Through the Eye of Katrina  •  special issue, december 2007

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French Quarter
Bordered by the Mississippi River, Canal, Esplanade, and Rampart streets, the French Quarter is the original site of New Orleans. It is also known as the Vieux Carré, or the “Old Square.” More >

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Fade to Black: Hurricane Katrina and the Disappearance of Creole New Orleans

Arnold R. Hirsch

Journal of American History, 94 (Dec. 2007), 752–61

How could you have reelected Ray Nagin? More accusation than query, it was a question frequently put to New Orleanians after the mayor’s successful campaign in the months following Hurricane Katrina’s devastation of the Gulf Coast. Mayor C. Ray Nagin had been overwhelmed—as had every other public official regardless of race, gender, or political affiliation—by what was only in part a “natural” disaster. The scenes of suffering and degradation outside the Superdome and the New Orleans Convention Center testified to the city’s callous incompetence and to a mind-numbing sloth that seemed to have taken up permanent residence in city hall. Reelect Ray Nagin? How, indeed.

On the surface, Nagin’s close victory over the white liberal Mitch Landrieu in a May 2006 runoff following a twenty-three-candidate nonpartisan primary seemed easy to explain. Nagin was the only African American among the three major candidates in what had been a majority-black city. Landrieu, his most dangerous challenger, was the state’s lieutenant governor and the son of Maurice “Moon” Landrieu, a former mayor of New Orleans who had orchestrated the civil rights revolution in city government and politics in the 1970s. Ron Forman, a civic leader and head of the Audubon Nature Institute, which includes the city’s world-famous zoo and aquarium, emerged as the favorite of the old, conservative elite, much of which had backed Nagin in 2002.[1] Queasy at the thought of a liberal Landrieu victory in 2002, members of the elite then found Nagin, a black executive for Cox Cable (a tv, Internet, and phone provider) who mouthed familiar “reform” slogans, preferable to a traditional Democrat. The conservative realists who flocked to Nagin’s successful 2002 candidacy abandoned him four years later for a revived white hope. The mayor thus found his 2006 campaign hemorrhaging white voters and alienating the black masses, who not only offered a strong critique of his performance, but had never warmly embraced Nagin himself.

Before Katrina roughly 67 percent of New Orleans’s residents were black; their majority among registered voters was slightly less. Driven from the city by Katrina, they remained Nagin’s electoral base and his vehicle on the road to a second term. In eliminating Forman and the twenty other candidates, it remained for Nagin, Landrieu, and the entire city to argue over the unprecedented measures (the use of centralized polling places, liberalized absentee voting procedures, and the provision of transportation for displaced voters) designed to get evacuated voters to the polls. Race figured prominently in these discussions as people wondered who would be welcomed back to the city, and who might be excluded, whether by accident or design. Nagin’s now-famous Martin Luther King Jr. Day speech in January 2006, which invoked God’s desire that New Orleans remain a “chocolate city,” brought into the open the tension that had been building.[2]

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Thread: Post-Katrina population Expand thread [+]

The failure of flood-protection and drainage systems did not neutralize topography. Follow thread in Campanella, “Ethnic Geography” >

Changes in New Orleans’s population post-Katrina Follow thread in Fussell, “Population History” >

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The mayor’s attempt to run as a “race man” was so awkward it would have been amusing if the consequences had not been so serious. His abandonment of his usually proper grammar before select audiences and the donning of a T-shirt bearing the name of a public housing development over a dress shirt and tie (a near-Nixonian moment) accentuated, rather than bridged, the distance separating him from the city’s poor.[3] But the average black citizens’ fear of losing one of their own as mayor was palpable, and his need of their support inescapable.

New Orleans’s whites, meanwhile, showed a remarkable opacity (if not sagacity) when confronted with perceived racial slights. Nagin made it easy for them to feel justified in tugging on the knot of polarization from their end. Desperately seeking high ground on the low road of racial political campaigning, they even managed to stir up some righteous indignation. The political analyst and newspaper columnist Clancy DuBos neared hysteria in venting white shock and dismay at Nagin’s clumsy “chocolate city” ploy. “Congress can finally stop accusing us of being corrupt,” DuBos wailed. “Nagin has given them a fresh argument: that we’re stupid, incompetent, and led by a mindless racist.”[4] DuBos failed to indicate how the description diverged from much of the city’s history—or how, for that matter, it could be reconciled with the flow of conservative money into Nagin’s campaign. A serious effort by the right candidate might have broken off some of Nagin’s scattered and traumatized electorate. But Landrieu refused to compete for those disgruntled black voters. Running defensively in the hope that his father’s reputation and the mayor’s missteps might suppress black turnout, he invested more in the politics of displacement, shaped by transient conditions that had increased the proportion of whites among likely voters, than in his own ability to win black support. In the end, it was the white voter that proved most enamored of Moon Landrieu’s legacy. His second term a fading thirty-year-old memory, blacks were far more cognizant now of the elder’s shortcomings and understood that he represented the limits of the civil rights era, not its possibilities. There was no debt here, they believed, that had not already been repaid many times over. Rather than woo possibly disaffected black voters, whites thus effectively wrote them off and—at the least—allowed them to drift back to the mayor.

