40 years ago, Dutch Morial — a man of many firsts — changed the face of City Hall
On Nov. 12, 1977, Dutch Morial, a civil rights lawyer who had been a legislator and a judge, defeated City Councilman Joseph DiRosa by 6,200 votes to become New Orleans’ first African-American mayor. In his victory speech, Morial vowed to “weld together the diverse elements of our city in such as fashion that we will make New Orleans a greater city and New Orleans a city that works and works well for everyone.”
Since Morial’s two terms in office, New Orleans has had three African-American mayors, including his son Marc, and black Louisianians have been elected to Congress, the Legislature, City Council and judgeships. One of those judges is his daughter Monique, who is the judge in Section A of 1st City Court.
- Morial’s life was a procession of firsts. Before becoming New Orleans’ first black mayor, he was the first black graduate of LSU Law School, the first black member of the state House of Representatives since Reconstruction and the first African-American judge of the city’s Juvenile Court and the state 4th Circuit Court of Appeal.
- When he was a young attorney, Morial worked with the noted civil rights lawyer A.P. Tureaud.
During his first term, the city weathered a bitter police strike in 1979 that canceled Mardi Gras parades in New Orleans.
- The city’s Convention Center is named for him, not only because Morial was a prominent person but also because, as mayor, he played a key role in obtaining federal and state money to build it.
- The original part of the Convention Center was built to serve as the Great Hall during the 1984 World’s Fair, which happened during his second term. Morial was tireless in his efforts to drum up attendance at the fair.
- Because asthma plagued Morial throughout his life and brought on his 1989 death, LSU Health Sciences Center in 1997 established the Ernest N. Morial Asthma, Allergy and Respiratory Disease Center to treat and study this affliction. Among those at the dedication was the Olympian Jackie Joyner-Kersee, who has the chronic respiratory problem.
For the better part of a generation, the Morial name resided at the forefront of the local political landscape. But for much of the city’s residents, it transcended politics. “Dutch became the standard by which all black elected officials are measured — the standard after which other politicians tried to model themselves,” longtime local pollster Silas Lee said in 1989 upon Morial’s death. “He’s always been his own man. A look back on his life shows a man who stood up against insurmountable odds. His life was punctuated by overcoming lots of challenges that others would not have attempted.”