New Orleans history has a way of disappearing while you're looking right at it. At least that's what seems to have happened to many of New Orleans' key African-American and civil rights landmarks, several of which have been demolished to make way for highway exits, parking lots, urban renewal projects and even empty pockets of grass.
There's the former home of Homer Plessy, who defied the 1890 Separate Car Act and whose name lives on in the landmark U.S. Supreme Court case of Plessy v. Ferguson. There's also the home of poet and lawyer Rodolphe Desdunes, a member of the Comite des Citoyens that defended Plessy. And there's the office of The Daily Crusader, the only black daily newspaper in the South during the post-Reconstruction era. Each of these landmarks is now gone: Plessy's home lies somewhere under the Esplanade Avenue exit from the I-10. Desdunes' home is under Armstrong Park, and the Crusader's office was demolished along with much of Exchange Alley to make way for the Federal Courthouse.
The centuries-old struggle for racial equality in Louisiana laid the groundwork for the 20th century civil rights movement. It was on the fringes of New Orleans that the maroon colony of Juan San Malo served as a refuge for escaped slaves in the 1780s, and it was in Jackson Square that San Malo was executed, ostensibly for murder, in 1784. The 1811 slave revolt -- the largest slave revolt in the United States -- occurred upriver from the city, and the band of rebels led by Charles Deslondes was well on its way to New Orleans when it was cut off by U.S. forces near present-day Kenner on orders of Gov. William C. C. Claiborne. Homer Plessy's defiance and subsequent arrest capped a concerted effort by a well-organized movement, based in New Orleans, to thwart the rise of Jim Crow legislation in the aftermath of -- and backlash against -- Reconstruction.
The Deslondes rebellion, which included nearly 500 slaves, caused a national stir, says University of New Orleans historian Dr. Raphael Cassimere, who was active in the modern civil rights movement here. "It dispelled the notion that blacks were not willing to die in order to have their freedom," says Cassimere. "There were great risks involved, and those who rebelled were willing to take those risks."
Yet it's difficult to follow the footfall of that history in the city, even when important structures (and the neighborhoods surrounding them) remain intact. "If you gave me a hundred plaques a day, I could go months and months and months putting up monuments," says Keith Weldon Medley, author of the 2003 book We as Freemen: Plessy v. Ferguson. In researching his book, Medley uncovered what might have been the United States' first civil rights sit-in: in 1867, local blacks integrated the mule-drawn streetcars by refusing to leave cars reserved for whites. He also turned up the story of nameless black men who went every day to try to register to vote at Gallier Hall during the 1940s -- long before well-publicized voter-registration drives of later decades. "Gallier Hall should have a plaque because of those attempts to register black voters," says Medley. So, in his opinion, should the former Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) "Freedom House" at the corner of Jackson Avenue and Oretha Castle Haley Boulevard.
The city is morally bound to honor its own history. We're encouraged that New Orleans Human Rights Commission director Larry Bagneris will propose a brochure depicting local civil rights sites -- a long-due publication that would be invaluable to locals as well as visitors. In January, the city unveiled a newly cleaned and landscaped statue of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on South Claiborne Avenue, the result of a $50,000 investment by the Wisner Fund. The Crescent City Peace Alliance is working on a memorial park to commemorate the site of the Press Street train station where, in 1892, Plessy boarded the local line of the East Louisiana Railroad and entered history. The Preservation Resource Center's 4-year-old effort to restore jazz musicians' former homes serves as a noteworthy success story: Louis Armstrong's old childhood home is long gone, but more than 20 houses have received plaques outlining their jazz connection, and the PRC has restored the Jackson Avenue home once occupied by trombonist and band leader Edward "Kid" Ory, turning a former eyesore into a source of pride for Central City.
The city should make efforts like these a top priority. As we celebrate music, cuisine and Mardi Gras, so too can we celebrate our shared past. Local institutions such as the D-Day and Ogden museums ably demonstrate what can happen when we give history and culture their proper due. There's no reason why New Orleans can't join cities such as Birmingham, Ala., and Memphis, Tenn. -- both sites of impressive civil rights museums -- in realizing its potential as a living history book for all to read.