Much more interesting was the small but vocal source of seeming black opposition to the incumbent. The uptown-based Fundamentalist minister Rev. Tom Watson did not hesitate to use the harshest rhetoric against Nagin, holding him responsible for the drowning of more than twelve hundred blacks. Not merely an election foe, Watson had harassed Nagin during his first term as part of a coalition of Protestant ministers who questioned the leadership offered by the former Cox Cable executive. But when the primary eliminated Watson from the runoff, the uptown preacher endorsed and offered his support to the downtown Creole businessman he had virtually accused of mass murder. In a remarkable display of racial solidarity, if not immediately apparent racial interest, the incumbent held his core vote.[5]

Watson’s rapid reassessment of the merits of the Nagin administration was the product less of his idiosyncrasies than of a long, tangled local history. As with Nagin’s Martin Luther King Jr. Day appeal, it highlighted the end of a division nearly as old as the city itself. New Orleans had been unique among American cities in creating a Caribbean-style, three-tiered racial hierarchy that inserted a group of mixed racial origin between black and white. But it was not just the three-tiered system that made New Orleans stand out. It was that it existed, in the same place and at the same time, in curious combination with the standard American black-white dichotomy. The intense color consciousness of the latter system and the flouting of racial conventions of the former guaranteed conflict. A deep ethnocultural division separating African Americans from Franco-Africans further complicated matters. Finally, the coinciding demographic and social fault lines involving issues of color, class, language, religion, and geography facilitated the emergence of popular images that were rooted in fact although stereotypical and overdrawn. The downtown Creole of color (fair-skinned, French-speaking, Catholic, free or freed prior to abolition, often well-to-do and educated, conservative by nature and aloof from the masses) stood in stark contrast to the uptown African American (darker, English-speaking, Protestant, the descendant of slaves, relatively bereft of material resources and skills).[6] It made little difference that literally thousands of exceptions undermined those gross descriptions; they reflected just enough of the visible reality of New Orleans to ring true.[7] At the height of this cultural conflict, antebellum New Orleans (1836–1852)—if not quite walled off and sealed by armed checkpoints, like post–World War II Berlin—had found itself divided into three semiautonomous municipalities. At that time two downtown Creole faubourgs and the uptown American sector reflected their differences symbolically and reinforced them politically. The Reverend Tom Watson’s uptown opposition to Nagin provided evidence of the persistence of that old structural split. His quick, reflexive, postprimary embrace of the candidate, however, indicated the now-unchallenged sway of the traditional black-white dichotomy and the dominance of its color consciousness.

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Thread: Three-tiered racial hierarchy Expand thread [+]

Historically, New Orleans society was tripartite rather than bipartite, mixing Spanish and French colonists, English mercantilists, African slaves, and later waves of German, Irish, Italian, and other migrants. Follow thread in Fussell, “Population History” >

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Voters who supported the incumbent in the wake of Hurricane Katrina may have had their detractors, but they seemed little inclined to change their behavior. The election’s outcome proved predictable enough, in fact, to have been foreseen by Alexis de Tocqueville some one hundred and seventy-five years before the ballots were cast. Visiting New Orleans in 1830, he took the measure not only of the city’s multicultural white society but also of the highly unusual group that occupied the middle of the city’s tripartite racial hierarchy. Taking particular note of the erudite, well-mannered, and educated free people of color, Tocqueville asked the city’s prominent white residents if they would be willing to bestow equality on such obviously able citizens, manifestly as much European as African. When the Americans recoiled at the prospect, Tocqueville issued a prophetic prognostication. “I much fear,” he warned, “that they will one day make themselves your [government] ministers.”[8]

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Thread: Increasing former slaves’ access to rights Expand thread [+]

At the 1867–68 state convention, urban activists of color joined forces with Radical Republicans who had come from the North, some local Unionists, and former slaves and artisans from Louisiana’s countryside joined together to hammer out a new guarantee of equal “civil, political, and public rights. Follow thread in Scott, “Road to Plessy v. Ferguson” >

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What Tocqueville omitted—and could not know—was how long that would take and what the process would be. Even as he anticipated the ultimate electoral outcomes in the multiethnic republic, he captured at most only half the political transformation revealed by Katrina. There is no doubt that his emphasis on the electability of Creoles was well placed. All four of the city’s black mayors elected since 1978 share a downtown Catholic Creole heritage. Ernest N. “Dutch” Morial’s election as the city’s first black mayor (1978–1986) thus represented not only a changing of the racial guard at city hall, but also the rise, particularly, of the Creole Seventh Ward.[9]

