2.28.2016

A History that Should Not be Hidden

Oh hello!  Long time no see.  2016 has thus far not lent itself to much blogging I'm afraid.  I'm working on writing about Pamela Anderson / PETA's suggestion that Louisiana save money by turning all of its prisons vegan - something that, as a longtime vegan and also a person well versed on Louisiana's prison issues, I am somewhat uniquely situated to unpack.  It's no small subject though, so it's gonna take some time.

Today, I'd like to tell you about a tour I took this morning.  It's the New Orleans Black History Bus Tour given by Hidden History Tours, and I cannot recommend it highly enough - to anyone interested in the unique culture of New Orleans.

It's no secret that New Orleans has a dark racial history - it is, after all, a part of the American South.  Despite profound discrimination and abuse lasting long after the end of slavery, African and African-American people played integral roles in the formation of the city in its construction, commerce, food, music, and all other aspects of daily life.  And yet many of the difficult experiences of black people in New Orleans are infrequently discussed.

Rather than sweep their struggles under the rug and say that the past is the past, understanding the events and policies that treated people of color as "less than" must inform our understanding of present-day struggles and inequity in New Orleans.  Hidden History's Black History Tour helps to begin to elucidate all of that New Orleans history "that they don't teach you in the Great American Schools."

Below, I've included just a handful of the places and stories explored on the tour.  Many more sites and events are included and discussed in detail by the knowledgeable tour guides.  Take this or any of the other tours offered by Hidden History to gain a better sense of the city we call home.  Bring your kids.  Bring your parents.  Bring your co-workers, colleagues, or school friends.  Bring anyone who comments that "slavery ended a long time ago" or that "reverse racism" is a thing.  Bring yourself, fully listen, and be prepared to learn something - even if it's something painful.  And recognize that the fight for the equality of all people is still being fought.

Many do not realize that the infamous Supreme Court decision of Plessy v. Ferguson began right here in New Orleans, at the edge of the Marigny.  A group of integration activists chose Mr. Plessy, a man who was 7/8 white but still considered black for the purposes of segregation, to board a "whites only" train car and to ultimately challenge racial segregation in Louisiana.  Upon being arrested, a lawsuit was filed and made its way all the way to the Supreme Court on the question of whether Louisiana's Separate Car Law violated the Thirteenth and Fourteenth amendments.  Sadly, the Supreme Court erroneously ruled that segregation was constitutional, launching several more decades of "separate but equal" policies that of course provided no equality at all.

In 1954, the Supreme Court finally rectified the terrible error it made in Plessy v. Ferguson, ruling in Brown v. Board of Education that segregation was in fact unacceptable.  The decision meant that public schools must educate students of all colors.  New Orleans, though, didn't integrate its schools until 1960 - and kicked and screamed at every step of the way.  Finally, due to the tireless efforts of attorney A.P. Tureaud and federal judge J. Skelly Wright, McDonogh No. 19 in the Upper Ninth Ward received three black first grade girls in November of 1960.  They had to be escorted by the National Guard due to the violent threats of white protesters outside.  Ruby Bridges, who I've spoken about before on this blog and who remains an active civil rights advocate in New Orleans, was experiencing the same at William Frantz Elementary on the other side of the Industrial Canal.
White parents immediately (literally physically) pulled their children out of the schools upon the entrance of the black students.  Despite the efforts of Judge Wright, New Orleans integrated only one grade at a time: in the 1960-1961 school year it allowed only first graders, in 1961-1962 only second graders, and so on.  By the time all grades were integrated in 1972, the vast majority of New Orleans' white students had enrolled in private Catholic schools.  It could be argued, then, that New Orleans' public schools were never successfully integrated.

In the picture above, our tour guide discusses the renaming of McDonogh No. 19 to Louis Armstrong Elementary, after activists requested that names of slaveholders be removed from public places.  John McDonogh, for whom dozens of public schools around the city were once named, donated money in his will for the construction and operation of public schools.  While his name is well known throughout town for that reason, it is less well known these days that he built his fortune on the backs of slaves.
If you've followed the struggle over the removal of New Orleans' Confederate monuments, you will hear (or see written in online comments) over and over and over again that "no one" in New Orleans was upset about these glorifications of white supremacy until people from up north came down after Katrina and told them to be upset.  In case the absurdity of that claim isn't obvious, that's simply not true.  On this tour you will hear about the struggle to remove these and other monuments that stretches back until at least the 1980s.
This particular monument, known by some as the "Liberty Place" monument and by others as the White Supremacy monument, was erected to honor former Confederate soldiers known as the White League who banded together in a paramilitary group after the war.  In 1874, the group attacked and killed members of New Orleans' freshly integrated police force while trying to overtake Louisiana's new Reconstruction government, then housed at the Customs Building on Canal Street.  They succeeded in the overthrow for three days, until national troops arrived to displace them.  The event is known as the "Battle of Liberty Place."  Activists have been trying to have this monument removed since at least the 1970s; it remains standing (though moved from its original location at the foot of Canal Street) due to the efforts of, among others, David Duke.

This plaque, added to the base of the "Liberty Place" monument in 1989, changed the original meaning of the monument from honoring only the members of the White League to honoring everyone who fought at the "Battle of Liberty Place."  This is, to say the least, still not acceptable.  How anyone could agree to maintain a monument that was literally erected to honor people who murdered police, specifically in the name of white supremacy, who were attacking their own state's government, is mind-boggling.

Despite extraordinary efforts by a small group of "preservationists," this and three other Confederate monuments around New Orleans are to be removed.  That is, just as soon as the City can find a contractor who can withstand the intimidation of the "preservationists" who have now embraced highly unethical methods of getting their way after losing before the City Council and both State and Federal Courts.  One can only hope that the next generation will see this behavior the way that we now see the fight for school integration: a foregone conclusion that shouldn't have been a fight, with one side very clearly on the wrong side of history.

Take the tour!  Afterward, have a late lunch at one of the many black-owned restaurants in New Orleans with vegan offerings (like Dreamy Weenies, Bennachin, Coco Hut, Juju Bag, or Praline Connection) just for good measure.  You'll have so much to chew on.