FAUBOURG TREMÉ: Community in Transition
©by Brenda Marie Osbey
Part III: The Beginning of the End
African Americans have traditionally viewed Reconstruction – the ten-year span of intense political activity immediately following the Civil War – as the birth of an aggressive and continued battle for full citizenship status. The actual purpose of Reconstruction, however, was the dissolution of the Confederacy and the reorganization and re-establishment within the Union of those southern states that had seceded. The federal government was “re-constructing” the Southland as part and parcel of the United States.
Black enfranchisement, civil and land rights and access to public education became Reconstruction issues only because of swift and constant action on the part of Black southerners. The failure of these activists to secure, in any permanent way, basic rights and redress, however, was an overwhelming blow to the progress of African Americans nationwide. For Black New Orleans, the apparent benefits of Reconstruction were relatively short-lived. The beginning of the end came as early as 1868.
With the Massacre of 1868 began a series of events that would leave the city’s Black population disenfranchised and that generation of nascent Black political leaders from the Faubourg Tremé soundly and thoroughly whipped on all fronts – political, economic and moral. By 1874, the White League – one of the several precursors of the Ku Klux Klan – was already doing its victory dance in the streets of New Orleans. In this, the second Reconstruction era riot, the White League attacked, wounding and killing Black men, women and children. The Liberty Monument, a public testament to white supremacy, today marks the site of the Riot of 1874.
Prior even to the onset of Reconstruction, there was the Riot of 1866, in which a terrorist band of whites, led by the local police, attacked a group of Black activists who had gathered to support and ensure racial balance in the soon to be “reconstructed” Louisiana Constitution. The result: 148 Blacks wounded, 38 killed.
The failure in 1896 of Plessy vs. Ferguson firmly established the reign of Jim Crow – an unyielding master who would subdue and cripple Blacks across the Southland until mid-20th century. Here in New Orleans, where the landmark case was fought and lost, the consequences were especially dire.
First came the folding of the Daily Crusader, the newspaper which had been for a brief time (1890-1897) the organ of the local Black progressive front. Plessy vs. Ferguson sounded as well the death knell of the Comité des Citoyens, the offshoot of the Generation of 1860 – that group of propertied, educated former free Black activists who, from within their small power-base in the Faubourg Tremé – had fought and won the few political and economic gains Black New Orleans had witnessed in the three decades before the Civil War and the years leading up to Reconstruction. The era ended in what participant/observer Rodolphe Desdunes sadly and aptly termed, “a passive attitude of resignation” on the part of the Comité and the editorial staff of the Daily Crusader. Though traces of the Faubourg Tremé’s former prosperity remained, as evidenced by Black business directories dating through the 1920’s, the malaise brought on by the loss of Plessy vs. Ferguson touched upon and tainted every aspect of life in the Faubourg.
The failure of the Comité to kill Jim Crow quickly translated into the fall of Faubourg Tremé. Indeed, with the fall of the city’s propertied, independent Black community, came an economic, political and spiritual depression that spread quickly throughout Black New Orleans and would become a constant characteristic of its history over the next hundred years.
The poverty, depression, political disempowerment and blight consistently suffered by Black New Orleans over the past century, have their origins in the failure of Reconstruction and the political death of the Black progressive vanguard of Faubourg Tremé. With the willing resignation of the Comité des Citoyens, came the rapid establishment of the small, monied, white private sector which has continued to control the city’s government and economy.
The deliberate, systematic depopulation and physical destruction of what started out as the nation’s largest, wealthiest, educated, propertied, business-holding Black community dating from the 1700s, began in earnest in the 1920s. But it was the defeat of Plessy vs. Ferguson in 1896 that set in motion the economic and political paralysis from which Black New Orleans has yet to recover fully.
The fall was not, however, an overnight occurrence. Faubourg Tremé’s decline – consistently abetted by internal class and color divisions and the reactionary, self-serving actions of the Creole elite – took place over roughly 30 years beginning with the end of the Civil War.
Reconstructing Battle Lines
Reconstruction ended early in New Orleans in part because it also got off to an early start. With the occupation of the city by Union troops from 1 May to 14 December 1861, Blacks, enslaved and free, came rallying to the Union’s cause. And in April 1862, New Orleans became the site of the nation’s first equal rights campaign five years before the onset of Reconstruction (1867–1877).
