The Creole Community and the Struggle for Civil Rights
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.
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.
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
of the Report of the Citizens Committee.
Charles Rousseve Papers, Amistad Research Center, New Orleans,
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.
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
New Orleans Streetcar.
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 Papers, Amistad Research Center, New Orleans,
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.
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.
This research was funded by a Rockefeller Humanities Fellowship
from the Stone Center for Latin American Studies at Tulane University
in New Orleans.