1New Orleans’ sodden landscape made residential integration a necessity for two hundred years. Blacks and whites, rich and poor, and immigrants and natives lived near one another on the highest, driest land they could find between the Mississippi River and what New Orleanians called the woods, the brackish cypress swamps that drained into Lake Pontchartrain. By the 1970s, however, this was certainly not the case. “New Orleans has had a city within a city for some time”, a 1973 report by the anti-poverty organization Total Community Action, or TCA, concluded (4). The city’s poor population was concentrated in what TCA described as an “inner city sprawl[ed] amidst affluence” (5), and the organization noted that ninety percent of the residents living there were black. This impoverished black ghetto sliced through the heart of New Orleans’ famed crescent, its unwieldy shape mirroring the Mississippi River’s serpentine curvature. Residents in this section of the city were among its least educated and least employed, and TCA’s report documented that they had “the high birth and death rates of the typical under-developed society” (4). With somber maps and statistics, TCA clarified that the black ghetto, which exploded into the national consciousness following the 1960s uprisings in the urban North and West, was also alive and well in the Crescent City (3-5, 18, 20-21).
- 1 For an extended examination of this argument, see the dissertation upon which this article is based (...)
2While TCA issued its report at a moment when white New Orleanians were fleeing the city in response to school desegregation, the city’s black ghetto had in fact taken shape long before desegregation started in 1960 (see fig. 1). But if white reaction to school desegregation did not create this ghetto or the white subdivisions and suburbs that surrounded it, then what did? This article demonstrates that, long before “white flight” took root, public schools played a central role in New Orleans’ transformation from a residentially integrated to a residentially segregated city.1
Fig. 1. Percentage of Black Population, in Census Tracts, New Orleans, 1960
Social Explorer, n.d. Web. March 13 2014. (based on data from U.S. Census Bureau)
- 2 In addition to Hirsch, Making the Second Ghetto, see Freund, Jackson, Kruse, Lassiter, “De Jure/De (...)
3While the expansion of black urban ghettoes was a national phenomenon in the twentieth-century United States, the prevailing historical interpretation of this process is incomplete. Building upon Arnold Hirsch’s pioneering work on the creation of the “second ghetto” in Chicago, historians have stressed the role that housing policies and markets played in dividing metropolitan areas along racial and class lines. In this dominant narrative, New Deal housing programs spurred a white suburban migration that gathered steam following World War II then reached its climax during the school desegregation and busing battles of the 1960s and 1970s. As whites moved out of cities, federal, state, and local policies worked in conjunction with discriminatory real estate practices and street-level violence to limit black mobility within them.2
4This interpretation, however, fails to capture the extent to which public schools influenced American metropolitan development and the growth of black ghettoes even before World War II. This article aims to correct that oversight through its examination of New Orleans. In the Crescent City, segregated schools played a central role in the creation of racially distinct neighborhoods beginning with the school building boom that followed World War I. Focusing on the present day Tremé/Lafitte area, this article’s first section demonstrates how public schools functioned as flashpoints in debates over the future of racially mixed neighborhoods. The following section then examines how school policies helped to confine blacks to less desirable areas of the city such as the present day Central City neighborhood, where one quarter of the city’s black population lived by 1940 (Bureau of the Census 4-5). Finally, the article discusses how the construction of new white public schools shifted the city’s white population to previously uninhabited sections such as Broadmoor and the nearby neighborhoods north of Audubon Park (see fig. 2 for neighborhood locations).
Fig. 2. New Orleans Neighborhoods, 2004
New Orleans © The Data Center
- 3 By 1940, blacks comprised more than eighty-five percent of the population in each of Central City’s (...)
- 4 See Benjamin, “Progressivism Meets Jim Crow;” Benjamin, “Suburbanizing Jim Crow;” Clapper; Doughert (...)
5The role that public schools played in shaping New Orleans’ early twentieth century development did not make it a misfit. First, neither the timing nor the fact of the city’s transformation from residential integration to segregation was unique (Goldfield 166-67; Gotham, Race, Real Estate, and Uneven Development ch. 1; Meier and Rudwick 234-5). As sociologists Douglas Massey and Nancy Denton noted, “even in cities that later developed large black ghettos, such as Chicago, Cleveland, Detroit, Los Angeles, Newark and New York, blacks were more likely to come into contact with whites than with other blacks” during the nineteenth century (23-24). While black ghettos developed more slowly in the urban South, where nineteenth-century levels of residential segregation were also lower, New Orleans kept pace with the rest of the country. By the start of World War II, its black ghetto was as clearly identifiable as those outside the South.3 Second, and perhaps more significantly, a growing number of scholars have shown how public schools influenced development in northern and southern cities before and after World War II.4 By adding the South’s largest pre-war city to that conversation, this article underscores that schools affected urban landscapes throughout the country.
6During the interwar period, white New Orleanians at the policymaking and grassroots level clamored for greater spatial distance from blacks, and public schools often provided them with the best vehicle for expressing – and realizing – those desires. This dynamic became particularly clear one balmy night in January 1923.
7That evening scores of residents from New Orleans’ Sixth Ward descended upon the city’s Municipal Building for the Orleans Parish School Board’s first meeting of the year. Unable to squeeze into the third floor boardroom, attendees spilled into adjacent hallways. Outside, the sun had already set on a cloudless winter day. But a storm broke inside the meeting room almost as soon as School Board President James Fortier called the meeting to order. The Sixth Ward residents were upset about the construction of a new school building for blacks at the corner of Bayou Road and Derbigny Street in their neighborhood. They wanted it converted to white use. “To put from eight hundred to a thousand negroes in that section almost entirely inhabited by white people would be a very serious disadvantage to both races”, the delegation’s leader said. “It would require that the negroes walk a great distance, or, it would cause a large number of negroes to buy or rent in the immediate vicinity of the school” (Orleans Parish School Board Minutes 12 Jan.1923, Orleans Parish School Board Collection (MSS 147), Louisiana and Special Collections Department, Earl K. Long Library, University of New Orleans. Hereinafter cited as OPSB Minutes; “Ku Klux Brought into Discussion by School Board”).
