A NEW ORLEANS TRIBUNE EDITORIALRight now, we find ourselves early in the second quarter of 2017. Time flies. Our annual Mardi Gras celebration is squarely in our rear view, but still recent enough to conjure memories in anticipation of next year. Meanwhile, we are in the midst of New Orleans’ festival season, with one of the newest, the Fried Chicken Festival recently announcing that it will expand in both length and location this year to accommodate the large crowds that inundated Lafayette Square for the inaugural event; and one of the biggest, the Jazz & Heritage Festival, just around the corner.
Speaking of Jazz Fest, did you know that Francois LaCroix, reported to be the wealthiest Black New Orleanian before the Civil War and one of the richest Black men of his time, died in 1876? Anyway, about 15 years before his death, LaCroix’s estate was valued at $262,000 (about $7.5 million today) and a horse racing course on Gentilly Boulevard was among his most valuable real estate holdings. That course is now the current site of the New Orleans Fair Grounds, where tens of thousands will converge in the coming weekends for the annual Jazz Fest.
So while you eat that soft-shell crab po-boy and crawfish bread—washing it down with your favorite beer—while you shuffle your feet to the sounds emanating from the Blues Tent, just know that Black New Orleans is everywhere.
There is more news of late that causes us to reflect on the achievements of Black New Orleanians throughout the city’s history. For example, the Pythian Temple, at the corner of Loyola Avenue and Gravier Street, once an epicenter of Black life in the early 1900s in New Orleans has been renovated into a commercial and residential development. The building was first opened in 1909 as the home of the Knights of Pythias, a Black fraternal order. The Knights of Pythias was urged to purchase two lots in downtown New Orleans to build a home for their organization by of one of their founding members and top leaders, Smith Wendell Green, who despite being born enslaved in 1861, became a prominent civic leader and successful Black businessman who owned a grocery, a print shop, a bar and an insurance agency. At the time, it was reportedly the largest financial undertaking of its kind by any Black organization in the country. As poet and author Norman Smith points out in his book, Footprints of Black Louisiana, the building was “a showpiece of the Black people throughout the South and played an important role in supporting the local community.” In addition to the offices and lodge room for the Knights of Pythias, the Pythian Temple housed a barbershop, a theater, an opera house, and the offices for Black-owned insurance companies and other businesses. In 1925, C.C. Dejoie and O.C.W. Taylor established the very first office of The Louisiana Weekly in the Pythian Temple.
While we too join in the celebration as this historic building gets new life, we certainly hope as new businesses and middle-income renters move into the renovated Pythian, they honor the history of the building and remember that Black New Orleans is everywhere.
Meanwhile, we are buoyed as the city is set to launch a new plan aimed at ensuring equity for all of its residents. It is a sure sign that our leaders understand that while people of African descent have impacted our city, issues of equity remain in almost every sphere—economics, education, housing, income inequality and criminal justice. And we have a duty to do something about it for the betterment of our entire city.
All of this and more brings our thoughts to the city’s upcoming Tricentennial celebration set for 2018. New Orleans is poised to commemorate 300 years! Yes, time flies. We are excited knowing that the things we celebrate at every festival, every milestone moment, the people, places and things that make New Orleans unique are rooted in the city’s diversity and have—without mistake—been impacted by Africans and Black New Orleanians over the last 299 years. A recent conversation with Herreast Harrison, widow of the late Big Chief Donald Harrison, Sr., and son of Big Chief Donald Harrison, Jr., both of the Guardians of the Flame, reminded us that the Mardi Gras Indian culture likely traces its roots to those weekly gatherings of enslaved and free Blacks in Congo Square and back even farther to the Louisiana Maroons, enclaves of runaway enslaved Africans that established their independent colonies along the shores of the swamps and marshes that lined the lakes, canals and river. There they could practice and pass on their African culture and traditions. Most importantly, there they were free; there, they wouldn’t bow down.
Black New Orleans is everywhere.
And with talk of resistance and defiance especially in the face of an uncertain national political landscape, we can’t help but recall that the largest revolt of enslaved people in North America began on January 8, 1811, just 36 miles upriver from New Orleans. For three days, as many as 500 enslaved people freed themselves, killing those who stood in their way and forcing others to flee as they headed downriver toward New Orleans. Although the revolt was squashed by military force near what is now Kenner, their refusal to accept the status quo and to stand in opposition to injustice in the face of the cruelly insurmountable ought to give us all today the courage we need to fight for what is right.
