In the novel Absalom, Absalom, William Faulkner famously described New Orleans as “that city foreign and paradoxical.” Forged in a unique cauldron, separate and apart from the nation’s revered original colonies, New Orleans’ Creole population has long elicited the interest of visitors and has been the focus of countless novels, plays, travel accounts, and orations. The stubbornness with which the Creoles held onto their unique culture, their clannishness and insularity in large part was never understood by their American neighbors.
The distinction maintained by the Creoles between themselves and the “Americans” met with the disapproval of two national leaders of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) when they visited the city in the 1930s.
New Orleans is home to the oldest continually active NAACP branch south of the nation’s capital. The branch was organized in 1911 and formally chartered in 1915. The branch sought to raise awareness of racial injustice and did meet with some noteworthy victories, such as the 1927 U. S. Supreme Court decision regarding the illegality of residential segregation laws. In 1931, the branch successfully raised funds for a case (Trudeau v. Barnes) which unsuccessfully challenged the discriminatory practices of the registrar of voters.
Despite these positive indications of effectiveness on the part of the branch, when Dr. William Pickens visited the city from June 17-18, 1934, he had words of reproach for the city’s black community. Pickens was a graduate of Yale and former dean of Morgan State College in Baltimore who served as Field Director with the NAACP from 1918 to 1941. Over the course of his two days in New Orleans, Pickens gave three public addresses – at the Pythian Temple to an overflow crowd; at the Chamber of Commerce; and at the Autocrat Club, to a much smaller audience, where his remarks were informal. In his speech, which was punctuated by humorous anecdotes and spontaneous applause, Pickens remarked that “I hear you are trying to have three races here in New Orleans. [In] most other places, we have trouble enough with two races, with three races here you must be having a regular picnic.” Interestingly, while the local black paper, The Louisiana Weekly, excluded that portion of Pickens’ address from its coverage, it was reported by Associated Negro Press and picked-up by other publications.
Given the edited version of Pickens’ remarks as reported by the Weekly and the fact that a small crowd was in attendance, it is possible that his comments did not cause much of an uproar. Four years later in 1938 however, when Walter White, another national NAACP official visited the city, he likewise commented upon what he saw as a useless division. Walter White was the Executive Secretary of the NAACP. “Negroes and Creoles maintain a division in New Orleans that is a definite hindrance to their progress.” White went on to say that “The Creoles and Negroes would have to stop fighting each other and fight together for those things that concern them as a combined group.” His comments were met with “murmuring objection” from the nearly one hundred social, professional, and business leaders who gathered to hear him in a banquet at the Rhythm Room.
Dr. Joseph A. Hardin refuted Mr. White’s comments in no uncertain terms. He defended the Creoles and argued that they had promoted cooperation and contributed more than their fare share toward making progress for the race. What is interesting, is that Dr. Hardin himself was not a Creole and in fact not even a native of Louisiana. Hardin was born in rural Scooba, Mississippi and moved to New Orleans in the 1890s in order to attend college. Hardin lived and worked however among many Creoles and was twice married to Creole women. Hardin’s response in defense of the Creoles met with boisterous applause from the audience. The entire incident however caused heightened tensions for several weeks, with much discussion from either faction.
The so-called “Negro” or American faction charged that up until a few years earlier the Creoles refused to send their children to Negro public schools, which accounted for “the little education prominent within [their] group.” There was also much discussion of the clubs and organizations among Creoles which excluded Negroes from membership. The Creoles charged the Negroes with “agitating an age-old assumption that [need] be discarded for mutual cooperation.”
While as a whole, the history of the New Orleans Branch of the NAACP and the record of the black community as a whole reflects many courageous strides in the area of civil rights, the age-old distinction between the Creole and non-Creole communities did exist and was called into question by these two national figures. Their remarks likely stemmed from a misunderstanding or lack of knowledge as to the historical background which shaped Louisiana and a monolithic understanding of blacks, with no account given to cultural differences.
Sources: Sepia Socialite, 28 May 1938, page 1; Norfolk New Journal and Guide, 21 July 1934, page 20; The Louisiana Weekly, 21 May 1938, page 1.