at one of the city's three private high schools: Leland College, New Orleans University, and Straight College. Pictured above is the cover of the 1917 Straight College High School commencement invitation.
Also featured in Straight College High School's commencement invitation from 1917 is the graduating class's motto: Viam Reperiemus aut unum Faciemus, or "We will find a way or make one."
The name of George Longe is included in this Straight College High School class roll. Longe would become a future New Orleans educator, and was instrumental in designing the curriculum for an African American history course that would be established in New Orleans Public Schools.
The three R's of reading, writing, and arithmetic served as the foundation of basic skills for education during the early 20th century. While African American educators emphasized the three R's to their students, they also wanted them to gain a greater appreciation for the arts, whether it was through singing, dancing, writing, designing, or printmaking. From yearbooks and calendars, to the performing arts, students in New Orleans flourished in a variety of arts programs. The next six images are examples of African American student participation in the literary and performing Arts.
Pictured above is Fenelia Magraff, a student of the Elma Moore Dance School.
Elma Moore Booker was a lifelong resident of New Orleans, and the first African American woman to open her own dance studio in the city. She was also the first African American to receive her Louisiana Dancing Teacher's Certificate in 1934 after she completed training at the Mildred Kohlman Studio of Dance. Booker's school taught ballet, tap, acrobatics, ballroom, and other American popular dances. Performances of her students received praise from local audiences and newspapers for the talent and skill of the young performers.
The Moving Finger, the student periodical of Valena C. Jones Normal and Practice School, was published by its Senior class. In this 1937 issue, the students sought to show the public the inner workings of the school. Featured inside was the Nursery, Practice and Normal schools. Sponsors of The Moving Finger included some of New Orleans most prominent businesses and businesspeople, including Gertrude Geddes-Willis of Geddes & Moss, the Peoples Industrial Life Insurance Company of Louisiana, and photographer Villard Paddio.
McDonogh No. 35 was founded in 1917 and became the first high school for African American students in the state of Louisiana. The high school's publication, the McDonogh No. 35 Gazette, debuted in January 1958. According to McDonogh's students, the purpose of the paper was "to give the public a bird's-eye view of the events which are going on in our school, and most of all, to give the student a chance to express his ideas in this time of turmoil."
This 1941 image is of the Barker A'Capella Girls Octette, a group of nine students from Albert Wicker High School. They won several state contests, received accolades throughout the Gulf Coast, and hosted a fifteen minute weekly program on CBS affiliate WWL Radio. Their manager, Walter J. Barker, also pictured, was a poet, educator, and World War I veteran.
At a time when African Americans in New Orleans were working to expand the elementary, secondary and post-secondary options of their children, they also sought education for their littlest citizens. Mildred Bernard Martinez and Ethel Boyd Bush featured prominently in offering pre-kindergarten education to African Americans within the city. Both women founded preschools in the 1930s to fill the void of educational institutions for children under the age of five.
Above is the 1953 graduation certificate of kindergartner James Marvin Davidson of the Martinez Nursery School.
Mildred Bernard Martinez founded the Martinez Kindergarten School in 1934. When the Martinez Kindergarten School opened at its original location on LaSalle Street in New Orleans, it was the first and only pre-kindergarten school for African Americans in Louisiana. Children were taught the basic concepts of phonics and math. The Martinez Kindergarten School became a prestigious institution that attracted the attention of many Black professionals who were eager to send their children there.
Here is an early photograph of educator Mildred Martinez.
The Martinez School had a rigorous curriculum organized by Mildred Martinez, who believed that pre-school children could and should learn to read. Martinez espoused teaching pre-K children literacy at a time when people thought that it was unorthodox to do so. This pre-primer is an example of books Martinez used to teach her students how to read.
Ethel Boyd Bush was born in Bayou Goula, Louisiana in 1911. She attended Valena C. Jones Normal School and McDonogh No. 35 High School before she attended Southern University in Baton Rouge and Columbia University in New York. She returned to New Orleans and “saw the need of a Kindergarten for the pre-school age children” of the city. She canvassed her neighborhood and enrolled 22 students when the school first opened on September 5, 1939.
Pictured above is the cover of the first issue of the Bush Elementary School yearbook, The Hi-Fli. It included a photograph and message from founder and principal, Ethel Boyd Bush.
In this photo from the 1930s, Rivers Frederick (center) is performing surgery at Flint-Goodridge Hospital surrounded by a team of African American medical professionals.
Frederick was born in 1874 in New Roads, Louisiana. He graduated from Straight University and earned his M.D. from the University of Illinois in 1897. Frederick served as the Chief of Surgery at Flint-Goodridge Hospital from 1932-1950, but remained as a consultant in surgery after his departure. He was also the instructor of surgery in the Flint-Goodridge summer post graduate courses from 1935-1953.
