A century of standing up, speaking out: The history of the NAACP in New Orleans
Given that Plessy v. Ferguson, the landmark court case that essentially legalized racial segregation in 1896, originated in and involved players in New Orleans, it was only natural that the oldest continuously active chapter south of Washington D.C. of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People was founded in the Crescent City. That came on July 15, 1915, just six years after the establishment of the national organization and amid the unrelenting codification of Jim Crow laws. Stated the February 1916 issue of The Crisis, the national NAACP’s journal: “Enough has been said to make clear that with all the handicap of expense for education, and the handicap of unequal opportunities for advancement in other things, the colored people of New Orleans can lay a just claim to being part and parcel of the race that has made such wonderful progress in the past fifty years.”
NOW: The New Orleans branch of the NAACP continues to surge forward. With new chapter President Gloria Hall-Johnson, it has taken vocal stands on issues ranging from the removal of Confederate statues in New Orleans to fair education opportunities for disadvantaged youth. In May 2015, the branch celebrated its centennial with a grand banquet and award ceremony.
- The NAACP was established Feb. 12, 1909, with founding members including writer and educator W.E.B. Dubois and journalist Ida Wells. The group’s creation was triggered by the continued violence against black people, particularly the unabated lynchings across the country and a vicious race riot in 1908 in Springfield, Ill.
- The foundation of the New Orleans chapter might have been laid as early as 1911, when a handful of local activists corresponded with the national leadership about establishing a Crescent City branch. They soon moved ahead with their efforts on the ground in New Orleans, including meeting regularly, although without official sanction.
- Once the New Orleans chapter received its charter, its founding 20 members elected H.C. Casa Calvo as president and Louis King as secretary.
- Arguably the most important figure in the development of the NAACP and evolution of civil rights overall in the Crescent City was Alexander Pierre Tureaud, who was born in New Orleans in 1899 a descendant of free people of color. A graduate of Howard University Law School and an associate of Thurgood Marshall, Tureaud joined the NAACP Legal Defense Fund in the 1930s and spent the rest of his career fighting for desegregation and social justice in Louisiana, especially in public schooling.
- The entire February 1916 issue of The Crisis, the official magazine of the NAACP, focused on the African-American population of New Orleans, including coverage of local civic activities, fraternal organizations and religious involvement. Veterans of the Union army were featured, as was a rundown of educational and collegiate activity. The journal detailed the history of people of color in New Orleans, focusing on the emergence, evolution and influence of Creole culture.
- The Crisis reported: “There are among the colored people two theatres, fifteen trade unions, one hundred and thirty-six benevolent societies, one hundred and forty-four secret societies, one hundred and nineteen barber and hairdressing shops, forty-nine contractors and builders, twenty-three physicians, one hundred dressmakers, fifty-four retail dealers, two hotels, five lawyers, twelve upholsterers, twelve restaurants and eight undertakers.”
- Rev. Eugene White and Tulane Avenue Baptist Church, over which he presided, played key roles in early activities of the New Orleans branch. In addition to involvement in various citywide recreation, education and society organizations and frequent partnering with local white ministers, White, a native of Texas, served as the second president of the NAACP, from 1915 to 1921, a tenure that included the launching of the branch’s newsletter, The Vindicator. (He served another term in the 1930s.) In 1929, White was transferred to a pastorate in Baltimore, but he frequently returned to the Crescent City to preach and attend to personal and business matters.
For more than 100 years, the NAACP has proven to be an indefatigable defender of and advocate for an often-underserved portion of New Orleans’ population. What’s more, it shows no sign of letting up anytime soon. That’s made clear in the Louisiana NAACP’s mission statement — “To ensure the political, educational, social and economic equality of rights of all persons and to eliminate racial hatred and racial discrimination” — even clearer in its slogan: “A Voice for the Voiceless.”