Indeed, we are especially enthusiastic when we reflect on the fact that the political, civic, educational and economic growth of our city has been just as influenced by Black New Orleanians as the Creole gumbo and the Mardi Gras mambo. Imagine for one second if there had not been a Henriette Delille, a Marie Convent or a Thomy Lafon, an Oscar Dunn or Louis Charles Roudanez, an A.P. Tureaud or a Dutch Morial, a Jerome Smith, a Rev. Avery Alexander or an Oretha Castle Haley. Consider the lives that were touched by the likes of pioneering educators Medard Nelson, Valena C. Jones, Fannie Williams and Morris F.X. Jeff. We will stop listing names right here because we could never list them all. Just know that there are many Black New Orleanians who deserve recognition, and we hope that you will take the time to learn of them as we approach the Tricentennial and beyond.
As The New Orleans Tribune, we have observed, reported, analyzed and commented on issues ranging from the decimation of public education in New Orleans and the loss of veteran educators—many of them Black—to the changing face of our city brought on by gentrification. We have offered our thoughts on what has looked like concerted efforts to push out the poor and working class Black residents through the razing of public housing and the dearth of affordable housing. We would be less than forthright if we did not acknowledge that this trend troubles us, especially as we consider that in the area (historic and upper Tremé bounded by Rampart and Broad, Orleans and St. Bernard), Black people have owned 80 percent of the property dating back to the days of Spanish colonialism. For that reason, the publishers of The New Orleans Tribune, The New Orleans BlackBook and Black tourists’ guide Welcome New Orleans, through other business interests, have been and will remain unapologetic in their efforts to support and increase Black business ownership, particularly along historic Bayou Road and adjacent neighborhoods, including the storied Seventh Ward. Black business is our business, as the McKennas like to say. And Bayou Road, one of the oldest streets in the city, by the 1800s had become a shining example of diligence and productivity among the city’s free people of color.
Of course, we have weighed in on the debate, decision, and impasse related to the plans to take down nuisance monuments that celebrate Confederate heroes and glorify a period in the city, state and nation’s history during which oppression of people of color was the order of the day. And yes, we point out regularly the injustice, inequity, and disenfranchisement that plague communities of color almost as much as we celebrate their ingenuity, accomplishment, resilience, power and prowess. These realities, too, force us to consider the last 299 years of the city’s existence. As time moves on and our landscape changes, we are charged to remember and remind that there would be no New Orleans—at least not like we know and love it—without Black New Orleanians. Black people have left their indelible mark on this city—brick by brick. From 1718 with the first Black people known to have lived in New Orleans—Jorge and Marie, an enslaved couple owned by the city’s first governor Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne de Bienville, Blacks in New Orleans have made a place for themselves and for generations of Black New Orleanians—scratch that, for generations of all New Orleanians—to follow.
The Lion and His Pen
If you know anything about McKenna Publishing and The New Orleans Tribune, you know that we are dedicated to telling our story from our perspective. The African proverb which cautions that the tale of the hunt will always glorify the hunter until the lion writes his own story is one by which we live. With that, there is no way we will allow New Orleans’ Tricentennial to come and go without taking our own pen to parchment or our fingers to keyboard, iPad or smartphone.
Starting with this issue, and each one through this year and 2018, we will share details about a person, a place or thing in Black New Orleans history. We will include additional installations of this series on our website and social media pages because there is so much information to share that the next 21 monthly print issues would not do our effort to inform and engage our readers on the impact of Black New Orleanians the justice it deserves.
Additionally, McKenna Museums, which include the George and Leah McKenna Museum of African-American Art, and Le Musée de f.p.c., a house museum dedicated to the preserving and sharing the legacy of free people of color, have big plans aimed at ensuring that the story of Black New Orleans is told with pride, depth and reverence.
Beginning this fall with an exhibition that examines the impact of Black, particularly female educators in 20th Century New Orleans, and continuing through this year and all of 2018, the McKenna Museums will present a series of exhibitions as well as interpretive and educational programs that will coincide with New Orleans’ much-heralded Tricentennial, that highlight the influential roles of people of African descent on New Orleans.
Other events as part of this celebration include a fine arts exhibit organized and sponsored in conjunction with the New Orleans Chapter of the National Conference of Artists. A call to artists for submission of paintings, sculptures and other fine artwork depicting events and people representative of the Black experience in New Orleans in the 300 years since its founding has already gone out. A photographic exhibition that examines Black life in 20th Century New Orleans is also planned.
A series of musical concerts that highlight the influence of the African Diaspora on music in New Orleans, as well as series of lectures and panel discussions, highlighting the impact of people of color in education, music, history, military activity, culture, and politics are also planned.
Information about these events will be shared as they approach and all of New Orleans is invited to join us as we celebrate the impact of people of color on the Crescent City for its Tricentennial because Black New Orleans is indeed everywhere.