8Since the new building merely replaced the black Bayou Road School that had existed at that same Sixth Ward site since 1877, Fortier’s four board colleagues were disinclined to grant the protestors’ request. The board had closed the three, dilapidated houses that comprised the Bayou Road School after the 1921-22 academic year, and many of its students stayed home while the new structure was being built. With that building scheduled to open February 1, 1923, board members were anxious to get the school’s eight hundred plus students off the streets (OPSB Minutes 25 August and 13 Dec. 1922; Hoskins 1; “A Grave Injustice”).
9The thirty-two-year-old board president, however, literally rose to the Sixth Ward residents’ defense. Ceding his chairmanship of the meeting to Board Vice President Fred Zengel, Fortier asked to appear before the board as one of the dissidents. A lawyer and former state legislator who caucused with reformers opposed to New Orleans’ traditional political machine, Fortier generally supported the interests of the city’s civic and commercial elite (Bonds 3; “Business, Civic Figure, 71, Dies” 1). “The protestants [by which Fortier meant the protestors] would have no case if they were actuated by a selfish spirit and considered the matter simply from the standpoint of vested property rights”, Fortier declared (OPSB Minutes 12 Jan. 1923). But he insisted that the residents were more broadminded. “The interests of the entire city were involved because it concerned the development and the growth of the City”, he continued (OPSB Minutes 12 Jan. 1923). To emphasize his point, he recounted Louisville, Kentucky’s recent failed attempt to legally require blacks and whites to live in separate areas of the city. Since the U.S. Supreme Court had deemed Louisville’s residential segregation ordinance unconstitutional in Buchanan v. Warley, Fortier argued, the school board was the last remaining hope to preserve the racial integrity of what he called “wholly white” neighborhoods, which happened to not be true of the area surrounding the Bayou Road School (OPSB Minutes 12 Jan. 1923). “The case of the protestants should make a strong appeal to the Board,” he said, “since they were denied the ability by law to prevent what they would otherwise bring to pass” (OPSB Minutes 12 Jan. 1923). Removing neighborhood blight in the form of a black school, he maintained, was akin to slum clearance efforts in other cities, where millions were spent “to destroy eyesores that had existed for one hundred years” (OPSB Minutes 12 Jan. 1923).
10As Fortier’s nod to Louisville indicated, he and the Sixth Ward residents were hardly the only white Americans interested in residential segregation during the first decades of the twentieth century. Baltimore passed a pioneering residential segregation ordinance in 1910, and cities such as Atlanta, Richmond, Oklahoma City, and St. Louis quickly followed suit. In 1912, Louisiana approved legislation granting municipalities the authority to implement similar laws. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) got these overturned in 1917 by the U.S. Supreme Court with Buchanan v. Warley. But after 1917 northern and southern cities continued to use zoning and other stratagems to limit where blacks could live and under what conditions; the Crescent City even tried unsuccessfully to resurrect the Louisville ordinance nearly a decade after the Supreme Court struck it down (Nightingale ch.10; Silver; Rice; Martin; Freund ch. 2).
11Compared with their racial confreres in other cities, however, the Sixth Ward residents possibly had the highest mountain to climb in order to create racially distinct neighborhoods. In the early 1920s, the Tremé neighborhood immediately north of the French Quarter as well as the section of the Sixth Ward that included the Bayou Road School remained textbook examples of New Orleans’ persistent brand of residential integration. While the stretches of Bayou Road and Esplanade Avenue one block south of the school were lily white, the broader area was a segregationist’s nightmare, with whites and blacks living cheek by jowl. That a majority of the area’s blacks were sufficiently light-skinned for census enumerators to identify them as mulattoes underscored the area’s racially mixed character and history.
- 5 The Heritage Quest database catalogued individuals from the 1920 census population schedules accord (...)
12In the fifteen-square-block voting precinct containing the Bayou Road School, for instance, approximately sixty percent of households were white, twenty-four percent were mulatto, and fifteen percent were black. The adjacent precinct was similarly mixed.5 Residential integration also persisted within individual blocks. The trapezoidal block containing the school was about eighty-five percent white, while the 1800 block of Governor Nicholls Street, located one block west of the school, provided an even closer approximation of the city’s overall racial composition. Seventy-five whites and twenty-seven blacks, all but one identified as mulatto, lived along that stretch of Governor Nicholls. At the time, just over one-fourth of New Orleans’ 387,219 residents were black (1920 U.S. Census; Insurance Maps 1908 2: 139; Sixth Ward/Treme/Lafitte; Campanella 18).
- 6 I counted the following jobs as professional or semi-professional: trained nurse, insurance agent, (...)
13A striking level of economic parity also existed between the area’s black and white residents, reflecting segregation’s broader failure to permeate the city’s labor market. The 1800 block of Governor Nicholls Street provided a case in point, as evident in table 1 below. Although the block’s white workers as a whole held higher paying jobs than their black neighbors, a significant amount of cross-over occurred between whites and blacks. For instance, Donnie Cordia, a black plasterer, lived almost directly across the street from Alicade Mirabin, a white plasterer. One can also imagine that Albert Buck, a fifty-year-old white man, might have smarted at the fact that he more or less lived and worked with Henry Lawrence, who was black. Both were low-paid laborers at a sugar refinery, and Buck could have easily seen Lawrence’s home from the stoop of his rented double. Despite the better overall economic standing of the 1800 block’s whites, the amount of occupational overlap likely made members of both race question the supposed immutability of Jim Crow. (1920 U.S. Census, NAMS T-625, reel 621).6 That creeping doubt almost certainly exacerbated tensions over the new school building on Bayou Road that was nearing completion in early 1923.
Table 1. Workforce composition by race and job classification, 1800 Block of Gov. Nicholls Street, 1920
Source: 1920 U.S. Census, New Orleans, La., Population, NAMS T-625, reel 621. The census identified all of the black residents in the 1800 block of Governor Nicholls Street as mulatto.
14James Fortier initially convinced his wary school board colleagues to deny blacks access to the new building by arguing that four of the city’s other black schools could accommodate Bayou Road’s students by running double sessions. That meant that each of those schools would serve one group of students in the morning and another in the afternoon. The school system already used double sessions at some schools to relieve overcrowding, and this practice, which decreased the time students spent in school to as little as two and one-half hours per day, disproportionately affected blacks. In 1922, more than five thousand black students attended school part-time compared with fewer than two hundred whites (Taylor; OPSB Minutes 27 October 1922; DeVore and Logsdon 187-189).
