Charting the course of New Orleans future — already a perilous enterprise in the face of the wanton destruction which has afflicted our city — is made even more hazardous if not grounded solidly in an accurate appreciation and understanding of our past. The national media’s simplistic obsession with the Lower Ninth Ward, for example, has lead to a widespread mischaracterization of that marginalized section of the city as if it were the cultural, historical and even spiritual center of the city, especially the African-American community and its unparalleled contribution to the cultural identity of New Orleans and consequently the United States itself.
The torrent of pious prose about the Lower Ninth has drowned out the true historic centrality of the Creole faubourgs which were truly the wellspring of our cultural splendor, especially Tremé (home of the historic St. Augustine Church) and the Seventh Ward, which are directly adjacent to the French Quarter, connected by Basin Street, the main drag of the famous bordellos and drinking establishments of Storyville, Congo Square (now the site of Armstrong Park), and the two St. Louis Cemeteries. These are fragile neighborhoods, rendered even more so by the erosion of their character in the 1960s when the elevated section of Interstate 10 was rammed down the throat of Claiborne Avenue, the vital artery of what was then a thriving African-American community. There are potentially disastrous consequences to our planning for the future of the city as a result of such ignorance of the past.
The Inconvenience of Facts
Compounding the national, and worse, the local appreciation of the complexity of New Orleans’ racial multiculturalism was Mayor Ray Nagin’s unfortunate, politically-opportunistic evocation of New Orleans as a “chocolate city,” wherein he claimed New Orleans has always been and always would be a majority African-American city. As is often the case, the truth of the matter is far more interesting than this now perpetuated fiction. In fact, for most of its history, until the white flight which afflicted many major Americans cities in response to the desegregation of the public schools in the 1960s, New Orleans was a majority white city, not becoming officially majority African American until the 1980 census.
The Aftermat of Hurricane Katrina
As recently as the 1970 census, New Orleans were still 55 percent white. Prior to that the only two censuses in which the city was majority African American were in 1810 when the city’s total population was 17,242, and 1830, when the population was 46,082. From then the white proportion of the population increased until it stood at 86 percent in 1860, when the total population was 168,675 and it remained in excess of 70 percent for the next 80 years. It remained in excess of 60 percent until 1960 when the city obtained its largest population of 627,000 — almost 150,000 more people than claimed it as home on August 29, 2005 when Katrina hit.
As for the Ninth Ward, until well into the 20th century most of the it was uninhabitable swamp punctuated by farms along Chef Menteur and a narrow strip of urban development along the Mississippi River, especially a largely white section called Holy Cross. Historically the Ninth Ward did not become predominately African American until after the mid-20th century. In 1860 the ward’s population of 14,932 included only 1,840 African Americans of whom only 450 were slaves, this sizeable percentage of free people-of-color being a trait common throughout New Orleans, especially in the Creole neighborhoods downriver from the French Quarter. The Ninth Ward’s 12.5 percent black population was actually less than the city’s overall black population of 14 percent. By 1930, still only 17 percent were of African descent. At the time this was the third lowest black percentage among the city’s 17 wards where the total population of 458,762 was 28 percent black. Not until after 1940 did the population of the Ninth Wardbecome majority African American.
Ironically, Louisiana’s next two largest cities — Baton Rouge and even Shreveport — could better claim being majority African-American cities than New Orleans, having had African-American majorities for more decades than New Orleans prior to 1980. Baton Rouge was majority African American from 1870 (when its population was only 6,498) for fifty years until 1920 when it was still a modest town of 21,782. Shreveport, the Queen City of the Red River in North Louisiana, was majority African American from 1880 when its total population was 8,009 until thirty years later when its population tripled to 28,015
Cultural Power of the Minority
The most telling implication of these statistics is that the influence of African-American culture is not derived from African Americans having been in the majority, but that a numerically-submerged minority could have had such a monumental impact by the sheer force of its originality and creativity. During the crucial decades around the turn of the last century that witnessed the evolution of ragtime into the supremely original art form of jazz, African Americans were barely a quarter of the city’s population and oppressed by the institutional racism of the white majority. Equally interesting is the profound influence of the gens de coleur libre on the society, traditions, architecture, literature, and classical music in the antebellum decades, when the African-American percentage of the population was as low as 14 percent. The most interesting truth is that it is the quality and vitality of the African-American culture that has made it important, not its numerical superiority.
—Michael Sartisky, Editor-In-Chief
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