Long a hotbed of political activity and a place where Creole leadership was born and bred, it became the cradle of New Orleans’s mayors much as Bridgeport served as an incubator of Irish leadership in Chicago. Favorite son Sidney Barthelemy (1986–1994) followed Dutch Morial, as he was in turn succeeded by Dutch’s own son, Marc (1994–2002). If Ray Nagin is not a literal Seventh Warder, he still emerged from the city’s downtown Creole precincts.[10]

Dutch Morial’s 1978 election proved significant for two other reasons as well. First, it appears to be the last in which the candidate’s identity as a Creole became a serious campaign issue. Racial identity was crucial, of course, and would later loom even larger. But in the late 1970s, even the mainstream white press commented on Morial’s in-between status in its campaign analysis. Or, as the columnist Iris Kelso mistakenly put it, he was “too white for the blacks, too black for the whites.” The concept of a Creole identity, in short, remained a part of the city’s political lexicon at least through the 1970s. Indeed, at the time the African American state representative Sherman Copelin joked that he needed a visa to enter the Seventh Ward. Even Morial’s distribution of patronage, denounced as “elitist” by some black rivals, expressed long-standing class and cultural tensions clearly linked to his Creole status. Things were very different in 2006. C. Ray Nagin was called many things in the Katrina campaign—Creole was not one of them.[11]

It is clear in retrospect that Dutch Morial was, paradoxically, the first black and the last Creole to be mayor.[12] Having found solace, comfort, and advantage in maintaining their own group identity for nearly two hundred years, the Creoles of color had increasingly, since abolition, been subjected to pressures and opportunities that eroded their numbers and attenuated their culture. The enhanced racial consciousness of the civil rights and post–civil rights eras, moreover, robbed them of their main claim to privilege and transformed their mixed origins into a liability.[13] The forging of a dichotomous racial hierarchy out of human materials originally defined by early tripartite division compelled a redistribution of people from the ambiguous middle sector along lines not always of their own choosing. Three had to become two. Given Euro-American prejudice and power, only a fraction of those with mixed origins could opt for “white,” and “black,” holding its own attractions, was now beautiful. Being neither black nor white—or, more accurately, being both black and white—now posed new problems.

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Thread: Creoles in New Orlean’s ethnic geography Expand thread [+]

The pattern of an Anglo-dominant upper city versus a Creole lower city would deeply influence the cultural geography of New Orleans to this day. Follow thread in Campanella, “Ethnic Geography” >

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The simultaneous establishment of two race-relations systems early in the city’s history consequently drove a wedge between Franco-Africans and African Americans and necessitated a long period of acculturation before the American model dispatched its competitor. The process was neither linear nor uncontested, however, and it produced multiple divisions within the “colored” population. “Whiteness,” or even fractional shares thereof, thus acquired utility and value. But abolition, segregation, and the civil rights movement proved great equalizers and powerful leveling forces. By the middle of the twentieth century, desirability no longer resided in straight hair, angular, European features, or skin no darker than a grocery bag. And the unforgiving one-drop rule left those Creoles who adapted to the Americanized racial order increasingly isolated among the larger body of African Americans. Deserted by many who had passed for white and others who had simply fled—to the Caribbean, California, anywhere to escape the growing repression that began in earnest in the 1850s—the Creole community suffered a shrinking demographic base and the erosion of privileged legal and economic niches. The identifiable Creoles left behind found themselves squeezed into an increasingly rigid dichromatic society.[14]

That there remained, however, among the Creoles of color an ethnic fragment that rejected America’s imposition of an unwavering color line is not to be doubted. This unusual element, visible in New Orleans well before the franchise extended to people of color, provided a ready-made leadership possessed of some skills, resources, and independence. It was this fragment, moreover, that contained what remained of a distinctive Creole memory and values. When democracy came to New Orleans, the political combination predicted by Tocqueville—African American numbers and an emergent leadership among the “foreign element”—became possible (and probably inevitable). The content of such an alliance could be variable; Creoles were divided among the Americanized, those who were becoming so, and those who resisted. And the “Americans” produced their own leaders as well. This meant that politics provided a primary venue for settling intrablack, as well as black-white, differences. Ideas, world view, and agendas now marked the Creoles as did language, religion, and color. And the trajectory of their politics anticipated that of the group as a people.[15]