- 7 See also Louisiana Department of Education, Annual and Biennial Reports, 1900, 1910; Annual Report (...)
15The overcrowding that plagued New Orleans’ black schools was the result of official neglect. As the school system’s total enrollment increased from 31,547 to 53,920 between 1900 and 1920, the school board built thirty-nine additional schools. But less than one-sixth of those schools were for black students even though they accounted for one-third of the increased enrollment. New black schools were also rarely as large or as well-designed as the buildings for whites, and the older structures that housed most black schools were often unsuitable for human use (DeVore and Logsdon 182-3).7 At the Bayou Road School in 1920, for instance, fifteen teachers attempted to teach seven hundred students in three “unsanitary, dark, rented dwelling houses” (Hoskins 1). Persistent leaks caused plaster to drop from the ceilings and the walls, and an inadequate heating system meant many teachers and students stayed home on cold and rainy days. Although the black Bayou Road Parents’ Club began complaining about the school’s conditions as early as 1910, when it occupied a single, overcrowded rented building that was on the verge of collapse, twelve years passed before the school board authorized the construction of a new facility (DeVore 95-98; OPSB Minutes 24 June 1921, 25 Nov. 1921, 14 July 1922).
16In light of this history, Fortier’s attempt to take the new building away from blacks incited a groundswell of opposition from both blacks and well-established whites. Black New Orleanians quickly organized a pair of mass meetings in late January then brought their protest before the school board (“Negroes Lodge Protest;” “Negro Bodies Protest”). The city’s white newspapers such as the Picayune and Item also denounced the Bayou Road School’s closure, as did the head of the school system’s white parents’ organization. The uproar, which focused on Fortier’s plan to place the other black schools on double sessions and not his desire to restrict black schools to existing black neighborhoods, led the school board to reverse course in February 1923.
17But the reversal came with a catch. Within minutes of its vote to open the new facility to blacks, the board agreed to borrow $250,000 to construct a replacement building in an area less offensive to whites. The board made it clear that it hoped to move black students out of the new building on Bayou Road and Derbigny as soon as possible (OPSB Minutes 9 February 1923).
- 8 Of the 168 residents in the 1300-1500 block of St. Philip, more than seventy percent were identifie (...)
18Four months after the new Bayou Road building opened, the board bought property on St. Philip Street in the heart of Tremé for the construction of a new school for Bayou Road’s students. During the debate over the Bayou Road building, Fortier had identified this area as “Little Africa” to bolster his argument that it was the more appropriate site for a black school (OPSB Minutes 12 and 15 June 1923). In contrast to the nearby Bayou Road location, the vast majority of residents in this area were black.8 The St. Philip Street site was also adjacent to the former Storyville neighborhood, where many blacks took up residence after it closed as an official prostitution district in 1917 (Long 800-01).
- 9 For a similar point in relation to black parochial education, see Alberts 93.
19The board completed the construction of the St. Philip Street building in January 1927 and immediately transferred the black students on Bayou Road to this new facility (OPSB Minutes 9 January 1925; DeVore and Logsdon 204). No whites protested this move, possibly because the board’s decision to kick blacks out of the Bayou Road building ensured that white students would not face the kind of overcrowding that plagued black schools. Blacks were also notably silent about the proposed relocation, which reflected their tendency to prioritize access to schools over their locations.9
20Yet the opening of this replacement facility only underscored the Pyrrhic nature of blacks’ 1923 victory since it had little net impact on black schooling. By 1927, for instance, the black demand for education already exceeded the capacity of both the building on Bayou Road and the larger one the board built on St. Philip to replace it. At the time it closed, the four-year-old Bayou Road facility was running half-day sessions for students up to the fifth grade in order to accommodate its oversubscribed enrollment. While the larger St. Philip Street structure reduced the number of students who attended school in half-day shifts, it did not eliminate this draconian practice (“New School to Replace Old is Opened”).
21After sitting idle during the 1927 spring semester, the Bayou Road facility became the temporary home for the district’s commercial high school for white boys. The following school year, the board shifted the overflow population of white boys from Warren Easton High School to Bayou Road. It also honored a request from the Daughters of the Confederacy by renaming the building after Plessy v. Ferguson jurist Edward Douglass White (Nicholas Bauer to John Klorer, 6 July 1927, Orleans Parish School Board Folder, box 3, New Orleans Department of Public Property Records, City Archive, New Orleans Public Library; OPSB Minutes 10 September 1926 and 10 August 1928; Schwertz 79).
22As happened elsewhere in the city, most notably in the present day Central Business District, the St. Philip Street neighborhood experienced successive waves of demolition and residential displacement after it gained a black school. In 1928, for instance, the mayor announced plans for the construction of a municipal auditorium at Beauregard Square (the former and present Congo Square), and by the following year the project had consumed the two residential blocks immediately north of the plaza. By the 1930s, the city also knocked down the Tremé Market, which was the fourth largest public market in the city. In 1940, the federal government began demolishing the fifteen square blocks that formerly comprised Storyville, by then an almost exclusively black neighborhood, in order to construct the white-only Iberville Housing Project (“Pick Beauregard Square as site for auditorium” 1, 3; Long 800-01; Greater New Orleans Community Data Center; Iberville Project Profile 3.03).
23As the final section of this article will demonstrate, white schools often spurred public and private investment in surrounding neighborhoods. Black schools such as the one on St. Philip Street, by contrast, provided no such protection and often invited divestment. This dynamic revealed the self-fulfilling nature of the era’s prevailing theory about the relationship between race and property value. As scholars such as Gotham and Freund have noted, early twentieth century city planners and real estate professionals regularly presented residential segregation as an economic necessity, arguing that black residents – and by extension black institutions – eroded property values. The vociferousness with which white New Orleanians opposed the new school building for blacks on Bayou Road revealed their acceptance of this theory, just as officials’ subsequent treatment of areas with black schools enabled that theory to become a new reality.
- 10 For a similar definition, see Massey and Denton 18-19, and Hirsch, “With or Without Jim Crow” 65.