Emile LaBranche Sr. served on the Board of Trustees of Flint-Goodridge Hospital in the early 1930s. He was a graduate of Straight College (now called Dillard University) and the Pharmacy School at Meharry Medical College in Nashville, Tennessee. Emile LaBranche opened LaBranche's Drug Store in 1907 at 716 N. Claiborne Ave. in New Orleans.
Pictured above is a portrait of Emile Labranche Sr.
Emile LaBranche's store provided opportunities for other medical doctors to start their careers such as Clifford Belfield who, like LaBranche, was also a graduate of Straight College and Meharry Medical School. Belfield would follow in the footsteps of LaBranche and open his own store called Belfield's Pharmacy in 1930.
This photograph, circa 1960s, depicts the building where LaBranche's Drug Store was located.
The Citizens' Committee (Comité des Citoyens) was formed in 1891 as a response to the Separate Car Act of 1890 that dictated the separation of whites and African Americans on public transportation.
The Committee entered into history by choosing Homer Plessy to challenge the constitutionality of the Separate Car Act, which resulted in the Supreme Court case of Plessy v. Ferguson (1896). Many of its members consisted of some of the most prominent African Americans of New Orleans including lawyer Louis Martinet, funeral director Alcee Labat, and author and activist Rodolphe Desdunes.
Civic leagues in New Orleans can be traced to the formation of the Seventh Ward Civic League in 1927. It was established to represent the 7th ward in the city, a largely Creole district. Dr. Joseph Hardin, who is highlighted in the center of this photo, was instrumental in its founding and became the League's first president. The goals of the League were to improve civic pride and welfare, encourage education, support African American businesses and promote interracial cooperation.
Other wards throughout the city followed in the Seventh Ward League's footsteps and established their own civic organizations. These distinct ward leagues formed the Federation of Civic Leagues in 1929 to organize around and discuss issues particular to their ward. They accomplished securing schools for African American communities and they engaged in social justice activities, which included heavy support for the city's chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).
In this flyer is information regarding a 1936 toy drive organized by the Federation of Civic Leagues.
The Links, Inc. is an international women's service organization. Its national chapter was established in 1946 by Margaret Rosell Hawkins and Sarah Strickland Scott. It grew to become one of the most prestigious associations of Black women in the world. The New Orleans Chapter of the Links, Inc. was chartered on November 23, 1957. It was the first chapter in the state of Louisiana and its original fourteen members shared the vision of the national organization's commitment to educational, civic, and intercultural activities.
This photograph depicts the charter members of the New Orleans Chapter of the Links at its installation ceremony in November of 1957.
The People's Defense League was founded in 1941 by Ernest J. Wright. Born in Kenner, Louisiana, Wright attended Xavier University of Louisiana in the 1930s. His career in labor organizing served as the launching for his political organization. The People's Defense League served as a civil rights organization that ran voter registration drives and protested against police violence.
Wright gained support for the League by travelling across New Orleans and Louisiana addressing churches, unions, NAACP branches, etc. By 1946, the League had registered 5,000 voters in New Orleans and by 1950 it had developed chapters in twenty-six parishes throughout Louisiana. The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) described the League as "the most powerful Negro organization in New Orleans." Wright's involvement with the political establishment, through his support of unpopular Louisiana Governor Earl Long and his candidates during the 1950 election, eroded the reputation of Wright and led to the decline of the People's Defense League.
Before the passage of laws that banned de jure segregation between African Americans and Whites in social spaces, Black New Orleanians sought to create and fund businesses, organizations, and institutions that serviced their needs. The African American community in New Orleans was able to create an educated and engaged class of professionals and citizenry that became its leaders and entrepreneurs. By doing this, they were able to circumvent a system of laws that sought to diminish their constitutional liberties and render them invisible in public settings.
Exhibition curated by Chianta Dorsey, Melissa Smith and Christopher Harter. Digital exhibition created by David Gaidamak and Chianta Dorsey. This digital exhibition was supported by a grant from the Patrick F. Taylor Foundation. It is an expansion of the physical exhibition, “The Things We Do For Ourselves: African American Civic Leadership in the Crescent City,” held at the Amistad Research Center in 2015.
The Amistad Research Center is committed to collecting, preserving, and providing open access to original materials that reference the social and cultural importance of America's ethnic and racial history, the African Diaspora, and global social justice movements. As the nation's oldest, largest and most comprehensive independent archive, the Amistad's holds 800 manuscript collections which include over ten million documents from the 1780s to present, 250,000 original photographs dating from 1859, 1200 audiovisual recordings, 40,000 book titles, 2000 periodicals titles, and over 400 pieces of fine art dating from the 19th century.