The Creole historian Rodolphe Lucien Desdunes, born in 1849 and writing as the veil of segregation blanketed the United States, offered perhaps the clearest expression of this unacculturated Creole’s view. First to earn his disdain were those of his fellow Creoles who “have fallen to such a point of moral weakness that they have disowned and rejected not only their fellow blacks but even their fellow kin.”[16] Desdunes continued to defy the emerging conservative stereotype then being affixed to light-skinned Creoles such as himself by next condemning “the amalgamated Negro” who tried to join his “persecutors in a bid to immunity.” They, he wrote, “were fool[s].” Those who “esteem[ed] nothing so much as the fairness” of their skin or the “souple strains” of their hair had merely chosen two “convenient accessories” as their “most precious possessions.” Such a person would, Desdunes concluded, “turn his back upon his mother, and . . . despise his children in obedience to his delusions.”[17]

Thinking outside the racial box that had been made for them, Desdunes and other less than totally Americanized Creoles extended their analysis to the political realm, positing the existence of “two distinct schools” of thought that separated the “Latin Negroes” (as he called the Creoles) and the “Anglo Saxon” blacks (African Americans and those Franco-Africans who accepted the Americans’ racial order). The Latin Negro, Desdunes concluded, “differed radically” from the Anglo Saxon “in aspiration and in method.” The Creole, he observed, sought “equality,” while the American pursued “identity.” The resistant Creole, he believed, “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 in order to think that he is a Negro.” And where Creoles pursued “merit,” the Americans, he said perhaps self-servingly, sought only “advantages.”[18]

If such comparisons seemed abstract, they produced telling differences in the perception of racial issues. Some obvious examples illustrate that the racial unity undoubtedly fostered by war, abolition, and Reconstruction remained tempered by cultural and political differences. The provision of public education for blacks on a segregated basis and the simultaneous creation of the all-black Southern University as a quid pro quo for acceptance of segregated schooling in the Redeemer constitution of 1879 provoked outrage among many Creoles of color. They rejected both the explicit sanction given the color line and the political deal making that characterized the agreement between the African American and Republican factional leader P. B. S. Pinchback and the former governor Henry Clay Warmoth. The Creole Aristide Mary refused to speak to Pinchback from that day until his death, and he deeply resented Pinchback’s assertion that the government would always be a “government of whites.” Where the Creoles of color saw unwarranted concession and the surrender of crucial principle, the African Americans, working more closely with white political allies, saw practicality, realism, and material gain.[19]

Other Creoles, such as Desdunes and Louis Charles Roudanez (physician and owner-publisher of the bilingual New Orleans Tribune) nursed similar misgivings. Desdunes, particularly, took the lead—along with Roudanez and the attorney Louis A. Martinet—in resisting Jim Crow in the years between the fall of Reconstruction and World War I. In the 1880s and 1890s, he was a moving force behind the New Orleans Crusader, an opposition paper published in both French and English; he also helped organize the Comité des Citoyens that recruited Homer Plessy and supported his legal challenge to the new system. Ultimately unsuccessful, the Comité carried the case all the way to the Supreme Court where its Creole leadership (fifteen out of eighteen of the group’s identified leaders had French names) had to accept defeat in 1896.[20]

Plessy v. Ferguson, which declared the principle of “separate but equal” constitutional, remained the law of the land for fifty-eight years. Following the Court’s initial ruling, emotions ran high and the danger of reactionary violence was such that even Desdunes advocated a “policy of appeasement.” “Under such circumstances,” he wrote, “irritation is hardly tenable” as an alternative. With overt resistance reduced, only an undercurrent of Creole protest survived. Jim Crow’s reign subsequently forged more unified, or “racial,” interests and locked in place the ascendancy of the black-white paradigm. Still, if black organizations outgrew their neighborhood orientations and increasingly reflected citywide constituencies, it remained true that downtown, particularly in the Seventh Ward, Creole leadership could be found in the most assertive and successful minority organizations and movements.[21]

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Thread: Plessy v. Ferguson Expand thread [+]

The case of Plessy v. Ferguson offered one last opportunity for Louisiana activists to enunciate their philosophy of equal rights for private persons in public spaces. Follow thread in Scott, “Road to Plessy v. Ferguson” >

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There were those, of course, who charged the protesting Creoles with seeking only to enhance their own status. Rodolphe Desdunes, as usual, had a ready answer for them. He saw, first of all, the fight over access to public accommodations as part of a larger battle. Disfranchisement, economic discrimination, and support for the proposed Separate Car Act in the 1890s were part of a broad attempt to impose the Jim Crow principle in virtually every sphere of life.[22]

The human links that connected opposition movements from the beginning of the Jim Crow era to its conclusion came most prominently from the Seventh Ward. A. P. Tureaud was a graduate of Howard University and the only practicing black attorney in New Orleans for much of the interwar period. Of Haitian descent, Tureaud collected the writings of New Orleans’s fpc (free people of color) and further kept their memory alive as a lay historian. And though he worked through neighborhood and citywide organizations such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (naacp), the Federation of Civic Leagues, the network of social aid and pleasure clubs, and the Martinet Society (a black lawyers’ organization he named after one of Homer Plessy’s Creole defenders) to knit the city’s people of color together, his prominent leadership reinforced that of the recalcitrant Creoles who refused the simple acceptance of the American dichotomy.[23]

