In October of 1933, an incident took place in the Maison Blanche Department Store on Canal Street. This incident is one of many that women across the city of New Orleans experienced during the era of segregation. Maison Blanche had no written store policy or rules made known to people of color. It was all done “behind closed doors”.
As she walked through the doors of Maison Blanche on Canal Street, Mrs. Nobles caught sight of the counter where women’s hats were on sale for just $1.25 each. Since she never was one to pass up a bargain, she decided to try on one for herself. Suddenly, she was approached by a clerk and told that store rules prohibited her from doing so. As she looked around and saw several white women trying on hats, she asked the clerk if the rule applied only to colored customers. The clerk answered,” Yes”
Having been a customer for the past 12 years, Mrs. Nobles angrily approached the manager of the personnel department, Mr. Deloteus, and informed him of the treatment she had just received. Being put in an awkward situation, Mr. Deloteus sought advice from a “higher-up” on the ruling. Upon returning, he explained that it was a house rule. Colored patrons could not try on hats at the bargain counter, but there was a specially prepared place on the second floor set up for them and a polite clerk was there to provide assistance. Angrily she responded, “I will not segregate myself in order to make my purchase”.
Immediately, she relayed this incident to reporters of The Louisiana Weekly. Several investigators (sent by the newspaper) arrived at her home at 3610 Delachaise and discovered that all of her furniture had been purchased from Maison Blanche.
Further investigation revealed the fact that Mrs. Nobles was in the process of bargaining with a salesman for the purchase of a Frigidaire but, upon receiving the above treatment, she refused to even speak with him again.
That Wednesday afternoon, investigators from the Louisiana Weekly called on Mr. Deloteus who informed them that he had no jurisdiction over company policies, and he also stressed the courteous service that all Maison Blanche colored customers would receive on the second floor. They then approached Mr. Moise, the secretary treasurer of the company, who informed them that they would have to speak with the vice-president, Mr. Mann.
After being given the run around, Mrs. Montegut and Mrs. Taylor ( the investigators) spoke to Mr. Mann who, believe it or not, left his office to converse with other officials. Returning, he proudly reported that there was” absolutely no truth ” whatever to what the hat clerk and Mr. Deloteus said. No such rule existed. He then went on to say that the hat clerk was new and was severely reprimanded for her behavior.
Leaving the office of Mr. Mann, the investigators went down to the street and soon spotted a school girl, Margaret Nogess. They asked her to go inside Maison Blanche and purchase a hat at the bargain counter. Doing as she was asked, Miss Nogess selected a hat and attempted to try it on. Before the hat reached her head, the clerk informed her also of their “second floor” policy. Miss Nogess left the store immediately, followed by the two female investigators who had witnessed the entire incident.
In September of 1938, The Pittsburgh Courier ran a story on Mrs. Louise Smith of New Orleans who was told she could not try on several dresses because white ladies objected to purchasing dresses that had been put on by Negroes.
Finally, after numerous complaints, the NAACP took action. They sent letters to several leading downtown department stores concerning the complaints they had received on not being allowed to try on ready-to-wear clothing,hats, shoes,etc. It read, “Our office is anxious to be able to let our people know which stores are enforcing these restrictions and which stores welcome the trade of the Negro citizens of New Orleans and their out-of-town friends.We are asking you to return the attached slip which will give us positive information as to the attitude and policy of your institution. It is our feeling that an institution should be definite in its policy and it should be made known”. Dr. Brazier, president of the NAACP, closed his letter by stating that all returned information would be released to the newspapers.
I do not know if the NAACP received responses to their letters. I only know that women kept reporting such instances of discrimination throughout the 1930s to 1950s.It is important to note that many of these stories centered on Maison Blanche, the shopping hub of New Orleans. For more stories of rejection read Aline St.Julien, Lilli Braud and Delores Aaron’s accounts in LAKisha Simmons’ dissertation(see Sources below).
It’s all just another example of the battles we had to fight, but we’re proud of the courage of the men and women who wouldn’t give up and fought back.
Sources: The Pittsburgh Courier24 Sept,1938 p.23+ 8 October,1938 p.23; The Louisiana Weekly 28 October, 1933; 2009 Dissertation by LaKisha Simmons, “Black Girls Coming of Age; Sexuality & Segregation in NewOrleans 193o-1954″ (pages 56 to 60) http://deepblue.lib.umich.edu/bitstream/2027.42/64646/1/kisha_1.pdf