24The relocation of black students from Bayou Road to a more heavily black section of the Sixth Ward was not an isolated incident in interwar New Orleans. A similar process unfolded in Central City, cementing that area’s transformation into the city’s earliest black ghetto and highlighting the consensus among school officials that public schools could – and should – influence urban development. (As used here, ghetto refers to a geographically distinct area inhabited almost entirely by black residents. No class connotation is implied.)10
25During the 1923 debate over the Bayou Road School, Board President James Fortier tangled with School Superintendent John Marr Gwinn over the latter’s unwillingness to shift Bayou Road’s students to other, already crowded black schools. But that public dispute concealed the extent to which the two men agreed with Fortier’s contention that “the location of the negro schools was a matter to be discussed in connection with the general plan of negro education” (OPSB Minutes 26 January 1923). In a 1921 proposal for black education, for instance, Gwinn linked curricular curtailments and geographic isolation as the twin means for expanding black educational opportunity without promoting advancement. In that plan, Gwinn recommended constructing at least five additional schools for blacks, five annexes for existing schools, and three replacement buildings for dilapidated structures (OPSB Minutes 24 June 1921). Gwinn specified the location for each of his proposed construction projects, flagging five majority black neighborhoods as his preferred sites for the new schools (see table 2). Gwinn selected the area now called Central City as the spot for two of those five schools. This section encompassed portions of the city’s former “back of town”, which was the closest thing New Orleans had to an identifiable black belt in the early twentieth century. The “back of town”, so-named because of its distance from the built up areas closer to the banks of the Mississippi, was a particularly swampy section where, geographer Peirce Lewis wrote, “drainage was bad, foundation material precarious, mosquitoes endemic, and flooding a recurrent hazard” (45).
Table 2. Proposed new black school construction and black residential concentration, by voting precinct, 1921
Source: 1920 U.S. Census, New Orleans, La., Population, NAMS T-625, reel 620/Heritage Quest; New Orleans Item, 28 October 1920, p. 18.
26But even the racially homogenous “back of town” overlapped with racially mixed neighborhoods, and the broader Central City area’s racial heterogeneity was among its most notable – and volatile – characteristics during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Quite often, Central City’s schools were at the center of these hostilities. When the White League spurred teenaged “regulators” to violently disrupt the city’s racially mixed public schools during Reconstruction, for instance, some of the fiercest fighting took place in Central City (Fischer 125-7; “War Sure Enough”). The area was also where the black gunman Robert Charles made a violent stand against the police and white rioters in 1900; during that riot, a white mob burned Central City’s only black school, Thomy Lafon, to the ground (“Thomy Lafon School Burned to the Ground” 8; Hair).
27Constructing new black schools in areas where blacks were already concentrated enhanced access for the children living in those neighborhoods. But there was nothing inevitable about the specific locations Gwinn chose since each was integrated into more mixed or predominantly white areas. For instance, the Seventh Ward location Gwinn identified for a black junior high school sat between a majority black and a majority white voting precinct (1920 U.S. Census). As an NAACP representative noted during the Bayou Road debate, the city’s inadequate number of black schools and the geographic dispersal of its black population also meant that blacks generally had to travel to reach schools regardless of where the board located them (OPSB Minutes 9 February 1923).
28The city’s intense need for additional black schools also would have justified their location in almost any section of the city. As bad as conditions were at the Bayou Road School in the early 1920s, crowding was even worse at Thomy Lafon in Central City, where thirty-three teachers were responsible for 1,750 students (Hoskins 1,3). By 1927, Lafon’s enrollment of 2,700 students and forty-one teachers made it “the largest elementary Negro school in the world”, according to a black newspaper editor (Taylor).
- 11 White residents voiced their opposition against the Bayou Road School’s location as early as 1910, (...)
29By recommending the construction of black schools in existing black enclaves, Gwinn likely sought to avoid the sort of protests that had developed in response to previous proposals to locate black schools in racially mixed neighborhoods.11 This approach also formalized these enclaves’ status as black neighborhoods, which likely appealed to businessmen who were increasingly focused on developing newly drained parts of the city for whites only.
30A similar dynamic unfolded in cities such as Raleigh, where future North Carolina Governor J.M. Broughton successfully dismissed black opposition to a 1926 plan to construct a new school in the city’s southeastern quadrant rather than in a black middle-class suburb in the northeast. “Obviously a school ought to be built somewhere near the children it is to serve,” wrote Broughton, then a member of Raleigh’s school board. “Nearly ninety percent of the colored population live in the southern and southeastern sections of the city. Accordingly, this is where their schools ought to be, and their churches, too, for that matter” (qtd. in Benjamin, “Suburbanizing” 236.)
31As in Raleigh, where the concentration of black schools in the southeast helped to rewrite that city’s racial geography, the eventual implementation of Gwinn’s proposal bolstered Central City’s transformation into New Orleans’ first black ghetto. Partly to relieve overcrowding at Lafon, the school board followed up on Gwinn’s plan and added two black schools to the area during the 1920s and another two the following decade. Since two of these black schools replaced white ones, the only schools for whites that remained in the general area by 1940 hung around its periphery (Taylor; OPSB Office of Planning and Construction).
32Both the number and percentage of blacks living in Central City increased after the school board added black schools to the area. While the relationship between the area’s black schools and its large black population was reciprocal, the board’s decision to concentrate black schools there was part of its broader effort to create new boundaries between white and black sections of the city. Given that the U.S. Supreme Court twice rejected attempts to distinguish between black and white neighborhoods by law, public schools became the most powerful means available for officially designating an area as either black or white. Schools, in fact, were the largest racially specific public expenditure in New Orleans prior to the construction of the city’s first segregated housing projects between 1938 and 1940 (Mahoney 24).
- 12 On the origins of federal support for public housing, see also Mahoney 20-27; Henderson 356-57.
