Hidden New Orleans

There's more to the Crescent City than jazz and Mardi Gras. The Black Bucket List explores Louisiana's surprising black history.

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Cajun French culture was also an important influence in southern Louisiana, and areas like St. Martin Parish had large French-speaking black Creole communities. In Lafayette, the annual Festival International de Louisiane brings an incredible lineup of musicians from former French colonies, from Haiti to Senegal to Vietnam.

Cultural organizing in African-American communities helped develop other distinct traditions, like the Mardi Gras Indians, a group that began in the 1800s (some say earlier) as a tribute from the African-American community to the Native American community, in recognition of native participation in the Underground Railroad and other acts of solidarity. Just a few blocks from Congo Square, the Backstreet Cultural Museum pays tribute to Mardi Gras Indians, as well as “Social Aid and Pleasure Clubs,” which are community institutions that play a key role in preserving the culture of live music in the streets.

In 1892 a group of New Orleans’ black community leaders called the Citizens Committee decided to engage in direct action against the state’s “white only” railcars. Homer Plessy, a member of the group, was arrested for defying the law, an action that eventually led to the (ultimately unsuccessful) U.S. Supreme Court challenge Plessy v. Ferguson. A monument to Plessy’s brave action has been erected by the train tracks where Plessy boarded, just a few blocks from the French Quarter.

Free African communities existed across the state. Escaped slaves, called Maroons, built communities in the swamps of the South. Further north, in Natchitoches Parish, a black woman named Marie Thérèse Coincoin founded a community of free people of color in the 1790s. The Melrose plantation, as it was known, also had slaves, purchased by Coincoin. The site remains as a state tourist destination.

There are many more sites in New Orleans — like Fats Domino’s house in the Lower 9th Ward and jazz nightclubs where generations of great musicians have played, to more somber milestones, like the portion of the Lower 9th Ward levees that broke open in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, destroying a historic black community that is still far from recovery.

Unfortunately, the spirit of the Confederacy is also still alive in Louisiana. Just blocks away from the hotels where most tourists stay, New Orleans has a monument built to celebrate white supremacists. The city’s first and second black mayors, Earnest “Dutch” Morial and Sidney Barthelemy, both tried to have the monument removed but were blocked by the City Council and by state “historic preservation” officials. One look at that monument, which commemorates a massacre carried out by members of the Crescent City White League in 1874, reminds us how important it is to learn from our history.

Jordan Flaherty, a New Orleans-based journalist, is the author of Floodlines: Community and Resistance From Katrina to the Jena Six. He can be reached at neworleans@leftturn.org.

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