During the course of Reconstruction, New Orleans would produce upwards of 250 Black politicians. Land ownership, tax and business data exist for 201 of these – all men of pre-Civil War free status and more than 90 percent of them residents of Faubourg Tremé.
In sharp contrast to popular representations of Black Reconstruction leaders as ignorant and incapable of self-governance, the records show that these men were not only literate but, for the most part, well educated. Of greater significance than their education was the predominance among them of men of families of longstanding free status and a tradition of striving to obtain the freedom of the enslaved – by outright purchase if necessary. Nearly half of these men (45%) were in the professions or owned their own businesses. Statistics show that, in 1860, they had a combined wealth in excess of $800,000 – a figure reflecting 40 percent of the entire wealth of the free Black community in New Orleans.
Though the Emancipation Proclamation became effective 1 January 1863, it did not bring about the immediate freeing of the entire slave population. Technically, it gave freedom only to those living in Confederate states engaged at that time in armed struggle against the Union. Ironically, it was in those states that had not joined the Confederacy that slavery continued unimpeded by the Proclamation – Delaware, Maryland, West Virginia, Kentucky, Missouri, Tennessee – as well as those parts of Virginia and Louisiana occupied by federal troops. Slavery continued in 13 of Louisiana’s 48 parishes. Though slaveholders with Union sympathies freed their bondsmen, slavery ended by degrees. In New Orleans alone, the slave population was near 100,000.
In October, the Louisiana Supreme Court ruled that Blacks could no longer be held in bondage. In December, Nathaniel Banks, the army general serving as Union Commander of New Orleans, ordered that all signs advertising the sale, capture and imprisonment of Blacks be removed. In January 1864, all state constitution provisos regarding slavery were suspended. Even so, Blacks in Confederate-controlled north Louisiana did not learn of the Emancipation Proclamation until 19 June 1865, two-and-a-half years later.
During the course of the Civil War, hundreds of thousands of slaves flocked from the rural parishes into New Orleans. Beginning in December 1862, they swelled the ranks of the Union forces at a rate of 200 a day. Nationwide, Black soldiers numbering 200,000 fought in the Union army and navy. More that 24,000 of these men were from Louisiana and more than 15,000 of that number from the city of New Orleans.
In September of 1862, two free Black professional men – one a Paris-trained
physician, the other a teacher at the school for free children founded by
Marie C. Couvent – founded the bi-lingual, tri-weekly newspaper, L’Union.
Charles Louis Roudanez, Paul Trévigne and a group of like-minded men from
Faubourg Tremé started the first African American Republican newspaper.
Charles Louis Roudanez 1823–1890
L’Union is significant not only because it was the first such journal in the nation, but because it illustrates as well the early theories of local free Blacks on how abolition of slavery, universal enfranchisement and education would serve the best interests of the entire Black population. It belies the view that the majority of free Blacks worked against the interests of the slaves and, later, of the freedmen. In its first issue, L’Union called for the abolition of slavery and equal rights for all Blacks under law.
As the War drew to a close, demands for equality gained momentum. By mid-1863, L’ Union was advertising “Union Meetings” at which local Black Republicans called for a more aggressive campaign for equal rights. Then, on 5 November 1863, at Economy Hall on Ursulines Street, came the first formal call for Black suffrage. The meeting seems to have been taken over at some point by François Boidoré Jr., who argued in favor of suffrage for property-holding, tax paying free Blacks only: “I must urge that we have postponed long enough…we have never been slaves.”
The free Black men gathered at this meeting appealed first to then-governor George Shepley for the enfranchisement of free Blacks, pointing to their records of military service in this War as well as in earlier conflicts and stressing their entitlement as tax-paying citizens. Shepley conveniently passed the buck to Banks, whose authority as Union Commander superseded that of state and local officials. Banks, however, did not stall but responded quickly. He saw no reason “to draw a line between the free men of color and the recently emancipated Negroes (sic).” Accordingly, at the next election held in February 1864, only white men aged 21 and older voted and ran for office.
