The creole people of New Orleans


2. The Creole Community and the Struggle for Civil Rights

In 2004, I began research on New Orleans’ Social Aid and Pleasure clubs (a type of benevolent society) and conducted archival work on some of the early clubs and their members (i). In the archives of several leading members I discovered a pattern: many of them were Creole and many of them had been involved in early civil rights efforts in Louisiana, including the local branch of the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People). Indeed, some of the most important civil rights leaders in the United States, including Homer Plessy of the famed Plessy v. Ferguson case that established the legality of racial segregation, were Creoles from New Orleans.

Free people of color and their descendants often had the possibility to receive a good education (some of them in France) and to enter into professions otherwise excluded to blacks. Because many Creoles have very light skin, in the context of racial discrimination and segregation, some chose to pass for white, either on occasion, to be able to gain access to white public spaces or to obtain jobs, or permanently, sometimes by migrating north. An unfortunate consequence of passing though, was that members of a family who decided to do so often cut ties with the rest of their family, even when living in the same city.
But in many instance free people of color used their knowledge, social connections and power to fight for civil rights and to help the black community in Louisiana and in the United States more generally. For example, the famous law of segregation in the United States that established the legality of racial segregation and which allowed so-called Jim Crow laws to be passed in the United States, especially in the South until the 1950s and 1960s, was originally part of a decision in the case of Plessy v. Ferguson. Homer Plessy was a free person of color, a Creole, what one would call a chaben in the French West Indies, that is to say, someone whose skin was so light that he could pass for white. This fact was used strategically to force the courts to take up a legal case surrounding segregation.

Homer Plessy took part in a campaign to try to overturn segregation laws in Louisiana. In 1890, the Louisiana legislature passed the Separate Car Act, which instituted segregation on all rail travel in the state. Seeing this as just the first step in the legalization of segregation that could extend to schools and other public spaces, an organization called the Committee of Citizens formed to challenge this law. This committee included several members of the Creole community, including Homer Plessy, a shoemaker, Louis A. Martinet, a notary, Arthur Esteves, a sailmaker, and Rodolphe Desdunes, a cigar seller. Other supporters of the legal challenge came from a broader range of the society. Those who signed the legal challenge included dozens of voluntary organizations, such as the Ladies of Determination Benevolent Mutual Aid Association and an organization called Dignité.

Cover of the Report of the Citizens Committee.
(© Charles Rousseve Papers, Amistad Research Center, New Orleans, LA)

To bring the matter of the Separate Car Act to a court of law, the Committee of Citizens set out to have a member arrested for breaking the law. On June 7, 1892, Plessy purchased a first-class train ticket from New Orleans to Covington, LA and refused to leave this section reserved for whites. When he was arrested, his lawyers filed to stop the prosecution on the grounds that it was unconstitutional. This legal case went all the way to the Supreme Court, where the judges ruled that racial segregation was legal, along the principle of “separate but equal”, meaning public services and spaces could be racially segregated provided that equal options were provided for both whites and blacks.

In 1902, following the new legislation, New Orleans began segregating its streetcars, by placing a moveable screen at the rear of the car and forcing black passengers to sit behind it in the last rows. The streetcar company itself did not want to comply with the law and its president was arrested for failure to do so. The traditional black leadership worked with the streetcar company in a court challenge to the law, but black clubwomen preferred to organize a boycott, with the support of unions and other black organizations, which cancelled events rather than ask members to ride the segregated cars. The state supreme court upheld the law in 1903, but the boycott continued, eventually dwindling as it showed no signs of bringing results.

New Orleans Streetcar.
© Kathe Managan)

The United States had to wait until 1950s and 1960s to see the Plessy v. Ferguson decision completely overturned and for desegregation to be accomplished. Elite members of the Creole community in New Orleans, such as A.P. Tureaud, along with blacks and others in the United States, fought against segregation and for the equality of all regardless of their skin color.

A.P. Tureaud.
© A.P. Tureaud Papers, Amistad Research Center, New Orleans, LA)

Alexander Pierre Tureaud, known as A.P. Tureaud was born on February 26, 1899 and died January 22, 1972. The son of a Creole family who lived in the Seventh Ward and attended St. Augustine Church, Tureaud left New Orleans as an adolescent, disgusted with the lack of educational opportunities for people of color in New Orleans at the time. He eventually attended Howard University and received a bachelor of laws degree in 1925. He decided to return to his native New Orleans and was admitted to the Louisiana bar in 1927. He served as Louisiana’s only African American lawyer between 1987 and 1947. In his biography (Emanuel and Tureaud 2011), he recounts stories of growing up in the segregated South and then challenging stereotypes by serving as a lawyer. In several instances, Tureaud’s light complexion led to others assuming he was actually white, something which Tureaud played to his advantage. In one anecdote, the newly appointed Tureaud arrived before the courthouse in New Orleans and engaged in a brief conversation with a couple of white men who asked him if he had seen the new black lawyer. He feigned ignorance and allowed them to go on with their racist tirade. Once in the courtroom, the men turned out to be the lawyers for the other side, and were quite shocked to realize that the new black lawyer was indeed the man they had been speaking to outside.

Tureaud was a member of the NAACP (the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) since 1922 and played a decisive role in getting its New Orleans branch to fight the state’s institutionalized racial discrimination. His strategy for overturning Plessy v. Ferguson consisted of first filing motions to compel the state enforce the idea of separate but equal behind Plessy v. Ferguson by funding African American schools equally. Then, he worked to have the law overturned completely, working in concert with Thurogood Marshall (the leading attorney of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, at the national level). Plessy v. Ferguson was eventually overturned in the 1954 Supreme Court decision in Brown v. the Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas, but Tureaud’s efforts contributed to the gradual erosion of its effects in Louisiana. Tureaud filed numerous civil rights cases in Louisiana between the 1940s and 1960s, including Joseph P. McKelpin v. Orleans Parish School Board (a lawsuit that challenged public teacher pay inequity) and Viola Johnson v. Board of Supervisors of Louisiana (which challenged segregation in higher education) as well as other cases involving the integration of city parks and other public spaces.

Kathe Managan


(i) This research was funded by a Rockefeller Humanities Fellowship from the Stone Center for Latin American Studies at Tulane University in New Orleans.

The creole people of New Orleans

1. The Term “Creole” in Louisiana : An Introduction
2. The Creole Community and the Struggle for Civil Rights
3. Creole Residence Patterns
4. Benevolent Societies, Social Aid and Pleasure Clubs, Second Lines and Jazz Funerals
5. Conclusions: Where the New Orleans Creole Community is Headed


© Médiathèque Caraïbe / Conseil Général de la Guadeloupe, november 2012