300 in Black
The April 1986 edition of The New Orleans Tribune featured an article that looked at the progress made by Black New Orleans over the two previous decades. It also was an honest examination of areas where progress was still needed. It was a good time to be retrospective. 1986 was a pivotal year. The modern-day civil rights movement that began in the mid-1950s had reached its height during the turbulent sixties and brought some successes for Black New Orleanians. In April 1986, roughly 20 years had passed since the movement reached its peak. The city’s first Black mayor, Ernest Nathan “Dutch” Morial, was at the end of his second term in office. And the city’s second Black mayor, Sidney Barthelemy, was preparing to take the lead. Together—this all made 1986 a good time to examine the state of Black New Orleans and to see how far we had come and how far we had to go.
The Black middle class was burgeoning. The Black community was politically stronger and had grown in numbers, due in part to White flight. Yet, poverty, affordable quality housing and economic equity, when compared to White New Orleanians, were still issues the Black community faced.
In this article, writer and historian Keith Weldon Medley examined those changes over time and what they meant for a Black community that was experiencing unprecedented gains in some ways while remaining stagnate in others.
More than 30 years later, The New Orleans Tribune is reprinting this article as a part of its “300 in Black” series to honor the city’s Tricentennial. Some 13 years after Katrina, New Orleans seems at the precipice of another epoch. Though still majority African-American, the Black population of New Orleans has dropped from its pre-Katrina height of nearly 70 percent to a rate closer to the 1986 figures that reflected the early growth in numbers of Black New Orleanians. And gentrification has had an undeniable impact on the city.
2018 has not only ushered in the city’s fifth Black mayor, but the its first woman mayor along with the first Vietnamese city council member and first Black coroner. Yet, poverty, income disparities and other economic and social inequities are just as pronounced as they were 30 years ago.
New Orleans is entering a new period indeed. It is said, however, that the more things change, the more they stay the same. Revisiting this article, originally titled Black New Orleans: A 20 Year Retrospective, makes perfect sense, offering New Orleans, especially Black New Orleans, the unique opportunity to remember how far we have come and assess just how far we have to go.
by Keith Weldon Medley
The last 20 years have been particularly significant. Civil Rights efforts of the ‘50s and ‘60s spawned a rise in Black political strength in the 1970s. And in the ‘80s, for the first time in our history, the challenge of governing as a political majority is in our hands. But just as we can lay claim to a wide spectrum of unique achievements over the years, our future is confronted with the weighty task of eliminating the poverty, poor housing, lack of opportunity and racism that affects so many in our community.
Even though the New Orleans Black community is quite diverse, with wide ranges in income, hue, and neighborhood affiliation, these differences are minimal when compared to our long history of accomplishment and the future challenges we must face together.
Who We are, Where We Stand
During the 20 years between the 1960 and 1980 censuses, the number of Blacks living in New Orleans increased by nearly 75,000. There are now 308,149 Black residents of New Orleans, comprising 54.3 percent of the city’s population and nearly 25 percent of Louisiana’s Black citizenry. Our median age is 24.4, quite young when compared to the city’s White median age of 35.2. The age group 15-24 is the largest, comprising 21 percent of our numbers, followed by the 16 percent who represent the 25-34 baby boom generation.
Of the 71,491 Black families in the city, married couples lead 53 percent. This is a decrease from 1960 when 72 percent of our families were led by married couples. Today, 30,000 of our families are led by single women who care for more than 48,000 children under the age of 18. Black single men head nearly 4,500 families.
Over the last 20 years, many Blacks have taken advantage of opportunities created by the Civil Rights movement to increase their level of education, standard of living and political strength.
At the time of the 1960 census less than 15 percent of the city’s non-white population held high school diplomas. That percentage rose to 26 percent in 1970, and 47 percent in 1980 for persons 25 years and older. In the same 20-year period, the number of Black college graduates grew nearly 300 percent, from 3,336 to 12,158. Black home ownership also increased, doubling from 15,879 Black households in 1960 to 30,658 in 1980, representing 30.7 percent of all Black households.
Voter registration rose from 25 percent in 1966 to 50 percent today. Interestingly, in 1975, the last year a voter’s gender was reported, there were roughly 12,000 more Black women registrants than men.
Despite these gains, there are wide disparities between the Black and white New Orleans communities in the areas of income, education and job opportunity. We also trail our counterparts in Birmingham and Atlanta.
For example, the average New Orleans white family’s income of $28,496 is more than double that of the $13,727 of their Black counterparts. Additionally, white workers control 71.4 percent of the jobs in the upscale managerial and professional occupations while Black workers comprise 86.8 percent of the lower paying service sector of the workforce.
We are also trailing Blacks in other Southern urban areas. 55.4 percent of Atlanta’s Blacks and 50 percent of Birmingham’s Blacks over 25 have completed high school compared with 46.9 percent of New Orleans’ Blacks. Our sister cities also lead in income. For example, the average family income for Black Atlantans is $15,596; in Birmingham it is $14,447, while New Orleans’ average is $13,727.
