NEW ORLEANS, LA: Before World War II

Par Gilbert E. Martin

Today, I find that many people, who are definitely Creole, are not with much knowledge about the racial conditions in New Orleans before WW II. And I believe that’s the main reason we have so much confusion pertaining to French Creole history and culture. Too many writers of our history have been writing from gossip and biased textbooks. Therefore, they, both white and black (or Creole) have been making the same grave mistake, wittingly or unwittingly, that all writers have been making, including myself. We have never considered love, respect, friendship and family. They write about the free people of color or the slaves, as if there were no real connections between the two. That’s why I made the statement, that Creoles who were born circa 1936 and afterwards, were too young to really know much of anything about the conditions in New Orleans before World War II. And if Creoles, themselves, are without adequate knowledge of our history, the general public is absolutely void of such knowledge.

Also, I might add, if any person’s family did not reside in New Orleans before the war, Creole or not, that person is just as void of the facts as if he/she came from another state. That’s because New Orleans was very different from any other place in Louisiana, and possibly from any other place in the world. Therefore, I feel that before I began to reveal the racial conditions in New Orleans, and the culture into which I was born and raised before World War II, I should set the stage with two of my favorite quotations. They are excerpts from historian Grace King’s book, New Orleans: The Place and the People. The first quote is about the refugees from the 1791 Haitian Revolution, which brought in many people from that country with others from Martinique and Guadeloupe. Those people, my ancestors, gave the city its international reputation. The second quote is Grace King’s observation near the end of the nineteenth century. Her book was published in 1895 only 28 years before my birth.

Besides the white and slave immigration from the West Indians, there was a large influx of free gens de couleur into the city (of New Orleans), a class of population whose increase by immigration had been sternly legislated against. Flying, however, with the whites from massacre and ruin, humanitarian sentiments induced the authorities to open the city gates to them, and they entered by thousands. Like the white emigres, they brought in the customs and manners of a softer climate, a more luxurious society, and a different civilization….they represented a distinct variety, a variety which their numbers made important, and for a time decisive in its influence on the home of their adoption.

And not only the city (New Orleans) inanimate, if such it can be called inanimate, but the city animate, the people, how it eternalizes us to ourselves, to one another, old, young, white, black, free, slave; here we stand linked together, by name and circumstances, by affiliation and interdependence, by love and hate, justice and injustice, virtue and crime, indisputable sequences in the grand logic of humanity, binding one another, generation by generation, to generation and generation, until the youngest baby hand of today can clasp its way back to its first city parent, to the city founder, Bienville himself, and from him, linking on to what a civic pedigree.

{{In addition to the above quotes, the following was taken from The French Quarter by Herbert Asbury (1936)}}

In the Dauphine and Burgundy streets vice areas white women and Negresses crowded together indiscriminately and were patronized by men of all races and colors, a situation which persisted for many years before and after the Civil War. As late as May 22, 1888, the Lantern complained that ‘In our daily walks through life we notice the surprising amount of co-habitation of white men with Negro women.’ A year and a half later, on November 30, 1889, The Mascot presented the other side of the racial picture. It declared that ‘this thing of white girls becoming enamored of Negroes is becoming rather too common.’ The French Quarter, p. 388, Garden City Publishing Co., Inc. Garden City, New York (1936). I was thirteen years old when that book was published.

{{ Now, with that backdrop it should not be too hard to envision the happenings and conditions that I am about to reveal.}}

First of all, I was born a poor little black nappy-head baby right smack dab in the Creole section of the city of New Orleans, a section of the city commonly known as the Seventh Ward. Like all Creole babies born in that city, it didn’t take long before I beheld people of every color, tint and shade conceivable. Thus, my developing years began. Furthermore, most of the city was integrated. Whites and blacks lived as neighbors in most of New Orleans. Unlike other cities in the south we had allies and relatives among the French and the Spanish, and allies among the Jews and Italians. Furthermore, with our abundance of skilled craftsmen, musicians, chefs, cooks, and all kinds of businesspeople, our whole community was an educational institution within itself. We were the most intellectually advanced ethnic group in all of Louisiana in the nineteenth century. Therefore, we never considered any other people superior to us. Consequently, my generation was endowed with a lot of courage, self-worth, mischief and stamina, by the generations that preceded ours. Now, with the foregoing information, coupled with the following brief telling of my unique experiences, one can easily get an idea of the culture of the Crescent City before World War II  the culture of my youth.

