Jim Crow in New Orleans

The system of racialized domination known as Jim Crow was in its formative years at the turn of the 20th century. For most of the 19th century, race relations in New Orleans were somewhat distinct from other parts of the South. Before the Civil War, the presence of a sizable free population of French-speaking “Creoles of Color” created a tripartite racial alignment that was unique in the United States. The legacies of French and Spanish colonial rule were still visible in a legal system that offered some degree of protection for the rights and property of these free people of color.

By 1900, however, the imposition of the Jim Crow regime had established a strict black and white binary in the Crescent City. Indeed, by the turn of the twentieth century, race relations in New Orleans closely resembled those in other parts of the South. Though “Jim Crow” most frequently refers to the segregation of physical space on the basis of race, the affirmation of white supremacy was not simply about “whites only” signs. The systematic disfranchisement of African American voters and the dark reality of racialized mob violence were also central to the racial caste system that governed the South from the late 19th century until the post-World War II era.

Racial segregation was not invented in New Orleans. However, the city was the birthplace of the legal case that provided the constitutional basis for racial segregation nationally. In 1892, an Afro-Creole named Homer Plessy was arrested in New Orleans for violating a railway segregation statute. The Citizens’ Committee, a group of Afro-Creole reformers, hoped to use Plessy’s arrest as a test case to challenge the constitutionality of railway segregation in the South. In 1896, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in the Plessy v. Ferguson decision that “separate but equal” accommodations were not inherently unconstitutional.

In 1902, the state legislature of Louisiana passed a law segregating the streetcars of New Orleans. A similar effort in 1900 had met with significant opposition within the city. Representatives of the city’s streetcar companies, fearing the economic costs of segregation, were critical of the measure, but the advocates of segregation emerged victorious in 1902. The 1902 law, which claimed to promote the “comfort of passengers,” used the language of Plessy v. Ferguson in stipulating that accommodations for the races should be “equal but separate.”

Between 1890 and 1908, every former Confederate state rewrote its laws to deny the right to vote to the vast majority of African Americans. Though such acts would seem to violate the 15th Amendment to the United States Constitution, which guarantees the right to vote regardless of race, the states used a variety of strategies, including poll taxes and literacy tests, to whiten the electorate. In Louisiana, a state constitutional convention in 1898 provided the occasion for disfranchisement. The most noteworthy aspect of Louisiana’s disfranchisement constitution was the invention of the Grandfather Clause, which allowed people whose relatives had voted before 1867 to vote without being subject to the new suffrage requirements introduced elsewhere in the document. Since the Grandfather Clause did not mention race explicitly, it did not run afoul of the 15th Amendment. However, the fact that the state’s electorate was exclusively white before 1867 made the intent of the Grandfather Clause abundantly clear. With the passage of the 1898 constitution, the vast majority of Louisiana African Americans lost the right to vote.

This context – the rise of Jim Crow and the systematic violation of African-American civil and political rights across the South – bears directly on the arrest records reproduced on this site. Across the South, local police departments played a central role in the maintenance of white supremacy. The convict lease system, which allowed localities to sell the labor of convicts to private companies, incentivized arrest for a variety of insignificant offenses. Though the 1898 constitution outlawed the convict lease, prisoners housed at the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola labored without pay well into the 20th century. In a more general sense, a monopoly on the structures of “law and order” was a precondition to white domination. Differential arrests and prosecution were a powerful means of social control in the Jim Crow South.

And yet, the reach of Jim Crow was never complete. Given the history laid out here, it comes as something of a surprise that the New Orleans Police Department remained integrated well into the 1910s. According to police rosters housed at the New Orleans Public Library, there were at least ten African American police officers serving in New Orleans in 1900. A black officer named Stephen Boyard even held the rank of Corporal. Though the city’s white newspapers occasionally complained about the presence of black officers in NOPD uniform, a series of Civil Service reforms instituted in 1889 protected black officers just as surely as white ones. This meant – much to chagrin of white supremacist commentators – that African American officers could be removed only with cause. The surprising persistence of black officers in Jim Crow New Orleans offers a reminder that the reach of segregation was never complete, and that white supremacy was always contested.

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