I hope y’all enjoyed my first post on some of the history of New Orleans! I would like to dive into post-Reconstruction era New Orleans, when Jim Crow was instituted in Louisiana, and the civil rights movement.
During the Reconstruction era, there was massive progress in securing equal rights for African Americans; the Thirteenth Amendment abolished slavery and indentured servitude*, the Fourteenth Amendment guaranteed equal protections under the law for African Americans, and the Fifteenth Amendment guaranteed equal voting rights to all citizens. Despite this progress, however, racial discrimination was far from over, as it evolved to be represented by Jim Crow laws that were gradually introduced throughout the Reconstruction era. ‘Jim Crow’ laws were named for the minstrel shows in which (white) actors wearing blackface portrayed the stock character of ‘Jim Crow’, a lazy, unintelligent buffoon, who represented many of the stereotypes about Black people during this time. These stereotypes and prejudices against People of Color (POC) informed many of the racial discrimination laws that were instituted during this time, leading to these laws becoming synonymous with the term ‘Jim Crow laws’.
*It is important to note that although indentured servitude was made illegal, it was still legal as punishment for a crime under this amendment. This is important to consider when examining the school-to-prison pipeline that still exists in the US today.
Life under Jim Crow
While protections under the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth amendments guaranteed POC many rights equal to those given to the white ruling class, the reality that POC faced was very different. African Americans were systematically excluded from voting due to the implementation of ‘literacy laws’, poll taxes, and residency requirements. For the disenfranchised Black community, who had historically limited access to Capital, and often did not own the land they worked, this made it difficult and often impossible to participate in the political process.
Separate, but (un)Equal
In the 1890s, Louisiana began to segregate public places, starting with Louisiana railroads. This was challenged by Homer Plessy, who in 1892 bought a first class ticket and went to take his seat in the all-white first-class train car, and was arrested. Plessy later sued, and the landmark case, Ferguson vs. Plessy, resulted in Louisiana law being upheld, and represented a major step backwards in terms of rights for POC. After this case, more and more public places in Louisiana were segregated, and in 1898, Blacks were stripped of the right to vote in Louisiana. Unsurprisingly, the increase in discriminatory laws was mirrored by an increase in violence against POC, and lynchings became increasingly common throughout the 1900s. Segregation continued to sweep the state by storm, only increasing in its velocity, and eventually even the Catholic Church in New Orleans established a segregated parish, the Congregation of Corpus Cristi.
A Long Struggle
Throughout the institution of Jim Crow laws, and the ever increasing violence faced by African Americans, communities stood together to fight against the violence and intolerance together. Throughout the 1910s and 30s, the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP), challenged Jim Crow policies, and fought against the idea that separate was equal. Many of the victories for the NAACP were won due to the work of Alexander Pierre Tureaud, the lead attorney for the NAACP and a descendant of Free People of Colour. One of his most important victories was against the Louisiana government, who he sued for paying African American teachers less that white teachers.
World War II marked a pivotal time for the Civil Rights movement even before if had fully taken a breath. As people of all races served in the US army, as soldiers, nurses, pilots, and as factory workers, segregation during this time became less plausible, and its hold weakened.
The Problem We All Live With
In the 1950s, the US Supreme Court ruled during the landmark case, Brown vs. Board of Education, Topeka Kansas, that segregation in public places was unconstitutional. These results shook the Southern way of life, as streetcars were integrated, and New Orleans streetcars were de-segregated in 1958. Some of the harshest and vilest backlash, however, erupted during the New Orleans School Crisis of 1960.
Despite being ordered to desegregate public schools since 1954, the New Orleans School Board to segregate public schools. After being faced with an ultimatum, integrate schools or get your funding cut, the School Board brought three African-American first graders, Leona Tate, Tessie Prevost and Gaile Etienne to McDonogh Elementary School, and one first grader, Ruby Bridges, to William Frantz Elementary, both of which were located in the historically impoverished Lower Ninth Ward.
The move was met with outrage by white parents, many of whom pulled their children from school. On November 15, 1960 mobs of angry community members and parents, particularly working-class mothers, formed groups, and organized a rally that over 5,000 attended in support of parents defying the school board’s decision. Riots and threats of violence against the girls, particularly against Ruby Bridges, became an everyday occurrence, which resulted in the girls requiring protection by US Federal Marshals. Between January and May 1961, Ruby Bridges was the only student left attending William Frantz, as parents of other students refused to let their children go to school while Ruby attended.
In the 1961-62 school year, de-segregation was much more peaceful, and continued in New Orleans without further incidents such as the riots the year before. The lasting legacy of this incident can still be felt, however, in the higher enrolment of white students in private institutions, and the low quality of public education in Louisiana, of which the majority of students are African American.
The end of an era…?
In 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act, a piece of legistlation that banned discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin, followed by the Voting Rights Act in 1965 that banned discriminatory voting practices that barred POC from participating in the civic process. These pieces of legislation officially ended the Jim Crow era. Although the brought an official end to this era, however, the effects of Jim Crow still linger, evident in the racial attitudes and persistence of poverty throughout Louisiana and New Orleans.
In a later post, I hope to discuss the impact of these policies, and to compare and contrast them with my experiences in NOLA. I can’t wait to get started!