Tureaud connected directly to the modern civil rights era through his junior law partner, Dutch Morial. Morial’s well-documented string of civil-rights-era firsts (from being the first black graduate of the Louisiana State University Law School in 1952 to becoming mayor of New Orleans in 1978) represented a string of unparalleled personal triumphs, but it was his work with Tureaud as they filed suit after desegregation suit that made him a champion for the entire city, uniting all people of color behind his cause and eventually his candidacy for mayor. His assertive style and in-your-face politicking also appealed to his nonwhite constituency and reassured those who may have thought his nearly white appearance masked a weak commitment to the race. His use of a new Citizens Committee (self-consciously named after the French speakers of Homer Plessy’s day) only made more manifest the connection first indicated by his partnership with Tureaud. The African American activist Jesse Jackson subsequently eulogized Dutch Morial as “maladjusted” in an oration that stressed the latter’s refusal to accommodate to the absurdities of the American racial paradigm.[24]

The same could not be said for Dutch’s successor, Sidney Barthelemy. Significantly, save for a difference in height (Barthelemy towered over Morial), the two shared many of the stereotypical Creole characteristics. Both were fair-skinned, college-educated, well-to-do Catholic Seventh Warders—who differed widely in political style and substance. Barthelemy had no civil rights record to rival Morial’s, and his political mentors were tied to the local Urban League, which brought him into close, paternalistic relationships with white civic and elected leaders. Where Morial proved too assertive, aggressive, and even offensive for many in that crowd, Barthelemy seemed safer, more accomodationist, and more willing to be groomed for high office in a demographically changing city. Thus, in 1978, while Barthelemy waited to be anointed by traditional players, Morial seized the moment and moved into city hall.[25]

As mayor, Morial tried to do more than simply put a black face on a traditional white brand of patronage politics. He knew how to play such hardball and did so with alacrity. But he wanted more. He did not turn over his administration to bit players and hacks but turned to academia and the professions for his key appointments, tried to open New Orleans up to new forces, stressed merit in performance, and—never afraid to offend either blacks or whites—echoed Desdunes as he lectured and hectored each on proper public conduct. No respecter of the color line, he clearly angered those who believed him at once too generous to enemies and not profligate enough with friends. Worse, his distaste for hacks and desire to root out corruption led him to use the police to raid and humiliate his rivals in the black community, whether African American or Creole. The writer and activist Tom Dent concluded simply that Morial was a black mayor who did not “act like a black man.”[26]

A two-term limit on the mayor’s office drove Morial out in 1986, in favor of the now-ready Barthelemy. Given the city’s history of a tripartite racial order, Barthelemy appeared to be the product of the same sociocultural experience that produced Morial. But, despite the clear similarities in appearance and background, their political values and approach to racial issues diverged. Soft-spoken, conservative in demeanor and action—and utterly nonthreatening to what remained of the white elite—Barthelemy provided, in Toqueville’s words, the persona of the Creole “minister” while adopting the behavioral typology Desdunes had laid out for the Anglo Saxon. Sidney Barthelemy retained the continuity of the Creole leadership, but he did so at the cost of accepting and further elevating the clearly regnant dichotomous American model of race relations.

Retention of the office by Creoles combined with the ascension of the assimilationist wing of that group to produce a brand of mayoral politics that had seemingly become standard by the time C. Ray Nagin won his post-Katrina campaign. Frequent, polarizing elections based on racial identification—and little else—became a staple of New Orleans’s politics following Dutch Morial’s administration. Barthelemy ran in 1986 as the white champion, someone well-known to the white leadership and possessed of a soothing presence that made him an easy choice over the much darker, seemingly more militant William Jefferson. It proved a winning strategy that did him no harm four years later when Donald Mintz, a white opponent with a creditable civil rights record, ran against him. Morial’s unexpected death in the midst of that campaign sent shock waves through the black community and made it receptive to Barthelemy’s racial crusade. Having run as a white front in 1986, he ran as a black hope in 1990.[27]

In much the same way, in 2002 Nagin ran as the best chance white conservatives had to retain influence and in 2006 came back in a reelection bid as the answer to the black community’s prayer. The Barthelemy and Nagin campaigns thus appear to be racial wars without any real racial content. There was little talk of policy or even performance in office, and most commentators spent their time simply trying to discern the color of the New Orleans electorate. Chameleon-like, the candidates’ racial role, significance, and sympathy changed with each election as the need of the moment dictated. The Creoles did, indeed, become the city’s ministers; they simply surrendered what made them different to do it. And both Nagin and Barthelemy demonstrated that if they could exploit the hopes and fears of a “chocolate city,” they could live on French vanilla as well.

