This week we remember Ernest "Dutch" Morial, a New Orleans civil rights and political trailblazer whose death 25 years ago this week — on Christmas Eve 1989 — shocked many in the city. Morial, New Orleans' first African-American mayor, was just 60 when he died. Then-Orleans Parish Coroner Frank Minyard surmised the frigid weather that gripped the city that week contributed to Morial's death from a heart attack brought on by an asthma attack.
A New Orleans native, Morial was a civil rights activist and attorney early in his career, which saw many firsts. He was the first African-American to graduate from LSU School of Law and the first to serve in the U.S. Attorney's office. He was the first African-American elected to the state House of Representatives since Reconstruction, and later became the first black judge; he was elected to the Juvenile Court and later to the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeal.
Morial, who served as mayor from 1978 to 1986, was known as a tough taskmaster who occasionally showed a fiery disposition, but his political power and influence were undeniable. "He was a trailblazer in so many ways," legendary pollster Joe Walker said in The New York Times' obituary. "He was still capable of great political influence" even after leaving office, Walker said.
The Ernest N. Morial Convention Center was named in his honor in 1992. His widow, Sybil Haydel Morial, remains a force in civic affairs, and several of his five children followed him into public service, including son Marc, who served two terms as mayor of New Orleans, and daughter Monique, who currently is a judge at First City Court.