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6 from 300: overlooked people and events from New Orleans history 

New Orleans is gearing up this week for its official tricentennial events, which include a commemorative interfaith prayer service at St. Louis Cathedral (April 17), NOLA Navy Week (April 19-25), Tall Ships New Orleans (April 19-22), International Weekend (April 20-22), Voices of the Congo Square (April 20), a citywide "family reunion" (April 22), a Tricentennial dog parade in New Orleans City Park (April 22) and quite a bit more.

  In this section, we look at some often-overlooked people and events in the city's history, examine how the city celebrated its bicentennial in 1918, and give you all the details on celebrations around town. And Gambit's own Blake Pontchartrain has a 20-question quiz to see how much you know about the history of New Orleans.

Gail Etienne, Tessie Prevost and Leona Tate
The same day 6-year-old Ruby Bridges entered William Frantz Elementary, three girls entered McDonogh 19. Known as the McDonogh Three, they joined Bridges as the first black students to integrate all-white schools in New Orleans — more than six years after the Brown vs. Board of Education decision that dismantled segregation in schools.

  Anti-segregationist district court Judge J. Skelly Wright ordered the Orleans Parish School Board to desegregate its schools in 1956, and on Nov. 16, 1960, federal marshals escorted Gail Etienne, Tessie Prevost and Leona Tate into McDonogh 19 on St. Claude Avenue.

  "As we arrived near the school, the car slowed down and everything I remember from that point seemed to go in slow motion," Tate wrote in 2004. "Somehow, we were able to maneuver through a crowd of cursing, screaming, yelling people who were being held back by the police."

  When they arrived inside, white students fled their classrooms. Windows were papered over with brown parchment. For the next school year and several months into the next one, they were the only students at McDonogh 19.

  They continued to face abuse and violence from classmates after helping to integrate another school, T.J. Semmes, in 1962. Etienne and Prevost also helped integrated Rivers Frederick Junior High School. Tate joined Bridges at Frantz Elementary for fourth grade, then attended Kohn Middle School and she and Etienne integrated Francis T. Nicholls High School. Prevost attended Joseph S. Clark High School.

click to enlarge An illustration of the Mechanics Institute during the riot of 1866. - IMAGE COURTESY LIBRARY OF CONGRESS
  • Image courtesy Library of Congress
  • An illustration of the Mechanics Institute during the riot of 1866.

The massacre at the Mechanic's Institute
What we know as the Roosevelt Hotel New Orleans was once the Mechanic's Institute — and the site of one of the city's worst incidents of racial violence.

  At that time in U.S. history, the federal government was taking a "soft touch" on ex-Confederates, says Sean Benjamin, public services librarian at Tulane University. In Southern states, little effort was made to rebuild a more inclusive government; it seemed as though former Confederate states were trying to recreate the conditions of slavery.

  In July of 1866, Louisiana Republicans had convened a constitutional convention at the Mechanic's Institute to consider offering black residents the right to vote. A group of abolitionists, African-American political activists and their advocates marched toward the building to offer support. But before they arrived, the crowd of a few hundred people was attacked by a white mob, which included ex-Confederates and members of the local police and fire departments. A few dozen people were killed by gunfire and many others were injured.

  The U.S. Congress and residents of the North were shocked by the violence. The event sparked a congressional investigation, and outrage over the incident was a factor in the passage of the 14th amendment. Benjamin says one could argue that Reconstruction started in earnest on the heels of the incident.

  As the changes of that period started to take hold in Louisiana and New Orleans governments, the city also saw the rise of a new wave of black journalists, activists and other political figures, many of whom were galvanized by the massacre and the events that followed.

click to enlarge coverstory_intro-2_twelve_years_a_slave.jpg

Joseph Logsdon and Sue Eakin
First published in 1853, Solomon Northup's pivotal memoir Twelve Years a Slave illustrates the brutality he endured after being captured and enslaved for more than a decade. The harrowing story was revived in the Academy Award-winning 2013 film 12 Years a Slave, partially filmed in Louisiana.

  Northrup was sold in New Orleans at the largest market of enslaved people in the U.S. and was forced to work for 10 years at a plantation in Avoyelles Parish.

  His book sold thousands of copies upon its release and after subsequent reissues by the end of the 19th century. But it remained relatively obscure and out of print in the following decades, until it was reprinted with annotations by LSU Press in 1968, thanks to the work of historians Sue Eakin and Joe Logsdon, a history professor at the University of New Orleans (UNO).

  Logsdon (a "titan in the department" at UNO, says UNO historian Dr. Nikki Brown) and Louisiana State University professor Eakin traveled to the plantations and other locations mentioned in the book, mapping out Northup's journey and providing a historical basis to his account.