There is a final implication. New Orleans’s politics, it appears, may tell us a great deal about the city’s unique social order and the history of its transient, tripartite racial framework. Like a canary in a miner’s helmet, the city’s politics may provide an early warning system indicating a life-threatening change in the environment. A Creole identity, created in the late colonial period, persisted for about two centuries—though ultimately with diminishing numbers and influence. The next generation or two may well determine whether Katrina delivered a final, fatal blow to that people and wiped out the last vestiges of the old order.

There are already some disturbing signs. The uprooting of New Orleans, especially the dispersal of those who came from and kept alive what may be seen as a homeland connection downtown, places special salience on recovery policy. The slow pace and increased difficulty in returning home means that the government, by doing little or nothing, is taking an affirmative step that makes it more difficult to reconstitute that community. The key question then becomes: Can the Creoles survive in diaspora without a replenishing geographic base? Survival even with that base as it existed pre-Katrina was problematic. Creole institutions such as the oldest black Catholic parish in the country (St. Augustine’s in Tremé), already threatened, found themselves damaged or forced to close their doors. True, there are groups fighting back and ad hoc attempts at preservation, but they are often supported by outsiders sympathetic to the Creole community or by its remnants in California and elsewhere. Whether it will be possible to maintain such a culture-in-exile remains to be seen.

Finally, just as the Irish and Germans flooded the city in the 1840s and 1850s, blurring the lines separating Creole (white, French-speaking, and Catholic) from American, a significant post-Katrina migration is similarly obscuring traditional racial designations. More than 50 percent nonwhite at the time of the American takeover (1803), New Orleans had become nearly 80 percent white on the eve of the Civil War.[28] Though Creoles had earlier occupied key niches in New Orleans’s economy and society, that antebellum demographic revolution rendered them superfluous and helped initiate their long decline. Similarly, a large Latino movement, evident before the hurricane, gained enormous momentum as the more than half-empty city struggled to rebuild. The ultimate impact of yet another shift in the city’s demographic base remains to be seen, but it is difficult to see how it would enhance the remnant of Creoles of color.

Arnold R. Hirsch holds the Ethel and Herman L. Midlo Endowed Chair for New Orleans Studies and is University Research Professor of History at the University of New Orleans. The author wishes to thank Eric Poche for his valuable research assistance.

Readers may contact Hirsch at ahirsch at uno dot edu.

[1] Gordon Russell and Frank Donze, “Twenty-three Likely Battling Just to Face Nagin in Runoff: Few Have Money, Name Recognition to Compete,” New Orleans Times-Picayune, March 5, 2006, national section, p. 1; Frank Donze and Jeffrey Meitrodt, “Many Nagin Donors Switch on Him: They’re Bankrolling Other Candidates Now,” ibid., April 20, 2006, p. 1.

[2] Meghan Gordon and West Bank Bureau, “New Orleans Population Hits 200,000, New Data Show: City Nearing 40 Percent Pre-Katrina Size,” ibid., Nov. 29, 2006, p. 1; Joyce Purnick, “Maybe the Plantation Grows Cocoa,” New York Times, Jan. 19, 2006, late edition, p. B1.

[3] C. Ray Nagin’s sartorially questionable campaign photo op brought to mind Richard M. Nixon’s attempt to appear relaxed and pensive while strolling along an oceanfront beach—in a suit and wing tips.

[4] Clancy DuBos, “The Madness of C. Ray: The Real Damage Can Be Counted in the Millions—If Not Billions—in Federal and Private Sector Aid This Clown Is Going to Cost Our City,” New Orleans Gambit, Jan. 24, 2006, editorial section.

[5] Brian Thevenot and Gordon Russell, “Jabs Get Sharper in Mayor’s Race: Attacks Stepped Up in Next-to-Last Debate,” New Orleans Times-Picayune, May 12, 2006, “Metro” section, p. 1; Stephanie Grace, “Angry Black Pastors Take Aim at City Hall,” ibid., Feb. 22, 2004, “Metro—Editorial” section, p. 7; Michelle Krupa, “Watson Turns ‘Rebuke’ into Salute for Nagin,” ibid., May 12, 2006, “Metro” section, p. 1.