One summer day when I was about 10 years old, a friend of mine, Oscar, about the same age had a job, tending cows at a nearby dairy farm. On this particular I was helping him out as I often did, just to get a chance to ride the horse, a big white stallion we called Snowball. There was a very long canal running parallel to the pasture where the cows were grazing. The canal was about twelve feet deep. And there was a gravel road about 20 feet wide running between the canal and a long mound of dirt that separated the pasture from the road, and at the end of that mound was the beginning of an opening about 30 feet wide. My friend’s job was to keep the cows from wandering from the pasture through that opening and onto the road or down into the canal. It was a very important job, because if the police caught one or more cows out of the pasture they would impound their catch. Once impounded, the owner would have to pay 10 dollars each to get them back.

On that particular day, my friend and I were lying on the side of the grass-covered mound just shooting the breeze. Suddenly, I heard sounds coming down the gravel road. I whispered to Oscar, "quiet, I hear something." We both crawled up to the top of the mound on our elbows and knees. We peeped through the tall weeds and saw two policemen trotting toward us from our left, and they were laughing and talking to each other. Right away, we looked to our right and saw two cows about three-quarters of a mile, grazing along the edge of the canal. I whispered to Oscar, "Let me go get em." Oscar said, "OK." So, I told Oscar to signal me when those officers passed our location. Then, I went down on our side of the mound and got on snowball’s back (we rode bareback). We waited quietly until the officers passed our location. Then, my friend gave me the signal. I walked Snowball up and over our mound, and not far behind the officers. I crossed the road and walked my steed down through over-grown weeds into the empty canal. At the bottom there was a level area about six feet wide (where people went crayfishing) on both sides running the length of the canal. The canal itself, was about 20 feet wide at the bottom, and except for a small stream running down the center, it was dry. Also, it was about 12 feet below the road. So, because of the canal’s depth and the tall weeds growing on its banks, the officers could not see me.

Once down in the canal, I prodded Snowball with the heels of my raggedy tennis shoes and gave him his head. Away we went like the wind. And since I knew the area from experience, I slowed Snowball and walked him slowly up the sloping side of the canal to keep from spooking the cows. I came up a few feet in front of the cows, i.e., between the cows and the openings. So, I had to walk my horse to get in position behind the cows. The policemen, then about a bout 150 yards away were still trotting. They probably thought that I was coming to greet them, because they continued at their leisurely trot. But when I got where I wanted to be I challenged the cops. I pulled back on Snowball’s reins, causing him to rear up on his hind legs. When my horse’s feet hit the ground I yelled as loud as I could, whooping it up like the cowboys in the movies, did on their cattle drives. Off I galloped, chasing the cows before me. After driving them back through the opening and deep into the pasture where the other cows were grazing. I stopped and looked over to the opening and saw the two cops just sitting on their horses looking in my direction, they were not allowed on private property. Then I trotted back and joined Oscar who had been watching me all the time. We laid back onto the grass and laughed about what had just transpired.

A little while later a rider came out from the barnyard and told me that the boss wanted me to come in. With him, and on the back of Snowball, I made haste to the barnyard. Upon arriving I was greeted by the two cops who had dismounted and were talking to Mr.Boobala, Zabinden was his real name. One of the officers, smiling said to me, "So, you’re the little nigger that made us look like fools." I didn’t answer. I just sat there on Snowball and stared down at that officer with piercing eyes. The other officer spoke up saying, "OK, little nigger, let us see you make that horse rear up like you did out there on the road." Still, I didn’t say a word nor did I make a move. In the meantime, Mr. Boobala just stood there grinning. The officer who spoke first asked the boss, "What’s wrong with him, he can’t hear?" The boss answered, "Oh, he can hear alright, he just don’t like that word ‘nigger.’" Then, the officer looked at me and asked, "If you’re not a nigger, then what are you?" "I’m a colored boy," I shouted back. "OK," colored boy, he chuckled, let us see you make that horse rear up. I pulled back on the reins and Snowball reared up on his hind legs. They all clapped. Then, the other officer said, A little black nigger on a big white horse." Momentarily, I stared at him with contemptuous eyes. Then I turned Snowball around and galloped out of the barnyard, sailing over a fence about three feet tall as I left. I went back and took my place along side Oscar. I never heard from those cops again. But I did get a new nickname around the barnyard. Colored boy!

_ Gilbert E. Martin
_ September 27, 2004