33Public housing dramatically accelerated residential segregation, particularly in Central City, where the city’s housing administration built two of its first four projects for blacks. New Orleans was the first city in the country to receive funding under the federal Housing Act of 1937, also known as the Wagner Act after its chief sponsor, Senator Robert F. Wagner of New York. The Act encouraged slum clearance and the construction of affordable, low-income housing, and unlike most of the New Deal housing reforms that preceded it, the law did not focus on prospective homebuyers. Rather, it provided significant federal financing for the construction of housing projects as well as rent subsidies for the low-income residents who would live in them. The Wagner Act created a decentralized approach to public housing, leaving decisions on issues such as separate projects for blacks and whites up to local housing administrations. Throughout the South and in northern cities such as Trenton, New Jersey, and Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, officials opted to build explicitly segregated projects. As historian Arnold Hirsch noted, the requirement that federal projects respect existing racial boundaries meant that public housing generally “offered little challenge to prevailing residential practices and was used more fully to confine blacks in the postwar period” (“With or Without Jim Crow” 86).12
34The 1937 housing law also contained an “equivalent elimination” clause, which mandated that local housing administrations build at least one new housing unit for every slum unit it cleared to make way for the projects. Since the law required the projects to be located in the same city or general area – but not the same neighborhood – as the cleared slums, these new developments led to population shifts within some cities. In New Orleans, the provision helped push more blacks into Central City. While one of the area’s projects – Magnolia – was built on the same site as the slum it replaced, its other – known as Calliope and later as B.W. Cooper – was built on previously vacant land. The Housing Administration of New Orleans (HANO) selected Calliope’s uninhabited thirty-two acre site, which until then had been one the city’s main trash dumps, in order to offset the units it demolished for the construction of two downtown projects, the white Iberville and black Lafitte developments (Mahoney 21; Calliope Project Neighborhood Profile).
- 13 For the chronology of the housing project and slated location of the school within it, see Secretar (...)
35Public schools were essential to the success of the housing projects and the role they played in creating the Central City ghetto. HANO officials understood that recreating a neighborhood in the case of Magnolia or creating a brand new one in the case of Calliope required schools, and they worked closely with the school board to locate black schools within or next to these new projects. HANO, for instance, initiated conversations with the Orleans Parish School Board regarding the location of the black school that would serve Magnolia’s residents almost immediately after the federal government approved funding for the project. Rather than erect a new school, housing officials ultimately built Magnolia around the existing 2,500-student Thomy Lafon School, which was the school board’s preferred spot (“Negro Advance in Science and Education is Outlined” 29). The school, in fact, was the project’s most prominent feature on architectural site plans.13
36The school board also supported the creation of Calliope, acquiring four blocks on the riverside of the proposed project site for the construction of a large black vocational high school. The board’s decision to build the school followed decades of agitation from black leaders, who first requested a trade school in 1914 (OPSB Minutes 13 August 1914). Yet it was funding from the federal Works Progress Administration rather than newfound sympathy for black demands that permitted the school to become a reality. The inclusion of a large auditorium as part of the school, which the board named after Booker T. Washington, made it a center of the Calliope community (DeVore and Logsdon 197-98). For HANO, the board’s plans for Booker T. Washington were also an indicator of the supportive role the board could play as the housing authority cleared slums for the construction of segregated projects. HANO’s Executive Director Alvin Fromherz captured that sentiment when he wrote to School Board Architect E.A. Christy shortly after the board announced its intentions to build the trade high school in 1939. “Undoubtedly the cooperation and coordination which will exist between the Orleans Parish School Board and the Housing Authority of New Orleans will increase concerning our respective activities”, Fromherz said (Fromherz to E.A. Christy, 30 October 1939, Housing Authority of New Orleans, June 18, 1938-July 27, 1953 folder, School Board General Files, OPSB Collection).
- 14 For the history of the Broadmoor neighborhood, see Greater New Orleans Community Data Center, “Broa (...)
37As school policies encouraged the growth of New Orleans’ black ghetto during the two decades preceding World War II, the creation of additional white schools also fueled the development of new exclusively white neighborhoods. This was perhaps most evident in the Broadmoor neighborhood. This area was originally a twelve-acre lake that connected to Bayou St. John through a narrow tributary. The introduction of drainage canals in 1885, followed by the construction of a nearby pumping station in 1903, enabled a small number of mostly black settlers to trickle into the area. The Napoleon and South Claiborne Avenue streetcar lines connected Broadmoor’s periphery to the rest of the city, and the population gradually increased as drainage improved. When Albert Baldwin Wood, an engineer with the city’s Sewerage and Water Board, devised a screw pump in 1913 that was capable of lifting water from below sea level to higher elevation outflow canals, Broadmoor and other watery outskirts appeared poised to explode. But restrictions on building materials during World War I stalled both the city’s ambitious plans for swampland reclamation and Broadmoor’s growth.14
38Once the federal government lifted its wartime limitations, developers and the school system prepared for a bonanza of construction activity. As with Miami, which emerged, phoenix-like from Florida’s mangrove swamps following the war, mastering an inhospitable environment was a precondition for the Crescent City’s growth. By 1925, the city’s “Wood pumps” helped drain 27,000 acres of land that had been uninhabitable at the turn of the century. This newly dried land enabled New Orleans to maintain its position as the South’s largest metropolis even as Miami and Houston joined Los Angeles and San Diego as the nation’s fastest growing metropolitan areas (Tindall 95, 104-107). After writing just 552 building permits in 1918, New Orleans granted more than three thousand in 1923, largely in the former swamps back of Claiborne Avenue (Ramagossa 27).
39Before the recession set in a few years later, the flush economic times that immediately followed the war enabled the city to invest in public education like never before. By raising the basis for collecting property taxes for 1920 from seventy-five to ninety percent of assessed value, the municipal government provided the school system with the much-needed opportunities to grow alongside the city and to modernize its antiquated facilities. When School Superintendent Gwinn outlined the district’s capital needs following the city council vote, he noted the reflexive relationship between the school system’s and the city’s expansion. The district’s building program, he wrote in the summer of 1920, needed to consider “the [current] distribution of population and present and probably future directions of growth of population” (Annual Report of the New Orleans Public Schools, 1919-1920 23, OPSB Collection).
40While forecasts about the city’s growth were a necessary if imprecise part of the planning process, Broadmoor provided Gwinn and the school board with an opportunity to hedge their bets. The area was poised for a building boom, and its recently drained tracts offered developers and city leaders an opportunity to claim it for whites only. The only problem was that many blacks already lived in its older, established sections. White officials, however, were loath to let history interfere with their vision of progress, and in 1921 the school board committed to building a white elementary school in the neighborhood. The board’s gambit was the opening move in a far-reaching campaign to establish Broadmoor’s whites-only bona fides. The strategy worked.
