A casual society-oriented article in the Black Republican newspaper in early 1862 incorporated elements of the history of Creole New Orleans that we researchers in the 21st century can appreciate. The headline of the article was “The Musical Soiree at the Orleans Theater” with the sub-headline, “In Aid of the Soulé House Colored Orphan’s Home.” The article’s content is about one of the ongoing efforts to support the Soulé House orphan asylum.
The Orleans Theater
In 1817, entrepreneur John Davis, a French-born refugee from San Domingue, hoped to make his mark on New Orleans’ rich social scene and built the Orleans Ballroom, the oldest, most historic ballroom in New Orleans. When it opened, the ballroom became the setting for the most select affairs in New Orleans including those events famously later called Octoroon Balls (grossly misnamed and based on scanty evidence, according to contemporary historians). This early success led Davis to build the Orleans Theater on an adjacent plot of land. The Orleans Theater earned lasting recognition as it became an established venue, introducing French opera to America and continuing to open opulent dining and gaming rooms that equaled the best in Europe. But Davis’ endeavors were soon lost, as war destroyed most of the city’s nightlife.
By 1881 both the Orleans Theater and Ballroom were acquired by Mother Henriette DeLille of the Sisters of the Holy Family for use as a school and convent. The Orleans Ballroom is now part of the Bourbon Orleans Hotel in the French Quarter.
Colored Orphans Home at Soulé House
The first orphan asylum in the country was probably that attached to the Ursuline Convent in New Orleans, established in 1727, under the auspices of Louis XV of France. On the authority of the Archbishop of New Orleans an orphan asylum was attached to the Convent.
There were several orphan-aid associations supported entirely by people of color which operated during the Reconstruction period. The most important of these was the Louisiana Association for the Benefit of Colored Orphans, which was founded by New Orleans’s wealthy French-speaking citizens. The association’s first orphanage was established by Louise De Mortie of Boston when General Stephen A. Hurlbut permitted the association temporary use of the beautiful mansion of Pierre Soulé as an orphanage.
As the story goes, Pierre Soulé a Frenchman, former senator and later Confederate sympathizer was captured by Federal troops in 1861 and imprisoned in Massachusetts. His mansion was commandeered to serve as the orphanage. Several fairs were held to raise money for a permanent orphanage. A Frenchman contributed $10,000 to assist. Thomy Lafon, the celebrated Creole philanthropist, gave the association two lots as a site for the building and a number of black workers donated two days of labor for its construction.
Louise De Mortie/D’Mortie/D’Mortier
Louise De Mortie, born in Norfolk, VA in 1833, was well known as a lecturer, reader and persuasive public speaker who first made her mark in the exclusive social circles of Boston, Massachusetts. She was born into a high-achieving family of free people of color. She moved to Boston in 1853 as did her future husband, John Oliver (b. 1821) a free black carpenter and an abolitionist from Petersburg, VA. In the early 1860s De Mortie established and made her living as a public speaker and reader. At the height of her fame in Boston she left for New Orleans to devote her considerable talents to help black children who had been left orphaned by the Civil War. She may have found out about these orphans from the founder of the Colored Orphans home, General Nathaniel P. Banks, himself a Bostonian.
De Mortie moved in circles with notable New Orleans citizens such as P.B.S. Pinchback, a wealthy citizen who later became the only black governor of Louisiana; Victor Eugene Macarthy, a college professor, public school principal and musician; and Camille Thierry, an important black poet. De Mortie entered the active black social and political life of this unique American city of New Orleans and used her fame toward progressive purposes. She was a noted and popular singer, performing in concert the popular European and American songs of the day. She also continued her public readings and lectured in the city. Apparently, General Nathaniel Prentice Banks, a Bostonian who had relieved Major General Benjamin F. Butler as commander of New Orleans, requested Louise De Mortie take charge of the Colored Orphans Home. One of the many tactics De Mortie used to raise money for the orphanage was to hold paid singing and reading events. Alas, her participation as a singer elicited a lukewarm response
from the Black Republican newspaper reviewer but the event was considered a great success with notables such as Mr. McCarty (Macarthy/MaCarthy/Macartie), Major General Banks and Brigadier General Lee in attendance.
From 1865 until her death in 1867, De Mortie continued her work as a fundraiser for the orphanage, traveling to Boston, Philadelphia and other northern cities where she was well known to raise funds for the institution. It was necessary for her to do this because of the difficulties the orphanage experienced at the end of the Civil War and after the assassination of President Lincoln. Government protection was withdrawn from the Colored Orphans Asylum at the Pierre Soulé mansion. With this huge upheaval the orphans narrowly escaped being apprenticed by the government to their former owners, by being moved to Marine Hospital, still under the protection of the Freedman’s Bureau, while funds continued to be raised.
Sources: Black Republican, 29 April 1862; http://www.lib.lsu.edu/special/exhibits/e-exhibits/creole/Institution/institution.html; Looking Back, Clarice Goodley-Campbell, Ed.D, rev 12 Apr 2013; http://www.bourbonorleans.com/history; Notable Black American Women: book II, Jessie Carney Smith, editor, Gale Research, Inc., 1991; The Medical Missionary, John Harvey Kellogg, International Health and Temperance Association, 1901; Black New Orleans 1860 – 1880, John Blassingame, 2nd printing 2008; http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pierre_Soule; New Orleans Architecture, Volume IV: The Creole Faubourgs,
Roulhac Toledano, Sally Evans, and Mary Louise Christovich, Friends of the Cabildo, Inc. pub., 1980.