As these disparities continue to exist, our challenge for the next 20 years is to develop and use our political, cultural, and economic resources to combat poverty, provide better housing, jobs, and more opportunities to increase the standard of living for our community.
In the 10-year period between 1970 and 1980, the percentage of Black New Orleanians in poverty decreased from 39 percent to 33 percent as a result of the anti-poverty, job programs, and increased opportunities generated by the Civil Rights movement. However, many of these gains are being undercut by Regan administration attacks on most of these programs. Even with our 6 percent decrease in the poverty percentage, New Orleans still has the third highest percentage of poor people in the country. Our infant mortality rate in 1980 was 20.3 per 10,000, compared to the national rate of 12.5.
The makeup of low-income families has changed. In what has been labeled the feminization of poverty, the percentage of poor Black families led by single mother increased dramatically from 54 percent in 1970 to nearly 70 percent by 1980.
Barbara Major, Co-Director of the Coalition for Survival and Beyond, has worked among the city’s poor since the early 1970s. As former director of the Anti-Hunger Coalition and the Survival Coalition, she has seen the reams of New Orleans poverty statistics reflected in the eyes of the city’s poor, hungry, and homeless. She sees the elimination of poverty as a challenge that should concern us all.
“It is true that more women are becoming poorer, and more of them are becoming heads of household. But, we can’t look at the feminization of poverty in a vacuum. It is not just a woman’s problem. It’s not just a poor person’s problem. And in strictly humanitarian terms, we must care about the people who are affected by low-income situations and the effects this has on their hopes and dreams. We cannot afford to close our eyes and turn our backs.”
Brenda Davillier is a longtime community leader who currently serves the city as Deputy Director of the City’s Office of Housing and Community Development. She is also the author of the section on Housing in the Urban League’s 1985 State of Black New Orleans publication. Over the last 20 years she has seen both progress and stagnation for the city’s Blacks.
“Housing conditions have changed for the better for the Black middle class. Because of integration and better jobs, better homes have gotten affordable and there is a mobility to where we can live. But for lower income people, the situation has gotten worse and the quality of slum housing has deteriorated even though people still pay high prices for slum housing.”
In her report, “Housing Conditions in New Orleans,” Davillier cites statistics that show some Black areas where 75 percent of the housing is substandard or hazardous. She feels that archaic housing codes contribute to these conditions.
“Under present codes, if a tenant complains to Code Enforcement, and the house is declared uninhabitable the tenants are vacated, but there are no regulations to prevent the landlord from renting it to others without fixing the problem.”
To prevent this recycling of hazardous living conditions, Davillier wants the City Council to pass an ordinance that prevents NOPSI from turning on utilities until a house that has been declared hazardous is certified safe. Additionally, she wants rental property inspected every five years to stop the spreading blight of indecent housing.
Davillier feels that the city has untapped resources to make the dream of home ownership possible for more of the city’s lower income people.
“There are presently 2000 properties that have been adjudicated to the city because of non-payment of taxes. We should determine that status of these properties, and aggressively start taking title to them and begin a meaningful Homestead program for the poor. We could also use the Blighted Property Program in the same way or to provide adequate shelters for the homeless.
Jobs and Opportunity
Because of the Civil Rights movement, over the last 20 years Blacks have obtained access to many professions that were previously barred to them. In the 29 years between the 1960 and 1980 census, the number of Blacks in Managerial and Professional specialty occupations increased from 3,461 to 14,448. However, discrimination is still chronic in many areas of the New Orleans’ private sector and as unemployment continues to increase serious efforts must be undertaken to provide more and better jobs to all in our community.
Urban League president Clarence Barney is a veteran in the struggle to open doors of opportunity. In the last 20 years, he notes progress has been made, but feels a lot more must be done to provide a fairer distribution of the city’s job market to the Black majority.
“Over the last 20 years, there has been an expansion of the Black middle class. In 1950, only 5 percent of the Black community was considered middle class and now it’s upward of 26 percent. In the 1960s, there were Blacks in the city who were ready to take advantage of the opportunities generated by the Civil Rights movement. In addition, there was significant leadership at the political level who used their leverage to extract jobs from government. So today, there are Blacks working in previously all White companies. The symbols of progress are there.
“But, even though Blacks and whites are in the labor force in roughly equal numbers, we still have only 19 percent of private sector jobs and most Blacks in the private sector are concentrated in the service level or at the unskilled level. Annually, 1.9 billion dollars in salaries are paid to people who work in New Orleans but reside outside the city. That is enough jobs to put all of our Black professionals and many of our young people to work.”
Barney feels that the jobs can be increased if Blacks would make full use of their political, economic, and taxing power.