  Originally from Chicago, Logsdon lived in New Orleans for more than 30 years and was active in local and national chapters of the NAACP.

click to enlarge Doris Jean Castle protesting segregation policies at Woolworth’s and McCrory’s on Canal Street in New Orleans in 1961. - PHOTO COURTESY 50 YEARS/50 COLLECTIONS: KIM LACY ROGERS/AMISTAD RESEARCH CENTER,  NEW ORLEANS
  • Photo courtesy 50 Years/50 Collections: Kim Lacy Rogers/Amistad Research Center, New Orleans
  • Doris Jean Castle protesting segregation policies at Woolworth’s and McCrory’s on Canal Street in New Orleans in 1961.

Doris Jean Castle
The younger sister of civil rights activist Oretha Castle Haley, Doris Castle spent her 19th birthday inside Mississippi State Penitentiary. She was arrested during a Freedom Riders protest ride from Montgomery, Alabama to Jackson, Mississippi, where she was arrested in 1961. "Those on the bus with us were a group of people who had never been in each other's company, bonded by a common goal," she said in a 1986 interview. "Our only weapon was that we were right in what we were doing."

  Two years later, Castle was photographed outside New Orleans City Hall being carried by four policemen while sitting in a chair protesting the building's segregated cafeteria. She was among three plaintiffs who successfully sued the city to desegregate the building, and with her sister Oretha, she fought to desegregate New Orleans public transit.

  Along with the New Orleans chapter of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), Castle also organized student-led protests at several universities and worked to eradicate housing discrimination. She also worked as a counselor at Odyssey House, according to the Historic New Orleans Collection. In a 1964 article in the CORE-lator, Castle wrote that she had been arrested five times for nonviolent action — she spent three days in jail after picketing three downtown theaters for refusing to admit blacks.

click to enlarge coverstory_intro-4_cityguide.jpg

The WPA
Although most people know the Works Progress Administration (WPA) as the labor force behind buildings, roads and other New Deal infrastructure projects, the program had initiatives in New Orleans that touched a broader segment of the population and comprised quieter work that would become essential to historians.

  Out-of-work professors, writers and academics in the city got WPA jobs indexing New Orleans Police Department records and obituaries, translating archival records from their original French and Spanish and binding thousands of library books, many of which still are in use by archivists today and are easily identifiable by their distinctive WPA binding.

  "People who work in these systems can pull out a book and pretty much instantly know it was a WPA book," says Christina Bryant, head of the Louisiana Division City Archives at New Orleans Public Library. WPA workers also made mattresses and quilts for the needy during the Depression and taught household skills.

  One of the most enduring things to come out of the program, Bryant says, were city guides published by WPA workers nationwide. In addition to discussions of architecture, cuisine, Carnival traditions and cemeteries of the day, the WPA's city guide looks at New Orleans' government background, its racial distribution and economic and social development. The guides also show a clear and unsettling snapshot of segregated New Orleans during the 1930s.

click to enlarge Police Chief David Hennessy’s murder sparked a massacre of Italians who were charged in the crime but whose cases ended in acquittal or mistrial.
  • Police Chief David Hennessy’s murder sparked a massacre of Italians who were charged in the crime but whose cases ended in acquittal or mistrial.

David Hennessy's murder
David Hennessy was only 30 years old when he was promoted to superintendent of the New Orleans' police force in 1888. He was a popular police chief, but he would serve only two years before he was shot while walking home in October 1890. On his deathbed, Hennessy accused Italian residents of killing him.

  Hennessy had testified in a court case against an Italian criminal, and his killing was widely considered an act of vengeance by the local mob. Prosecutors rounded up both Italians and Italian-Americans thought to have mob connections, and 11 people stood trial for Hennessy's murder, while another eight were tried as accessories before the fact.

  The prosecutions ended in acquittals and mistrials, which stoked anger against the city's Italian community. After the trial — but before the defendants were released — a mob of as many as 8,000 New Orleanians, including many prominent businessmen and high-ranking citizens, stormed the parish prison. Members of the crowd shot and hung some of the men and 11 were killed.

  The incident had a lasting impact on New Orleanians' perspectives on local Italians. Tensions weren't helped by then-Mayor Joseph Shakespeare's comments to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch about the Mafia (he said the vigilante killings had a "most excellent effect" on a "society of cut-throats"), and the Italian government was very unhappy with what had transpired, which contributed to a diplomatic rift in U.S.-Italian relations.

  Hennessy's killer never was identified, and court records about the trials were thought to have been lost but recently resurfaced.

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