18 Black Women That Made New Orleans Better
In honor of Women’s History Month and New Orleans’ Tricentennial, The New Orleans Tribune has combed through its archives and through history to share just a bit of information about 18 Black women whose selfless efforts and work molded and guided the development of New Orleans throughout its 300-year history.
This list is by no means exhaustive. To be sure, there are many whose names, contributions and accomplishments ought to be included. But time and space prevent us from doing more. As the city celebrates its Tricentennial and the world celebrates women, here is our list of 18 for 2018.
Compiled by Tribune Staff
SOCIAL WORK & RELIGION
Henriette Delille is venerated because of her brave and altruistic work. By giving up a relatively privileged lifestyle for a woman of color in her time to care for poor and enslaved Blacks, orphans and the elderly, she helped change and shape the social landscape of 19th century New Orleans.
Born a free woman of color, Delille was trained in various subjects like medicine, French literature and the arts. With the influence of her Catholic faith, in 1827 14-year-old Delille began work as a teacher for the St. Claude School educating young girls of color. Ten years later, she began setting the foundation for Sisters of the Holy Family. In 1842, she founded the second all-Black order of nuns established in America. It was composed of free women of color who went against the laws of time by educating and caring for slaves. The sisters were also essential in the caring for people during the yellow fever epidemics and the elderly.
Today, Delille’s legacy continues through the Sisters of the Holy Family.
Marie Bernard Couvent also known as Justin Fervin Maria Gabriel Bernard Couvent and Marie Justine Cirnaire was born in 1751 in Guinea, near the West coast of Africa. She was abducted into slavery and transported to Saint-Domingue at the age of seven. Couvent escaped slavery during the Haitian Revolution and came to New Orleans, where she married a free man of color, Gabriel Bernard Couvent. The Couvents lived on Barracks Street and accumulated their wealth through property. Marie Couvent is known for her service and dedication of land that was used to construct the Institute Catholique or Ecole Des Orphelins Indigents (Catholic School for Indigent Orphans), and the Couvent School.
While in her seventies, Couvent requested assistance from Father Constantine Maenhaut, a priest at Saint Louis Cathedral, to establish a school for African-American orphans in the Faubourg Marigny. This was the first school in the United States to offer free education to Black children. Free people of color paid tuition to attend the institution. The Catholique School for Indigent Orphans operated until 1915.
Fannie C. Williams
Fannie C. Williams was a pioneer in African American education and public schools in the South. Born in Biloxi, Mississippi, she first came to New Orleans to attend high school and later graduated from the College Preparatory and Normal Departments of Straight College (now Dillard University) in 1904. She then went on to earn two bachelor’s degrees in 1920. She was an essential key to the education of African Americans in New Orleans. She pioneered many developments in school systems during a time of great struggle for African Americans and the nation as a whole
After her education, Williams immediately began to take action towards building education opportunities by training African-American teachers at Valena C. Jones Normal School in 1921. She also was instrumental in placing kindergarten classes and nursery care into African-American public schools. From serving on the board of directors at Dillard University to serving as the president of the National Association of Teachers in Colored Schools, the importance of her work extends beyond New Orleans and the South throughout the country.
Leah Metoyer McKenna
Leah Metoyer McKenna was a teacher at several elementary schools before being assigned as the first African-American female principal of an integrated public school and integrated faculty in New Orleans. During the turbulent days of mandated integration, McKenna established a beacon of hope and model of dependable leadership to ensure the success of Rivers Frederick Elementary school.
In the face of hostility and resistance from various sources, including some newly assigned staff and despite the media criticism intended to discredit the effort, McKenna demonstrated courage, tenacity, strategic interactions with all stakeholders, and a determination to establish a viable educational program at the school.
McKenna devoted her life to her family, her school, and the greater community. She remained at Rivers Frederick Elementary School for more than 30 years. Her legacy is the thousands of students who went through the school under her leadership over three decades. She retired as a legend and remains an icon in our city. She died in 1996. Today, the George and Leah McKenna Museum of African-American Art is named in honor of her and her husband.
Dr. Thelma Coffey Boutte
New Orleans native Thelma Coffey-Boutte, was the first Black woman to practice medicine in New Orleans. She graduated from Xavier Preparatory School in 1927 and moved to Chicago to live with relatives while she attended Crane College, graduating in 1930. In 1934, she earned her medical degree from Meharry Medical College in Nashville, Tennessee, returning to New Orleans briefly to complete her internship at the newly-opened Flint Goodridge Hospital. Around the same time, Dr. Albert W. Dent convinced Flint-Goodridge’s board to offer maternity care, including medicine and all necessary procedures, for a flat-fee of $10, to encourage more women, many of whom were still giving birth at home with midwives, to get prenatal care and give birth at the hospital. As a result, a steady stream of Black mothers received were seen by Coffey while she interned at Flint-Goodridge.
