Alexander Pierre Tureaud: A Man for All Seasons
When the name A. P. Tureaud is spoken today, it conjures images of the New Orleans-born legal mastermind who collaborated with such figures as Justice Thurgood Marshall and law scholar Charles Hamilton Houston, and the powerful Legal Defense Fund of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (N.A.A.C.P.). Often unrecognized is Tureaud’s unique awareness of and participation in the hundred-year-old Civil Rights struggle in south Louisiana.
Alexander Pierre Tureaud was born in New Orleans on February 26, 1899. His birth came just three years after the fateful Supreme Court decision, Plessy v. Ferguson, by which “separate but equal,” was made the law of the land. In his childhood, Tureaud undoubtedly heard stories of the valiant fight which men from his own community and common colored Creole background had waged since the close of the Civil War. Born to a father, Louis Tureaud, whose roots lay among the gens de couleur libres, or free people of color of rural Saint James Parish and a mother, Eugenia Dejan, whose roots came from a similar New Orleans background, Tureaud was heir to a rich legacy of language, ethos, culture, and even legal code which were unique to Louisiana.
His early education was in the public schools of the city, among them the Bayou Road School. Longing for adventure and employment, as a teenager, Tureaud ventured to Chicago where he worked as a railroad hand and acted in many stage productions as an avocation. This combination of working men who were also thespians hearkens back to the 1860s when the Hewlett Brothers performed at Theatre d’Orleans and the 1830s when free blacks formed the Theatre de Marigny. Eventually Tureaud went to live with a brother in New York, where he was first introduced to the N.A.A.C.P. and to major black leaders such as W.E.B. DuBois. At the age of nineteen, Tureaud moved to Washington, D.C., where he acquired his high school diploma and worked as a junior clerk in the Justice Department Library. Tureaud entered the Howard University Law School Class of 1925. At Howard, he shined, joining clubs and a fraternity, and meeting another young Louisianian, Lucille Dejoie, whom he would marry in 1931.
After graduating from Howard Law School, Tureaud returned to New Orleans intent on beginning a law practice. The times were unfavorable to a full-time practice by a black attorney. Walter L. Cohen, Comptroller of Customs and leader of Louisiana’s “Black and Tan” Republicans, who himself had been involved in politics since a boy under P.B.S. Pinchback, secured the young lawyer a position as Deputy Comptroller, ensuring him a steady position while he practiced law part-time.
Tureaud was intrigued by the ledgers and manifests which were kept at the Custom House. At the time, Tureaud was undoubtedly familiar with Nos Hommes et Notre Histoire, the seminal 1911 chronicle of New Orleans’ colored Creole community. That work was written by Rodolphe-Lucien Desdunes, himself an alumnus of Straight University Law School and leader of the Comite des Citoyens, the group which supported Plessy v. Ferguson and earlier attempts at challenging Louisiana’s Jim Crow laws. Tureaud ventured through the city, collecting fragments of history–letters, notarial acts, society records, and manuscript volumes of poetry–which are a part of the A. P. Tureaud Papers at the Amistad Research Center and Historic New Orleans Collection. In addition to collecting and preserving precious pieces of history, Tureaud authored an article entitled, “The Negro at the Louisiana Bar,” and co-authored, “The Negro in Medicine in Louisiana,” with Dr. Clarence Clement Haydel. He was a good friend and constant source of information to Edward Maceo Coleman, the noted historian from Morgan State University.
When Tureaud joined the New Orleans Branch of the N.A.A.C.P. in 1927, he bore upon his shoulders the mantle once taken up by fellow black New Orleanians Rodolphe-Lucien Desdunes and Louis-Andre Martinet. Up to and following World War II, as Tureaud witnessed fights for integrated public accommodations, schools, and voting rights, he would have recalled similar events of more than seven decades before.
In 1869 for example, composer, actor, and politician Victor-Eugene Macarty was ejected from a white section in the French Opera House, and brought suit in the Federal District Court. In 1872, Josephine Dubuclet Decuir, filed a lawsuit protesting the fact that she was refused first-class accommodations aboard a Mississippi River steamboat traveling from New Orleans to Pointe Coupee. In 1864, roughly a thousand free men of color affixed their names to a petition which was personally delivered by two black New Orleanians to President Abraham Lincoln, demanding the right to vote.
Like his cultural forbears, Tureaud recognized that the laws of the United States were the most effective regulators of civil rights in the country. He once remarked that sit-ins had desegregated nothing but lunch counters. From 1944 until his retirement and death, he waged a crusade consisting of more than 65 lawsuits, all arguing for equality and assurance of access to all public services. Among these cases, were Edward Hall v. T. J. Nagel, Registrar of Voters (1946), which ensured voting rights; Joseph P. McKelpin v. Orleans Parish School Board (1941), which equalized teacher salaries in Louisiana; Roy S. Wilson v. Board of Supervisors, Louisiana State University (1950) and Alexander P. Tureaud, Jr. v. Board of Supervisors of Louisiana State University (1953), both of which desegregated higher education institutions; Earl Benjamin Bush v. Orleans Parish School Board (1952), which led to the desegregation of public schools; and Abraham L. Davis v. deLesseps S. Morrison, Mayor of New Orleans (1957), which desegregated public facilities in New Orleans.
In 1889, attorney and physician Louis-Andre Martinet, a leader of the Comité des Citoyens or Citizen’s Committee which financed the Plessy v. Ferguson case, founded The Crusader, a weekly and later daily newspaper which promulgated the group’s message. Likewise, in June 1940, dissatisfied with the local black press, Tureaud and other members of the local N.A.A.C.P. founded The Sentinel, to report and bring to light the abuses endured and legal battles fought by and for people of color.
Lesser known even than his distinguished political career or his lifelong interest in history, is the fact that Tureaud was a devoted husband of more than forty years and the father of six children. He was a devout Catholic and regularly attended the early children’s Mass at Corpus Christi Church before returning to his passionate fight for justice. Tureaud was an active member and Past President of the Autocrat Social Aid and Pleasure Club, and began its newsletter, The Autocrat Voice. Tureaud was also a proud member of the Sigma Lambda Chapter of the Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Inc.
He was a member of the Knights of Peter Claver for over forty years, from 1932 until his death. During most of those years, he served that organization of its National Board of Directors as National Advocate or National Secretary. Tureaud spearheaded the acquisition of the old French Hospital on Orleans Avenue, which served as the organization’s headquarters as well as the office of the local NAACP and Urban League. Tureaud saw the Knights of Peter Claver through many challenges including that of maintaining actuarial solvency and drafting a comprehensive constitution and by-laws.
Tureaud was an inspiration to countless younger attorneys, including Ernest N. Morial, Benjamin Johnson, Lolis E. Elie, Sr., and Norman C. Francis. After a career of more than nearly five decades in the legal profession, crusading for the principles of equality and justice, Tureaud died on January 22, 1972. Among his eulogists was his close friend Justice Thurgood Marshall, who remarked, “A.P. Tureaud was a great man. The Lord put you here on earth for three things: to work for God, to work for your family, and to work for your people. And A.P. Tureaud was a master of all three. That man’s courage was unbelievable. In this age of civil rights we got where we are today by the efforts and dedication of men like A.P. Tureaud.”