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George North
Dr. Raphael Cassimere
HIST 4552 - 351
June 20, 1994

Creole New Orleans: Race and Americanization. First edition. Edited by Arnold R. Hirch and Joseph Logsdon. Louisiana State University Press, 1992. 334pp.

This book attempts to show the relevance of race relations in New Orleans to the experiences of the whole of the United States. Since American scholars have tended to treat New Orleans as an exotic variant, it represents a new interpretation of modern history. The collection of essays presented covers a period from colonial America to present times in chronological order. This review will focus on Part III: Franco-Africans and African-Americans , which is the period starting after the Civil War to current times. Much of the scholarship is represented by original research, and is well documented with footnotes appearing on most every page.

The essence of this book can be garnered from the description of a meeting in 1907 between two historians, Rodolphe L. Desdunes and W. E. B. Du Bois. Desdunes attempts to explain the duality of the black community in New Orleans, not by skin color or antebellum status used by American census takers and many historians, but in ethnic categories -- the "Latin Negro" (creole) and the "Anglo-Saxon or American Negro." Desdunes felt that the two groups had evolved different schools of politics and differed in ambition, and method. The creole hopes, the American doubts; one aspires to equality, the other to identity. "One will forget that he is a Negro in order to think that he is a man; the other will forget that he is a man to think that he is a Negro."

In their essay, The Americanization of Black New Orleans, 1850 - 1900 , Joseph Logsdon (professor of history and urban affairs at the University of New Orleans) and Caryn Cossé Bell (completing her Ph.D. at Tulane University) present a well prepared explanation of the duality of black experiences. In the 19th century, New Orleans was not only the largest city in the South, it had the largest free black population. In Louisiana, Reconstruction started first and lasted longest. It was only natural that New Orleans' free men of color would take the lead in this effort. As early as 1862, a petition was drafted pressing for black suffrage and equal citizenship. It was brought north to Lincoln and to Congress. This placed them in the political vanguard of the entire nation. Creoles were a majority of free Blacks, but only a small minority of all Blacks in New Orleans. The French-oriented black creoles with their Catholic religion, and social patterns presented a contrast to the majority of other Blacks that would be soon used by others in an effort to isolate these free thinking radicals.

At first these efforts did not work, and in 1867, the creoles helped fashion the most progressive Louisiana constitution ever. The difference is the creole's objective of achieving the full rights of citizenship and the American Negro's willingness to accept accommodations instead would lead to a split between the two. An example of this accommodation is illustrated by P. B. S. Pinchback (in 1879) publicly accepting the segregation of the public schools in return for the creation of the all-black Southern University. The creole lenders refused to accept such accommodations and filed suit first in state court, then in federal courts. It would be many years before creoles would be in a position of leadership again, but their spirit never died. It was no accident that Homer Plessy was a black creole. Desdunes said it best, that "it is more noble and dignified to fight, no matter what, than to show a passive attitude of resignation. Absolute submission augments the oppressor's power and creates doubt about the feelings of the oppressed." Desdunes argued to "have the Negro respected rather than protected ,"

The last essay of this book by Arnold R. Hirsch (professor of history and urban affairs at the University of New Orleans) is a narrative of events from about 1900 up to and including the administration of mayor of New Orleans Sidney Barthelemy. This is an analysis of race relations and the reemergence of black political power in New Orleans. At the start of the 20th century, Blacks in the United States were completely disenfranchised. Even by 1963, the year before the Voting Rights Act was passed, only 28 percent of New Orleans Blacks were registered voters. Dr. Hirsch, using the mayors of New Orleans, beginning with Chep Morrison, relates the very slow recovery of political power by Blacks. It is mostly a story of white mayors using accommodations to obtain the support of a few black leaders, benefiting a very few at the expense of the many.

The civil rights movements of the early sixties melded black New Orleans for the first time since the reconstruction days of 1862. Dutch Morial,the first black everything of modern New Orleans, was a prominent leader. For Morial, the goal of the struggle was the obliteration of caste or color privilege, not the mere manipulation of the existing racial order -- "more of a moral and human rights thing that affects all people." In 1977 when the black community still only 43 percent of the registered voters, Morial surprised everyone by announcing his candidacy for mayor. All other black leaders were busy finding white candidates with which to associate (accommodate).

As presented in this book, the irony of the defeat of segregation was that it was accomplished only by an explicitly racial counterattack, an onslaught that killed Jim Crow, but when the dust had settled, left only Blacks and Whites facing each other across an appalling racial divide. The peculiar history of the creoles made them key agents in that struggle, but they have been unable to convince others that, as Du Bois asserted, "they must eventually surrender race solidarity and the idea of American Negro culture, to the concept of world humanity, above race and nation." This book is not, and was not meant to be, a history of black New Orleans. It does make good reading, and provides many insights that can be used to understand historical and current events. It is written on a scholarly level, but is an easy read. Dr. Hirsch may want to rewrite one paragraph where he called Dutch Morial the first black mayor but the last of the radical creoles.