300 in Black
Celebrating the Impact of Blacks New Orleanians
Walter Louis Cohen, a politician and businessman, was born a free man of color in New Orleans. He was educated at St. Louis Catholic School and Straight College. An active member of Reconstruction politics, he was one of the few African Americans to hold political office after the Reconstruction era.
He was appointed to the office of Customs Inspector by President McKinley, to the position of Registrar of U. S. Land Office by President Theodore Roosevelt, and to the office of Comptroller of Customs by President Harding.
Even after the African-American-dominated Black and Tan faction (a group mostly of Black) lost power after 1912 to the Lily-White Movement (a group of all-White Republicans) within the Republican Party, Cohen was appointed comptroller of customs by President Warren G. Harding in November 1922. The New York Times referred to the office as “one of the most lucrative federal offices” in the U.S. South and noted that Cohen had been a figure in state and federal politics for nearly 30 years at that time. His salary was $5,000 a year (the equivalent of $69,778.03 today), according to The Times article. Harding’s successor, Calvin Coolidge, renewed Cohen’s appointment.
Though he had been a delegate to all Republican national conventions between 1896 and 1924, Cohen was later ousted as secretary of the now 144-member Louisiana State Republican Central Committee.
In 1928, Cohen supported U.S. Sen. Charles Curtis of Kansas for the Republican presidential nomination, but the party selection went to Herbert Hoover, the outgoing secretary of commerce. Curtis then became the GOP vice presidential nominee. After his election, Coolidge offered Cohen the position of minister to Liberia. He declined.
A successful businessman, Cohen was the founder and president of People’s Life Insurance Co. He was also active in benevolent and fraternal organizations in New Orleans.
Cohen’s death came some six years before Black voters began a longstanding shift from Republican to Democratic Party allegiance with Franklin D. Roosevelt’s re-election in 1936. Walter L. Cohen died in New Orleans and is buried in St. Louis Cemetery No. 3.
Walter L. Cohen Senior High School in Orleans Parish was named in his honor. The school was once under the authority of New Orleans Public Schools, but fell under the authority of the Recovery School District. In 2012, Walter L. Cohen High School became part of New Orleans College Prep, a charter school operator headquartered in New Orleans. The school was then renamed Cohen College Prep High School.