41The board committed to build the school when Broadmoor still featured a mixture of empty lots, houses under construction, and yet-to-be-platted blocks. The Sanborn Map Company, which mapped structures in the nation’s cities in order to assess fire insurance risk, did not include the largely uninhabited Broadmoor neighborhood in its 1908-09 survey of New Orleans. But a thirty-four-block area along Broadmoor’s western edge experienced enough construction by September 1920 that the company issued a new page to document its growth. That map underscored the extent to which Broadmoor was in the process of being born. Six of this area’s thirty-four blocks were not subdivided, and another four contained only empty lots. Nearly all the blocks with homes also replicated in miniature the jack-o-lantern appearance of the area as a whole, with uninhabited spaces next to inhabited ones (Insurance Maps of New Orleans (1920) 531). Maps of citywide construction activity and the fact that Sanborn did not survey the rest of Broadmoor for another two years indicated that this pattern predominated throughout the neighborhood (Beeler; Insurance Maps of New Orleans (1922) 532-34).
- 15 On Dejoie, see Landphair, “‘For the Good of the Community’” 76; Hirsch, “Simply a Matter of Black a (...)
42Despite Broadmoor’s uneven development, Gwinn urged the board in the summer of 1921 to purchase land for a white school in this “rapidly developing area back of Claiborne intermediate above and below Napoleon Avenue” (Annual Report of the New Orleans Public Schools, 1920-21 10-11). The board acted quickly, and in September 1921 it closed on a vacant block in that section for $15,500 (OPSB Minutes 23 September 1921 and 28 July 1922). The Andrew Wilson School, named for a recently deceased former school board member, opened on South Miro Street between Milan and General Pershing, a year later (Meyer 238). Ironically, the board acquired the land that spurred Broadmoor’s growth as a white enclave from C.C. Dejoie, a prominent black insurance executive who founded the Louisiana Weekly newspaper in 1925 (OPSB Minutes 12 August 1921). Considering the number of blacks who had already settled in Broadmoor, Dejoie’s early toehold in the area was not an anomaly. Black residents, in fact, dominated the two built-up blocks immediately east of the Wilson school site.15
43While Broadmoor was already expanding when the board committed to building the school, residential construction intensified after the board acquired the property from Dejoie. Builders erected scores of homes during the year the school was under construction, and the area still had plenty of room to grow after Wilson opened in September 1922 (Beeler; Allison). Sanborn, in fact, did not even map the area surrounding Wilson until the month the school opened, and even then dozens of lots remained vacant and Napoleon Avenue was the only paved street nearby (Insurance Maps of New Orleans (1922) 532).
- 16 Keyword search of Times-Picayune via America’s Historical Newspapers.
44Not surprisingly, real estate agents were quick to highlight Wilson’s proximity when attempting to sell lots in Broadmoor. The phrase “near Wilson School”, for instance, appeared in forty-five real estate advertisements in the Times-Picayune in 1923 and 1924.16 The racially restrictive covenants placed on massive developments such as Louisiana Avenue Parkway, which ran along Broadmoor’s eastern edge and was virtually uninhabited when the school opened, also boosted sales and aided the area’s growth as a white enclave. By 1925, the school district was already looking for additional space to accommodate the white students who had flocked to the three-year-old Wilson School (OPSB Minutes 22 December 1922 and 11 December 1925; “Auction Sales;” “Broadmoor Neighborhood Snapshot”).
- 17 See OPSB Committee of the Whole (COW) Minutes 24 July 1923 and 7 August 1923; OPSB Minutes 13 Augus (...)
45Broadmoor’s experience was not unique, either. In 1923, the board agreed to build a white school in a new subdivision on the West Bank of the Mississippi River after its developer offered to donate the land. As with Broadmoor, the board built the school before the neighborhood was fully inhabited.17 The board was also an early investor in the lily-white Lakeview subdivision as it was taking shape in the mid-twenties, and the board’s acquisition of land in the 1920s for two white high schools near Tulane University eventually encouraged the growth of surrounding neighborhoods.
46A school’s perceived ability to enhance a neighborhood’s quality and racial character also extended beyond the New Orleans city limits. In addition to touting a new $600-per-lot residential development in neighboring Jefferson Parish as “a strictly white place of residence”, for instance, a 1923 newspaper advertisement for the Crestmont Park neighborhood highlighted the nearby public school that was under construction (“Crestmont Park” sec. 2: 5). Jefferson Heights, a more modestly priced subdivision adjacent to Crestmont Park, also sought to cash in on this same school’s construction (see fig. 3). The fact that Jefferson Heights’ owners had donated the land for the school to the parish (the Louisiana equivalent of a county) government underscored the perceived importance of schools to suburban development. These early Jefferson subdivisions also laid the foundation for the parish’s explosive growth following World War II, which the federal government fueled through the construction of Interstate 10 and the backing of low-interest loans for whites who bought homes in racially homogenous communities. Outside of the New Orleans metropolitan area, school officials in Raleigh also relocated white schools to racially restrictive suburbs during the 1920s with the understanding that housing construction would soon follow (Benjamin, “Suburbanizing”).
Fig. 3. Advertisement for Jefferson Heights Subdivision, 1923
Times-Picayune, August 26, 1923.
New Orleans © Times-Picayune
All rights reserved. Used with permission of The Times-Picayune and NOLA.com.
47In addition to highlighting white residents’ interest in education and racial homogeneity, the public schools’ ability to draw them to newly developed neighborhoods reflected the prominent role white children, or at least concerns about their welfare, played in early twentieth century urban development. The crown jewel of New Orleans’ lakefront, which the city developed as a high-end suburb by reclaiming the equivalent of 2,000 acres from Lake Pontchartrain, was a subdivision that featured dead-end streets specifically intended to offer “sanctuaries” for youths (Lewis 65). Removing their children from the unavoidable interracial contact of the inner city, many white parents seemed to think, was best for their safety, health, and future.
48Public schools also succeeded in promoting residential segregation where other efforts failed. Two years after the Wilson School opened, for instance, the city’s legislative body, the Commission Council, approved a short-lived residential segregation ordinance. The September 1924 ordinance, which prohibited blacks from moving into majority white neighborhoods and vice versa, built upon the grassroots fervor for residential segregation that had surrounded debates about public school locations for more than a decade. The act defined “white community” and “negro community” to “embrace every residence fronting on either side of any street within three hundred feet of the location of the property involved, measured along the middle of the street in any and all directions” (“White Residents Prepare to Test Segregation Act” 9). While the ordinance did not require members of the community’s existing racial minority to leave, it barred any new minority inhabitants from moving into the neighborhood without the express approval of its racial majority (DeVore, “Rise from the Nadir,” 61-2).