[6] For the creation and nature of such tripartite societies, see H. Hoetink, Slavery and Race Relations in the Americas: Comparative Notes on Their Nature and Nexus (New York, 1973); and David W. Cohen and Jack P. Greene, eds., Neither Slave nor Free: The Freedmen of African Descent in the Slave Societies of the New World (Baltimore, 1973). For early descriptions of free people of color in New Orleans and Louisiana, see Donald E. Everett, “The Free Persons of Color in New Orleans, 1803–1865” (Ph.D. diss., Tulane University, 1952); Robert C. Reinders, “A Social History of New Orleans, 1850–1860” (Ph.D. diss., Tulane University, 1957); Gary B. Mills, The Forgotten People: Cane River’s Creoles of Color (Baton Rouge, 1977); and Laura Foner, “The Free People of Color in Louisiana and St. Domingue: A Comparative Portrait of Two Three-Caste Societies,” Journal of Social History, 3 (Summer 1970), 406–30. A valuable more recent contribution is Virginia R. Domínguez, White by Definition: Social Classification in Creole Louisiana (New Brunswick, 1986). Later works on the Crescent City include Arnold R. Hirsch and Joseph Logsdon, eds., Creole New Orleans: Race and Americanization (Baton Rouge, 1992); Gwendolyn Midlo Hall, Africans in Colonial Louisiana: The Development of Afro-Creole Culture in the Eighteenth Century (Baton Rouge, 1992); Caryn Cossé Bell, Revolution, Romanticism, and the Afro-Creole Protest Tradition in Louisiana, 17181868 (Baton Rouge, 1997); Kimberly S. Hanger, Bounded Lives, Bounded Places: Free Black Society in Colonial New Orleans, 1769–1803 (Durham, 1977); Stephen J. Ochs, A Black Patriot and a White Priest: André Cailloux and Claude Paschal Maistre in Civil War New Orleans (Baton Rouge, 2000); Stephen J. Ochs, Desegregating the Altar: The Josephites and the Struggle for Black Priests, 18711960 (Baton Rouge, 1990); Rebecca J. Scott, Degrees of Freedom: Louisiana and Cuba after Slavery (Cambridge, Mass., 2005); and Rebecca J. Scott, “The Atlantic World and the Road to Plessy v. Ferguson,Journal of American History, 94 (Dec. 2007), 726–33.

[7] The conflation of defining characteristics around color (fair-skinned Creoles or Franco-Africans versus darker African Americans) is carried too far if color is made a surrogate for all the others. The exceptions cannot be accounted for if culture is defined by color alone. For examples of overreliance on color, see David C. Rankin, “The Impact of the Civil War on the Free Colored Community of New Orleans,” Perspectives in American History, 11 (1977–1978), 379–416; David C. Rankin, “The Politics of Caste: Free Colored Leadership in New Orleans during the Civil War,” in Louisiana’s Black Heritage, ed. Robert R. MacDonald, John R. Kemp, and Edward F. Haas (New Orleans, 1979), 107–46; and Jean-Charles Houzeau, My Passage at the New Orleans Tribune: A Memoir of the Civil War Era, ed. David C. Rankin, trans. Gerard F. Denault (Baton Rouge, 2001).

[8] Alexis de Tocqueville, Journey to America, ed. J. P. Mayer, trans. George Lawrence (New Haven, 1960), 380.

[9] For the Morial family’s Seventh Ward background, see Charlotte Hays, “The Creoles of Color: New Orleans Election Highlights, a True New Orleans Phenomenon,” New Orleans Figaro, Dec. 7, 1977, sec. 1, p. 14.

[10] On Nagin’s early life on Allen Street in the Seventh Ward, see Gordon Russell, “Nagin Counts on Compromise, Integrity,” New Orleans Times-Picayune, Jan. 12, 2002, national section, p. 1.

[11] Iris Kelso, “Iris Kelso on Politics,” New Orleans Figaro, March 9, 1977, p. 3; Hays, “Creoles of Color.”

[12] That Dutch Morial was New Orleans’s first black mayor is self-evident; his status as the last Creole mayor requires explanation. The three black mayors that followed Morial came out of the Creole community, but they did not share the connection and commitment to the vision of a caste-free society displayed by the earlier leadership. I have elsewhere called Dutch Morial “the last of the radical Creoles” for his rejection of the two-tiered model of race relations and his continued attachment to “un-American” values. His successors, including his son, had a different vision and practiced a different brand of politics. See Arnold R. Hirsch, “Simply a Matter of Black and White: The Transformation of Race and Politics in Twentieth-Century New Orleans,” in Creole New Orleans, ed. Hirsch and Logsdon, 262–319, esp. 316–19.

[13] Aline St. Julien, Colored Creole: Color Conflict and Confusion in New Orleans (New Orleans, 1977); Arthé A. Anthony, “Creole of Color Identity in New Orleans and Los Angeles: From Nadir to Willie Horton,” 1993, paper presented at the American Anthropological Association meeting, San Francisco, Dec. 6, 1992 (in Arnold R. Hirsch’s possession).

[14] Joseph Logsdon and Caryn Cossé Bell, “The Americanization of Black New Orleans, 1850–1900,” in Creole New Orleans, ed. Hirsch and Logsdon, 201–61; Reinders, “Social History of New Orleans.”