She went on to complete her residency at Provident Hospital in Chicago. But to make her parents happy, Dr. Coffey came back to New Orleans in 1937, opening a private practice and joining the staff of Flint-Goodridge. She was member of Alpha Kappa Sorority, Inc.; and during the 1930s, she and other members of the sorority who were doctors or nurses in the South spent several summers volunteering at the 16 clinics set up by the sorority in the Mississippi Delta, serving over 1500 family groups over time.
Dr. Coffey married Benson Meade Boutte, a popular public school music teacher. She served patients in New Orleans and at Flint-Goodridge for more than 30 years, delivering several thousand babies—according to one estimate—about four to five hundred each year.
After she retired from her medical practice, Dr. Boutte continued to work as an instructor at Xavier University in the Health and Science department and represented her branch of the American Medical Women’s Association at the Medical Women’s International Association Meeting in Paris 1973. Dr. Coffey-Boutte was honored by the National Council of Negro Women with its Mary McLeod Award in 1983. Dr. Boutte retired in 1985 after a long and successful career. She died June 21, 1991.
SOCIAL WORK EDUCATION
Millie Charles has been an active advocate for social work education throughout her entire career. Her hard work and dedication in New Orleans to educating African Americans has provided a contribution to the community that is to be heralded. Charles began her education at Dillard University and continued at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge. She received her master’s degree in social work from the University of Southern California. She later developed a diverse work experience as social worker in New Orleans, a teacher in Columbia, Louisiana, and a Red Cross worker in Japan. In 1965, she was asked by Dr. Emmet W. Bashful to start a social work program at Southern University at New Orleans because of her expertise and passion in the field. The program eventually branched out to become SUNO’s School of Social Work, with Charles as its founding dean, where she has touched the lives of many students who have impacted the field throughout the city, state and nation.
The Times-Picayune honored her with Loving Cup Award in 2013 for her service, commitment and equality towards social justice. And on Jan. 9, 2018 SUNO officials dedicated the new Millie M. Charles School of Social Work Building.
The Castle Sisters: Oretha Castle Haley and Doris Jean Castle
Oretha Castle Haley was instrumental in fighting for civil rights for African Americans in New Orleans.
Born July 22, 1939, Castle participated in desegregating public spaces, voter registration and lunch counter sit-ins that were sponsored by the Consumers League of Greater New Orleans and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Oretha Castle Haley and her sister Doris Jean Castle were also active in the New Orleans CORE chapter, working diligently to desegregate hotels, theaters and an amusement park, restaurants, lunch counters with local activists who garnished national reputations as distinguished civil rights leaders that included Rudy Lombard, Jerome Smith and others.
New Orleans was a hub for activists during the Civil Rights Movement. And the Castle home (thanks to their mother Virgie) housed and fed hundreds of Freedom Riders.
Oretha Castle and Richard Haley married in 1967. In the 1960s, Haley and others boycotted businesses on Dryades Street, located in Central City, because business owners would not hire African Americans to work in their stores. After the boycotts, several businesses closed. The Central City area served as a culturally diverse business center in New Orleans. In 1989, the first eight blocks of Dryades Street were named Oretha Castle Haley Boulevard in Haley’s honor. Haley died October 10, 1987.
Sometimes overshadowed by her older sister in the annals of history, Doris Jean Castle the younger of the two sisters, was a force in her own right in the local civil rights movement. And while Oretha had a knack for strategizing and planning local civil rights efforts, Doris was what the movement needed just as much—a willing participant.
Doris Jean was only 18-years-old when she took part in 1961 Freedom Rides. Castle rode a Greyhound bus from Montgomery, Alabama to Jackson, Mississippi as part of a May 24, 1961 Freedom Ride. She was arrested the following day in Jackson. Like so many others, she ignored the risk to herself in pursuit of the basic human rights she and other Black Americans were due. Doris Jean Castle died in 1997.
The Thompson Sisters: Alice, Jean and Shirley
Between 1959-1960, Alice, Jean, and Shirley Thompson, became members of the Youth Council of the New Orleans branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) . The Thompson Sisters, as they are famously known, soon sought more direct action and in 1960 joined the New Orleans chapter of the Congress for Racial Equality (CORE) under the leadership of Rudy Lombard and later Oretha Castle Haley. They participated in many sit ins and protests, most notably, the Freedom Rides of 1961 which tested the Interstate Commerce Law. They were instrumental in integrating several places in New Orleans including: McCrory’s, Woolworths, Loews State Theater, City Hall Cafeteria, and Audubon Park. Beaten, and sometimes mauled by crowds, these three sisters showed extreme courage as they helped desegregate the south during their high school and college careers. The oldest of the three sisters, Alice graduated from Southern University at New Orleans with a Bachelor of Arts degree in Liberal Arts and Sciences, working for many years as a social worker before retiring in 2002. She died on August 24, 2015 at age 75. Jean Thompson is now a retired advocate for the special needs community and speaks and appears regularly to discuss her time in the Civil Rights Movement. Shirley, was the only woman who was on her Freedom ride on June 6, 1961 and was arrested and sent to Mississippi’s Parchman State Penitentiary. She continued to participate in integration activities in New Orleans and the other parts of the country. She died in 1990 at the age of 47.
