The Wizard of Tuskegee in New Orleans
Booker Taliaferro Washington’s life’s work garnered for him the esteem of Americans of all races and admirers from around the world. “Builder of a Civilization,” “Wizard of Tuskegee,” “Leader of His People” – These titles have all been given to this man who rose from bondage to establish a great university and become the most recognized figure of his race. The citizens of New Orleans had occasion three times to welcome Dr. Washington to their city – in 1899, 1902, and 1915. Washington had numerous supporters and political allies in New Orleans such as James Lewis, Walter L. Cohen, and James Madison Vance. His photographer, Arthur P. Bedou (featured in separate post on this blog) was also a New Orleanian.
Booker T. Washington speaking in Louisiana, 1915. Photograph by Arthur Paul Bedou.
Upon his first visit to the city on 10 November 1899, just four years after his famous Atlanta Exposition address, political leader, Colonel James Lewis, offered Dr. Washington the hospitality of his home at 2415 Canal Street, just opposite the campus of Straight University. He had already agreed however to be received at the home of James E. Porter, a labor leader among the city’s longshoremen, who resided at 822 Octavia Street in the Uptown area. Upon arriving at the train depot with much fanfare at 7:30 a.m., Washington was led to the Porter home, after which he toured the city’s four black universities, its leading public schools, and the city hall (the famed Gallier Hall), where he was received by Mayor Walter C. Flower. The climax of his visit was a public address at the Central Congregational Church, one of New Orleans’ leading black congregations, then located at South Liberty and Gasquet streets.
Three years later on 31 October 1902, Dr. Washington again visited the Crescent City. On this occasion, he did indeed accept the hospitality of Colonel and Mrs. James Lewis at their home on Canal Street. He gave an address on education at Straight University that afternoon which was attended by many of the city’s black educators. That evening a large crowd assembled at the famed Washington Artillery Hall (Saint Charles Avenue at Julia Street), one of the Carnival palaces of yesteryear, to hear the renowned visitor speak. He was introduced by the Honorable Ernest B. Kruttschnitt, Superintendent of the Public Schools.
Washington’s final trip to New Orleans was on 13 April 1915, the first portion of a grand tour through Louisiana. After being met at the railroad station by a large committee, Dr. Washington and his party were ushered to the home of political and business leader Walter L. Cohen at 2320 Dumaine Street for a grand breakfast. His initial talk, held in Burns Arena, just off Canal Street, was made to an overflowing crowd of several thousand. A public school holiday was declared so that the schoolchildren of the city might attend the morning address. A banquet was given in the afternoon at the Central Congregational Church where many of the city’s black business, political, and social leaders were present. The many who did not hear Dr. Washington in the morning were able to do so in an evening address rendered at the Dauphine Theatre on the venerable old street bearing that name.
Central Congregational Church (1882-1934) – South Liberty at Gasquet (now Cleveland) streets.
In all of his talks, Washington encourage thrift and industry on the part of his people. He offered thanks to his white listeners for the efforts they had made towards the Negro race. He encouraged his people to take advantage of educational opportunities and to continue to foster good relations between the races. He noted that he was thankful to observe the conditions of the race in Louisiana. His remarks were punctuated by humorous anecdotes, a hallmark of his oratory often forgotten today.
Sadly, all but two of the sites connected with Booker T. Washington’s visits to New Orleans are lost to time. The old Central Congregational Church at Liberty and Cleveland, the Lewis home, the Cohen home, Washington Artillery Hall, Dauphine Theatre, and Burns Arena have all long since been demolished. The imposing edifice of Gallier Hall still readily meets each passing streetcar, much as it would have during Dr. Washington’s visit. The other surviving site, the home of James E. Porter, at 822 Octavia Street still exists as a private residence.
James Edward Porter (1856-1916).
James Edward Porter served for over three decades as secretary of the Longshoremen’s Protective Union Benevolent Association. A native of Mississippi, born in 1856, he was married to Miss Georgia Cain in 1884. He was a former student at the New Orleans University and a messenger in the State House of Representatives during the year 1875. A member of numerous organizations and the Felicity Street Baptist Church, he died on 20 November 1916 in his home, where seventeen years earlier he had welcomed the “Wizard of Tuskegee.”
Sources: James Lewis to Booker T. Washington, 19 October 1899, The Booker T. Washington Papers: 1899-1900, page 238; The Daily Picayune, 21 November 1916, page 4; The Chicago Defender, 2 December 1916, page 6; The Weekly Pelican, 4 June 1887, page 1.