The following month, two young Black men Jean Baptist Roudanez, an engineer and the son of Louis Charles, and a wine merchant named E. Arnold Bertonneau, traveled together to Washington, D.C. to pursue the question of voting rights. They carried with them a voting rights petition bearing the signatures of 1000 Black men including 27 veterans of the Battle of New Orleans (1815). The petition, in its original form, called for the immediate enfranchisement of “those citizens of Louisiana of African descent born free before the rebellion.” After meeting with Charles Sumner and other so-called Radical Republicans, a clause was added, stating:
“that justice, and the principles for which they (the free Blacks) contend, require also the extension
of this privilege to those born slaves.”
Less than two weeks later, on March 21, Roudanez and Bertonneau met with President Abraham Lincoln, whom they felt “sympathized” with their goals. It was the day after his meeting with the two Afro-Orleanians that Lincoln wrote the now in/famous letter to the state’s newly elected governor, Michael Hahn, in which he states:
“I barely suggest for your private consideration, whether some of the colored people may not be
let in – as, for instance, the very intelligent, and especially those who fought so gallantly in our ranks.”
Upon their return to New Orleans, however, Roudanez and Bertonneau discovered that the Constitutional Convention held during their visit to the nation’s capital had written in a proviso prohibiting “any act authorizing free Negroes to vote, or to immigrate into this state under any pretense whatever.” This was later changed to offer enfranchisement to Blacks having served in the military, those holding taxable property and those demonstrating “intellectual fitness.”
In the weeks and months to follow, the former free Blacks of New Orleans lost many of the rights they had possessed prior to the War. They, along with newly freed Blacks, were required to carry “passes” as all times. Prior to Emancipation, only the enslaved had been required to carry such passes in order to move about the city. James Ingraham, who would later serve as a representative from Orleans Parish in the Louisiana State Senate, summed up the reaction of the former free Blacks when he remarked, “We were never slaves until General Banks came here.”
Next came a bill offering enfranchisement to those Blacks who possessed “not more than one-fourth Negro (sic) blood.” It is at this point that local Black historian Charles Barthelemy Roussève locates the beginning of strained relations between the former free Blacks and the freedmen. According to Roussève, Banks’s response to the appeal of the former created far-reaching problems and divisions within the New Orleans Black community. It set a precedent on the part of white Civil War/Reconstruction era officials to consider Blacks of free descent and the newly emancipated freedmen and their descendants as having the same status under law. And it is at this point that the lighter-skinned Blacks apparently abandoned any hope for political change and began passing for white in increasing numbers. Though Roussève stresses that the vast majority of free Blacks repudiated “passing” as politically and morally reactionary, by 1864, the trend had clearly been set and would continue for generations.
Shocked and angered at being subjected to pass laws, curfew controls and the many rigors of life in what had become a police state – stripped, in short of their antebellum protected status – the former free Blacks vigorously protested, both in the pages of the Tribune and in the public forums held by various Republican-leaning Black political organizations.
The increase of passing notwithstanding, however, the free Blacks rejected outright the measure they dubbed the “Quadroon Bill” offered them by the state Legislature as a kind of class appeasement.
La Tribune Enters Fighting
The next phase of resistance and protest was led by Roudanez’s paper. As the organ of the Radicals, the Tribune called for universal suffrage and fought bitterly against the state Legislature, the Quadroon Bill and any and all attempts to further divide the city’s already stratified Black population. Its editors called for weekly wages for the freedmen and panned the Freedmen’s Bureau as timid in its appeals for the citizenship rights of the formerly enslaved. They called for the dismissal of all Confederate representatives in the nation’s capitol and attacked white Republicans who consistently undermined the efforts of Black activists and betrayed Black political interests. And Roudanez and Trévigne saw to it that every member of Congress received copies of the journal.
Often noted as the most important publication to come out of Reconstruction Louisiana, the Tribune eventually proved a financial failure. Roudanez, who had two sons studying medicine in Paris and several others living in New Orleans at this time, had sunk $35,000 of his own money into the journal. He was forced in 1868 to suspend publication, but started publishing again the following year.
The Tribune pressed for a unified Black front on all issues. Still, Roussève’s theory about the dividing trend holds true. In every public forum held in New Orleans between November 1863 and the passing of the First Reconstruction Act (which finally gave voting rights to Blacks in 1865) a small but vocal contingent urged selective enfranchisement for the former free Blacks.
It took two years for the free Blacks – or “colored Creoles,” as they would henceforth be known – to put aside color-caste differences in order to win the first small gains of Reconstruction.