“We pay most of the sales tax and service charges and we’re the majority of the population. Without our purchasing power, many businesses would go under, but we don’t get our share of the jobs. We should use our majority politics, our tax dollar, and our purchasing power to generate economic opportunities that would create jobs. For instance, New Orleans has a city set-aside program that sets aside only 10 percent of the city procurement dollar for small and minority businesses. But since we pay the lion’s share of city taxes and are a majority of the population, we should have a set aside program that is proportionate. The same policy should apply to the School Board, the RTA, and other political subdivisions”
He sees a number of things that the incoming mayor and the City Council should do to begin correcting the lack of opportunity in the city.
“First, allocate a percentage of the city’s budget for a minority set aside program that is proportionate. Second, begin negotiations with private businesses that have not really opened their doors to Blacks, and get them to significantly increase minority jobs in all areas of the economy. Third, establish a committee to negotiate with the white business community for a minimum of 35 percent of all new jobs brought into this city across the board. This will help the growing number of young Black teenagers who are out of work. Finally, tie a voluntary clause to all the contractors who get city business to hire a percentage of the poor people in the city.”
From 1966 to 1986, Black voter registration increased dramatically, rising from 25 percent of the total in 1966 to 40 percent in 1976 to its current level of 50 percent. With this increased political strength, Blacks have gained significantly more access in the corridors of State and City government.
In 1966, there was not one Blacklisted in the Louisiana’s Roster of Officials. By 1975, there were 11, including five State Representatives, a District Court Judge, a Magistrate, a Juvenile Court Judge, and a School Board member. By 1985, the Roster contained 12 Blacks, including the Mayor, three City Councilmen, three School Board members, two State Senators, six Representatives, the Civil Sheriff, and others.
With the recent elections Blacks obtained their second Mayor, their first City Court Judge, and for the first time, an elected majority on the City Council. While these gains are impressive compared to 1966, Blacks are still only 23 percent of the Roster’s listed officials, even though they are a majority of the electorate.
Along with Councilwoman At-Large Dorothy Mae Taylor, our newest addition to the City Council is state Rep. Johnny Jackson, Jr., who for the last 14 years served as State Representative from District 101. Jackson feels that our participation in politics has opened a number of doors for Blacks and has been able to bring about more social and economic justice, although there is still a lot more to be done.
“Over the last 20 years, Black elected officials have increased their numbers in all aspects of political life and have been able to change some of the priorities. Schools have been built. Justice has been better exercised under Black judges. Services in the community have increased, even though there’s the need for many more. Because of Black elected officials, there have been inroads for other Black professionals through appointments to Boards and Commissions. More business opportunities and jobs for Blacks have been generated. So, Black elected officials over the last 20 years have been able to eliminate some of the denial of access.”
However, Jackson still sees Black politics as a sleeping giant and feels that we should do more to increase the number of Blacks in governing positions and actively express our concerns.
“We don’t have enough elected Black officials. We need to register. We need to vote. We need to support candidates based on their responsiveness to the community. We need to seriously monitor who we elect, and hold accountable all who run for office.”
The upcoming years provide crucial challenges, says Jackson. “The main challenge is to deliver goods and services to our community at a time when politics and the economy are against it. Our problems require creative solutions. It is essential we quickly develop those technical and research resources to guide the political decision making process.”
The last 20 years have brought many changes in Civil Rights. As recently as twenty-five years ago, Blacks were denied access to lunch counters, jobs, and housing. Through the efforts of the Civil Rights workers, most of the legal restrictions have been changed, although there is still de facto racism and repeated undermining of the gains that have been made. But for all of us who are employed by government or private industry, who hold political office, who live in neighborhoods of our choice, a large debt of gratitude is owed to those who spent long hours in courts and in the streets fighting against the legal segregation system.
One of these is Lolis Elie, longtime Civil Rights attorney and community leader. He has seen changes over the last 20 years.
“The most significant change in the last 20 years has been our right to vote, which came with the Voting Rights Act of 1966. This allowed more of our people to vote and we can attribute all of our gains in the political arena to this, even though we have not been able to translate these political gains into economic gains.”
Despite the impact these gains had on our lives, there are concerted and frequent attempts by the Reagan administration to dismantle those institutions and laws that protect them.
Elie states that the same thing happened 100 years ago in the Reconstruction period when a conservative Supreme Court and federal abandonment of Civil Rights Legislations led to the total disenfranchisement of Blacks, which took seventy years to rectify. Elie stresses that vigilance, self-reliance, and self-awareness are important in maintaining our rights.
“We must realize that the only power that is recognized is organized power. We must also recognize the limitations of politics, and realize that the real power in the city is the white business community, and it may very well be that the only kind of educational system they want is one that prepares people for service jobs such as fast food workers or waiting tables. So, we should give our utmost support to those cultural resources in the community that give people a sense of self-awareness, because there are so many more institutions that conspire against it. Even 120 years after slavery, there are vestiges of slavery and a lot of self-hate.”