49Council members took only ten seconds to adopt the ordinance, and white boosters crowded the council’s chambers to cheer the measure’s passage. If Mrs. L.E. Stephens’ congratulatory comments to the council provided any indication, school- and youth-related issues were particularly relevant to the ordinance’s supporters. “You may be sure that not only myself but every other mother of white children in New Orleans sincerely appreciates this restriction that will prevent negro children coming into our communities and mixing with our children,” she told the council (“Negroes Barred From Building Too Near Whites,” 14). Stephens lived one block from the Wilson School, which her children presumably attended. Like many of the houses in the area, her duplex on South Galvez Street was built after Broadmoor’s white public school opened (Insurance Maps of New Orleans, Louisiana (1922) 532; Insurance Maps of New Orleans (1940) 613a).
50Broadmoor and the neighborhood immediately south of it quickly became ground zero for the new segregation law. Two days after the council passed the measure, whites living along the 2700 and 2800 blocks of Louisiana Avenue, which separated the neighborhood south of Broadmoor from Central City, posted large placards declaring that the area was strictly “for white people”. One sign in the 2700 block read, “Under the new law – Act 119 of 1924 – this block is for white only. Anyone destroying this sign will be dealt with according to law” (“White Residents Prepare to Test Segregation Act” 9).
51The signs went up after word spread that a black doctor named J.E. Simms planned to move from his home in the 2100 block of Louisiana to a duplex he purchased six blocks away in the 2700 block. Residents also believed that another black man planned to move into a home in the 2800 block. While blacks already owned and occupied two homes in the 2700 block, the Picayune reported that white neighbors viewed those residents “with disfavor” but not “antagonism” since they believed blacks would voluntarily leave the neighborhood once the city enforced the new ordinance (“White Residents Prepare to Test Segregation Act” 9). Seeking to stay away from an area where he clearly was not wanted, Simms sought a release form his purchase agreement. When bombings targeted black property in this area two years later, the Louisiana Weekly noted that the explosions took place “in the section where the bitter segregation fight was begun” (qtd. in DeVore, “Rise from the Nadir” 70.)
52While Dr. Simms’ decision to vacate his purchase likely delayed a violent showdown south of Claiborne Avenue, the Broadmoor neighborhood north of Claiborne became the city’s first target when it began enforcing the ordinance. The city scored its first conviction under the act in the spring of 1925, ordering a black woman named Anna Beck to either pay a $50 fine or serve sixty days in jail. Under the law, Beck also had to find a new place to live or face additional penalties. The court determined that Beck had violated the ordinance by moving into a home in the 3400 block of Milan Street between South Johnson and South Galvez, which it said was a white neighborhood.
53Beck’s home was two blocks south of Wilson School and a block from where ordinance supporter Mrs. L.E. Stephens lived. Her case highlighted the aggression with which whites sought to erase Broadmoor’s black past and the role that private real estate practices, school, and housing policies played in encouraging white settlement. Like most of Milan Street between Wilson and South Johnson Street, Beck’s home did not exist when the school opened in 1922. To the extent that the built-up area around Wilson had a racial identity at that time, it was decidedly black. Yet the homebuilding that followed the school’s construction quickly tipped the balance in favor of whites, bolstering their claims to territorial dominance under the residential segregation ordinance (DeVore, “Rise from the Nadir” 63-64; “Woman Will Fight Conviction Under Segregation Law;” “Segregation Law Violation Brings Fine for Woman”).
54Blacks, however, fiercely resisted the city’s expanded effort to restrict where they could live. In October 1925, Robert E. Jones headed a group of black businessmen and property owners that presented a petition against the ordinance to the New Orleans Association of Commerce. In that document, they emphasized the ordinance’s economic consequences as well as its arbitrariness. “We are doubtful of the safety of the investment of homes for our people”, they wrote, “as it is an easy matter to declare any part of the city a white community or it is an easy matter to turn any part of the city into a white community by forcing out a sufficient number of our people from that community” (qtd. in DeVore, “Rise from the Nadir” 64-65). Since black homeowners often lived in one half of a double while renting out the other, the petitioners noted that police enforcement of the ordinance was preventing them from securing tenants, which jeopardized their ability to pay their mortgages (“Segregation Law Conference Set” 3). That argument gained the support of the white City Homestead League, which sought a solution that, in the Picayune’s words, would “accomplish the aims of segregation without injury to property and human rights” (“Seeks to Delay Bill for Decision,” 22).
55At a subsequent meeting with city officials and white real estate and business leaders, black doctor and property owner Joseph Hardin emphasized the limited scope of his group’s demands. “There has never been a case where Negroes have tried to force themselves upon such sections as Rosa Park or Audubon [Place]”, Hardin said, citing two upscale, exclusively white developments near Audubon Park. “They do want to move out of districts unpaved and unimproved and enjoy facilities the same as any other people” (qtd. in DeVore, “Rise from the Nadir” 65-66). While city officials vowed to eliminate the hardships the ordinance created for blacks, they nevertheless continued to enforce it. Police officers finally stopped harassing blacks under the ordinance in February 1926, after black residents and a real estate company joined forces to secure an injunction. By then, however, a black homeowner’s challenge to the law was winding its way toward the U.S. Supreme Court.
56The local branch of the NAACP began preparing to challenge the segregation ordinance in court almost as soon as the mayor signed it into law. The group found a plaintiff after a white man named Joseph Tyler secured an injunction blocking black homeowner Benjamin Harmon from converting his single cottage into a double. Harmon intended to rent one half of the converted double to black tenants, and Tyler received the injunction on the grounds that the segregation ordinance barred Harmon from doing so. When the NAACP challenged the injunction, a civil district court judge ruled in its favor, stating that New Orleans’ ordinance was no different than the Louisville segregation statute that the U.S. Supreme Court struck down in Buchanan v. Warley in 1917. In that case, which the national NAACP spearheaded, the Court found that Louisville’s ordinance violated the Fourteenth Amendment’s prohibition against the deprivation of property without due process of law. Louisville, the Court ruled, could not prevent the sale of a property strictly because the person who intended to buy and inhabit it was black (DeVore, “Rise from the Nadir” 66-67; Rice; Martin; Buchanan v. Warley, 245 U.S. 60 (1917)).
