On Sunday, July 11, 1943, seventeen-year-old, Bernice Delatte (a recent graduate of McDonogh No. 35 and a resident of 2116 Law Street) found herself on her way to Lake Pontchartrain for a pleasant swim, accompanied by her sister, Doris Delatte, and friend, Evelyn Segue. As the bus they were riding approached Franklin Avenue and Gentilly, an altercation took place that would make headlines in several local Negro newspapers. The day following her trip, on Monday morning, Bernice Delatte, accompanied by her mother, Mrs. Inez Populus Delatte Johnson went to the office of The Louisiana Weekly to relate the unfortunate incident that took place. She relayed the following story:
“My two friends and I were on our way to the lakefront. We were riding the Bomber Base bus, which was one-third full with only Negro passengers. Only two white people were on the bus, the bus driver and this special officer or detective. Because I was standing up, I moved the screen up to make a seat available for myself. No sooner than I had moved the screen, this officer [Nicholas Jacobs] spoke to me in a rough way and told me to move it back where it was. When I didn’t move it back fast enough to suit him, he jumped up and snatched the screen from my hand and said, ‘I’ll brain you with this.’”
As Miss Delatte cast an angry look at the officer, he asked, “What are you looking at? She swiftly answered him, “You’re not anything to look at.” That comment seemed to infuriate him, for as she continued, “He grabbed my arm, twisted it, and flung me from the bus. He then hit me with his hands, cussed me, and later kicked me. While waiting for the patrol wagon, he told my two companions (Doris Delatte and Evelyn Segue) that if they said anything he was going to brain them too. Several busses came by as I waited on the road. Passengers laughed and winked at the officer and asked how he was doing with the niggers. He forced me to stand on the road and to wait there to be picked up by the patrol wagon. Upon arrival of the wagon, the driver wanted to know ‘How many niggers the bus driver had?’ When told that there was only one, he said that it was too expensive to come all the way out here for just one nigger and the next time ‘have a whole lot of ‘em.’”
Miss Delatte was soon whisked off to the 5th Precinct Station and locked in a cell. She was booked with disturbing the peace and detained until her parents were notified of the arrest and came to obtain her release. Upon returning home, Bernice Delatte contacted Father Harry Maloney, S.S.J. of Corpus Christi Church, the NAACP, and several lawyers for advice on what kind of action she should take.
The very next day, the New Orleans Branch of the NAACP discussed the case. President Daniel E. Byrd declared that much of the brutality committed by policemen on busses and street cars was tolerated if not sanctioned by New Orleans Public Service (NOPSI). A committee was formed and the public relations department of Public Service, the mayor, and the superintendent of police were contacted and warned that preventative measures must be taken to guarantee that incidents of this nature would never take place again.
The assault and unfair arrest of Bernice Delatte came just one month after Earl Blanc, another Seventh Ward resident and a student at Xavier University, was beaten by police and employees of the Circle Theater. After both unfortunate incidents, there was community outcry and an exertion of leadership by the local NAACP, the Seventh Ward Civic League, and Josephite Father Harry Maloney.
In this present era when protest and activism have taken on new significance, these harrowing incidents and the subsequent community action should serve as reminders of the past and motivators for the present and future.
Just two years following this incident, Miss Bernice Louise Delatte, was married to Mr. John Earl Carr on 12 October 1945. She was born on 1 November 1924 to Maurice Delatte and Inez Populus. Her sister, Doris Eugenia Delatte, became Mrs. Milton Doucette. He other sibling was Inez (Mrs. Desdunes) Gilyot. Bernice Louise Delatte Carr died on 9 November 2010 in Palmdale, California. Courage could be said to be a family trait for Miss Delatte, inasmuch as she was a descendant of Captain Joseph Savary, a hero of the Battle of New Orleans.
Lolita Villavasso Cherrie
Sources: The Louisiana Weekly, 17 July 1943, pages 1, 6; The New Orleans Sentinel, 17 July 1943, page 1.