[15] For recognition of these traits as characteristic of an unassimilated Creole, see the works by Virginia Domínguez, Gwendolyn Midlo Hall, and Caryn Cossé Bell cited in note 6 above. For a different interpretation of the Creole character, see the works by David C. Rankin cited in note 7 above.

[16] Rodolphe Lucien Desdunes, Our People and Our History: A Tribute to the Creole People of Color in Memory of the Great Men They Have Given Us and of the Good Works They Have Accomplished, trans. and ed. Dorothea Olga McCants (Baton Rouge, 1973), 18, 19. (The book was originally published as Nos Hommes et Notre Histoire in 1911.) On Rodolphe Desdunes and his cohort, see Joseph Logsdon and Lawrence Powell, “Rodolphe Lucien Desdunes: Forgotten Organizer of the Plessy Protest,” in Sunbelt-Revolution: The Historical Progression of the Civil Rights Struggle in the Gulf South, 1866–2000, ed. Sam Hyde (Gainesville, 2003).

[17] Rodolphe Lucien Desdunes, A Few Words to Dr. Dubois: “With Malice toward None” (New Orleans, 1907), 10–11, no. 1063, folder 38, box 77 (microfilm: roll 57), Alexander Pierre Tureaud Papers, 1909–1972 (Amistad Research Center, Tulane University, New Orleans, La.).

[18]Ibid., 13.

[19] Logsdon and Bell, “Americanization of Black New Orleans,” 252–53.

[20] For a more detailed account of the Creole support of Plessy v. Ferguson, see C. Vann Woodward, American Counterpoint: Slavery and Racism in the North-South Dialogue (Boston, 1971), esp. 215, 217, and 227; Logsdon and Bell, “Americanization of Black New Orleans”; Scott, Degrees of Freedom, 88–93; and Charles A. Lofgren, The Plessy Case: A Legal-Historical Interpretation (New York, 1987), 29–33.

[21] Woodward, American Counterpoint, 233; Desdunes, Few Words to Dr. Dubois, 14. Creoles led in such organizations as the local branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (naacp), which played a prominent local role in dismantling Jim Crow in the 1960s and 1970s. See Hirsch, “Simply a Matter of Black and White”; and Adam Fairclough, Race and Democracy: The Civil Rights Struggle in Louisiana, 19151972 (Athens, Ga., 1995).

[22] Compare the similar conclusion in Scott, Degrees of Freedom, 89–93.

[23] On A. P. Tureaud, see Donald E. DeVore, “The Rise from the Nadir: Black New Orleans between the Wars, 1920–1940” (M.A. thesis, University of New Orleans, 1983). Much additional information on Tureaud may be gleaned from Fairclough, Race and Democracy.

[24] See Fairclough, Race and Democracy. The author was one of several hundred honorary pallbearers and is recounting the eulogy from memory.

[25] A more detailed comparison of the two mayors can be found in Arnold R. Hirsch, “Harold and Dutch Revisited: A Comparative Look at the First Black Mayors of Chicago and New Orleans,” in African-American Mayors, ed. David R. Colburn and Jeffrey S. Adler (Chicago, 2001), 107–29.

[26] James Ring Adams, “A Black Calvin Coolidge?,” Wall Street Journal, May 1, 1979, p. 22. See also Arnold R. Hirsch, “Race and Politics in Modern New Orleans: The Mayoralty of Dutch Morial,” Amerikastudien (Stuttgart), 35 (Winter 1990), 461–84. Tom Dent, “New Orleans v. Atlanta,” Southern Exposure, 7 (Spring 1979), 64–68, esp. 68.

[27] Huey L. Perry, “The Reelection of Sidney Barthelemy as Mayor of New Orleans,” PS: Political Science and Politics, 23 (June 1990), 156–57; Lyle Kenneth Perkins, “Failing the Race: A Historical Assessment of New Orleans Mayor Sidney Barthelemy, 1986–1994” (M.A. thesis, Louisiana State University, 2005).

[28] A census at the time of the Louisiana Purchase (1803) counted a nonwhite (slave and free combined) majority and a white minority in New Orleans (4,108 to 3,948). See An Account of Louisiana, Being an Abstract of Documents in the Office of the Department of State and of the Treasury (Philadelphia, 1803). Swamped by a largely Haitian immigration shortly thereafter, the city in 1809 alone added 3,226 slaves and 3,102 free people of color; the addition of but 2,731 whites at the same time meant an augmenation of that nonwhite majority. See Paul Lachance, “The Foreign French,” in Creole New Orleans, ed. Hirsch and Logsdon, 101–30, esp. 103. On the population in 1860, see Elizabeth Fussell, “Constructing New Orleans, Constructing Race: A Population History of New Orleans,” Journal of American History, 94 (Dec. 2007), 846–55, esp. 848.