Four Little Girls: Ruby Bridges, Gail Etienne, Tessie Prevost and Leona Tate
It took Orleans Parish Public Schools six years after the landmark Brown v. the Board of Education ruling desegregating the nation’s public schools to integrate classrooms in Orleans in Parish. And that would not have happened without four brave little girls—and their parents—who were willing to confront hate from crowds of angry protesters and risk isolation at their new schools to be the first Black children to integrate New Orleans public schools.
The school district integrated William Frantz Elementary School and John McDonogh #19 Elementary, both in the Lower 9th Ward, on November 14, 1960. Ruby Bridges integrated Frantz alone; while Leona Tate, Tessie Prevost and Gail Etienne integrated McDonogh #19. The girls were escorted to school by federal marshals. Their families also faced difficulties in the wake of their integration of the schools, with angry protesters, in some cases, descending on the places they worked.
Just children–not one older than six years when they made history, all four women have remained activists and community leaders, sharing their stories and advocating for civil rights.
In 1999, Bridges formed the Ruby Bridges Foundation in New Orleans, promoting cultural understanding through community service.
The Leona Tate Foundation for Change’s (LTFC), founded in 2009, is on a mission to promote, improve and enhance racial equality and to empower and enrich communities through education.
Diana E. Bajoie became the first woman to take the oath as the President Pro Tempore of the Louisiana State Senate in 2004.
She earned a bachelor’s degree in political science from Southern University in Baton Rouge; and at the age of 27, she was first elected in 1975 to the Louisiana House of Representatives from District 91. In her first term, she was the only woman among the 105 House members. Early in 1991, she left the House after becoming the first Black woman ever elected to the Louisiana State Senate.
As a legislator, Bajoie was an advocate for school-based health clinics. She worked to establish the Minority Health Care Commission and sought to expand health care coverage for citizens with mental disorders.
She also worked to establish the Louisiana State Museum on Civil Rights and was an advocate for the expansion and renaming of the New Orleans Convention Center to honor Ernest “Dutch” Morial, who was elected in 1978 as the first black mayor of New Orleans.
Bajoie was a founder and former chair of the Louisiana Legislative Black Caucus and the Louisiana Legislative Women’s Caucus. She is a former president of the National Organization of Black Elected Legislative Women. In 2007, she was inducted into the Louisiana Political Museum and Hall of Fame.
CHIEF JUSTICE BERNETTE JOSHUA JOHNSON
Bernette Joshua Johnson attended Spelman College in Atlanta, Ga., on an academic scholarship, where she earned her bachelor’s degree. She was one of the first African-American women to attend the Law School at Louisiana State University (LSU), where she received her juris doctorate degree in 1969. She was honored by her law school in 1996, when her portrait was unveiled, and she was inducted into the LSU Law Center’s Hall of Fame.
Bernette Johnson began her legal career as a community organizer with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) Legal Defense & Educational Fund in the summers of 1964, 1965, and 1966, where she disseminated information about recent school desegregation decisions and explained procedures for the transfer to desegregated schools. In 1967, Johnson worked as a Law Intern with the Civil Rights Division of the United States Department of Justice, and she served as a Law Clerk for Ernest “Dutch” Morial from 1968 to 1969.
Johnson was elected to the Civil District Court of New Orleans in 1984, where she became the first woman to hold that office. She was reelected in 1990.
In 1994, she was elected to serve on the Louisiana Supreme Court, and was re-elected, without opposition, in 2000. Justice Bernette Joshua Johnson was officially sworn in as the chief justice of the Louisiana Supreme Court during an investiture ceremony in March 2012, making her the first African-American chief justice in the history of the state’s highest court.
Dorothy Mae Taylor
With Oretha Castle Haley managing her campaign, New Orleanian Dorothy Mae Taylor, who had been an educator and civil rights activist, became the first Black women elected to the Louisiana House of Representatives in 1971.
She would be a fierce and outspoken voice for the people of New Orleans
Born August 10, 1928, Taylor was an advocate for social, political, economic justice for African Americans from the 1960s through the 1990s. She earned her degree from Southern University in Baton Rouge, and married Johnny Taylor in 1948. She was also the first woman elected to New Orleans’ City Council in 1986.
In 1992, her ordinance to desegregate Mardi Gras krewes, such as Rex and Comus, earned her the name, “The Grinch Who Stole Mardi Gras” by those who opposed the move to make the krewes, most of which were all White and all-male, open to all. Any krewe refusing admittance would not be able to parade.. Taylor also challenged the racist policies of New Orleans Recreation Department (NORD) and worked diligently for inclusion at the parks, pools and playgrounds. In addition to being a proponent of prison reform in Angola and an advocate for women’s issues, Taylor also worked to promote voter registration drives and literacy programs in New Orleans.
Dorothy Mae Taylor stood strong to deconstruct discrimination practices until her death on August 18, 2000.