57Despite this apparent precedent aligned against him, Tyler appealed to the Louisiana Supreme Court with the support of New Orleans’ city attorney. The justices there accepted the city’s contention that its ordinance was constitutional because it merely regulated the occupancy – but not the sale – of property. Justice C.J. O’Niell wrote in his March 1925 decision:
To say that such a law takes away the freedom of contract would be the same as to say that the so-called zoning ordinances – by which, in many cities, business establishments are forbidden in residence districts – take away the freedom of contract because they forbid an owner of property in such district to sell it to a grocer who is willing and ready to buy it only on condition that he may use it for his grocery store. (Tyler v. Harmon, 158 La. 439 (1925))
58The U.S. Supreme Court, however, found O’Niell’s logic to be too clever by half. Harmon’s case had reached the high court in April 1926 after black New Orleanians raised $10,000 to fund the appeal, and the Court heard arguments in the spring of 1927. In a per curium decision, the Court rejected the Crescent City’s residential segregation ordinance on the authority of Buchanan v. Warley, which had explicitly stated that the right to own property was meaningless without the accompanying right to occupy it (DeVore, “Rise from the Nadir” 68-69; Harmon v. Tyler, 273 U.S. 668 (1927); Rice 193).
59By underscoring the combined potential of collective action and the federal judiciary to address racial inequities, Harmon’s triumph lighted a path for New Orleans’ nascent civil rights movement. Seizing upon the decision’s significance, DeJoie’s Louisiana Weekly immediately issued a call for further action. “Let us determine that we shall contend with every legal and right effort for those things that should be ours and are denied us,” the Weekly announced. “We have won a signal victory. And every victory that is won for us must be won by us” (qtd. in DeVore, “Rise from the Nadir” 73.)
60White developers and officials, however, quickly proved that they did not need a segregation ordinance to either kick blacks out of neighborhoods where they already lived or bar them from entering new ones. In Broadmoor, the combined force of a white public school, racially restrictive covenants, and rising home prices made it all but impossible for blacks to live there. By 1940, the neighborhood’s population of more than seven thousand included just 389 black residents (16th Census of the United States 5). In a marked change from the decades before World War I, similar imbalances existed throughout the city. The residential integration that persisted out of necessity during New Orleans’ first two hundred years was no more.
61Schools were central to the development and maintenance of Jim Crow in New Orleans. They acted as economic gatekeepers that provided – or inhibited – pathways to mainstream success. They were also symbolically important to both blacks and whites; as long as segregated schools persisted, many seemed to think, the color line would as well. As this article has shown, segregated schools also created the racially segregated and uneven landscape that persists to this day.
- 18 On the changes in New Orleans’ political economy during the late 1960s and 1970s, see Germany; Hirs (...)
62But if it is clear that schools played a central role in making Jim Crow, it is harder to deduce how they could unmake it. Even the most robust approach to school desegregation – and New Orleans’ was anything but robust – offered little remedy for the spatially grounded inequalities that segregated schooling had initiated. While desegregation could bring black and white students together in the same classrooms, it could not provide them with equitable access to jobs, housing, or basic services. These limitations became particularly clear as white families fled the city and its desegregating public schools for those in outlying parish during the 1970s. Tax dollars and consumer services followed whites to parishes such as Jefferson and St. Tammany, and the containerization of the Port of New Orleans and declines in manufacturing eliminated many of the jobs that had supported a well-paid black working class. Public and private investment in a tourism-based economy simultaneously promoted the growth of a low-wage, largely non-union, workforce in the service industry.18
63These developments exacerbated the racial and spatial divisions that already existed within the city, hitting the city’s black ghettoes the hardest. Violent crime became the most pronounced indicator of these communities’ dire straits, and as New Orleans recorded nearly 2,000 murders between 1989 and 1994, Central City residents became increasingly familiar with violence (Eig B4; Frazier A1). By the close of the twentieth century, the city’s public school system, which by then served a population that was almost exclusively poor and black, was also widely viewed as among the most dysfunctional in the country (Nossiter; Simmons and Frazier Raynor).
64Despite this grim picture, the historical role that public schools played in driving urban development offers some lessons for the future. Most significantly, it underscores that the issues affecting urban schools cannot be separated from urban history, just as the issues affecting cities cannot be separated from the history of their schools. This reciprocal relationship between cities and schools is generally lost in present day debates about American school reform, which often focus narrowly on issues such as testing, standards, teachers’ unions, and charter schools. In New Orleans, school reform advocates have not simply ignored the historical relationship between neighborhoods and schools. The proliferation of charter schools since Hurricane Katrina in 2005 has actively eroded that link by replacing geographically based school attendance zones with a citywide “choice” system.
65Divorcing public education from the history of metropolitan change also encourages people to both expect too much from, and ask too little of, urban schools. People expect too much from urban schools when they refuse to consider the structural origins and nature of educational inequality, insisting instead that any and all social problems can be resolved within the walls of the schoolhouse. As Jonathan Kozol noted, the attention politicians, journalists, and policy analysts frequently pay to the small minority of schools that appear to succeed against all odds distracts from the segregated schools and racially and socioeconomically divided landscapes that continue to mar metropolitan America. Kozol wrote:
There is this inclination to avert our eyes from the pervasive injuries inflicted upon students by our acquiescence in a dual system and to convey the tantalizing notion that the problems of this system can be superseded somehow by a faith in miracles embodied in dynamic and distinctive individuals. (200)
- 19 For present day examples of this, see Benjamin, “Suburbanizing Jim Crow,” 241.
66While Kozol warned of expecting too much from individual schools, recognizing public education’s historical capacity to affect metropolitan development also raises the prospect that people can ask much more of urban schools and school reform. Rather than focusing on strategies for succeeding in spite of the racially isolated, economically depressed neighborhoods that prior school policies helped to create, reformers should explore ways of harnessing the power of schools to rebuild those neighborhoods. This will involve reestablishing the links between schools, housing, and urban planning that previous generations of policymakers cherished yet sadly abused.19 It will also require a vision for an urban future that seeks to reestablish, respect, and cultivate the residential heterogeneity of the past. During the twentieth century, public schools played a central role in dividing New Orleans along racial lines. In the twenty-first, one can only hope that they serve a more unifying purpose.