Monday, April 30, 2012

Slavery in New Jersey

South Jersey Heritage: A Social, Economic and Cultural History - R. Craig Koedel --"CHAPTER EIGHT: The Fight Against Slavery" -- Black slavery, although less extensive in South Jersey than elsewhere in the state, arrived with the earliest of the English settlers. In the 1676 Concessions and Agreements the term "slave" was omitted, but the institution was recognized in that every freeman taking up lands in West Jersey was to be allotted additional acreage for every "servant that he or she should carry or send." The holding of Negro slaves had long been customary among English landowners and it was the expectation, indeed the wish, of the framers of West Jersey that the practice be continued in the New World.

Queen Anne instructed Lord Cornbury, the first royal governor, to report on "the present number of . . . . Masters as Servants, free and unfree, and of the slaves in our said Province." The governor was told, moreover, to be prompt in paying the Royal African Company for their human merchandise in order that the province "may have a constant and sufficient supply of Merchantable Negroes, at moderate rates. . ." He was advised, however, to seek legislation by the provincial government restraining inhuman severity towards slaves and imposing capital punishment upon any master or overseer guilty of "the wilful killing of Indians and Negroes," Their conversion to the Christian religion was to be encouraged.

An act passed by the provincial assembly in 1713 authorized the return of runaway slaves, stipulating that the expenses for such be borne by the owners, and detailed the punishments to be meted out to slaves convicted of crimes.

Slaves were deprived, by the same act, of the right to own property. Lest they become a burden to society, freed slaves were to be given twenty pounds; otherwise the manumission would be nullified. By a later act, of 1752, tavern keepers were forbidden to sell "strong liquors" to slaves. Persons in bondage were denied the right to assemble in groups of more than five, or to be away from the master’s house after nine at night, except when meeting or traveling on the master’s business.

The slave population of the counties of Gloucester, Salem, and Cape May stood at 348 in 1737. Eight years later, 441 blacks were being held in bondage in the same counties, their numbers having increased by 27%. During the same period, the total population of the area grew by less than 14%. At mid-18th century, slavery was a thriving institution in South Jersey, as it was elsewhere in the colony.

Pennsylvania slave traders transferred their operation to New Jersey in 1761, when the Quaker colony voted to impose a fifteen-pound duty on the business. African Negroes were auctioned off on blocks at Cooper’s Ferry from that year until 1765. Four years later, in 1769, New Jersey followed Pennsylvania in assessing a fifteen-pound duty on the purchase of black slaves. Simultaneously, the price of African Negroes rose to a level beyond the financial resources of New Jersey buyers, and the overseas slave trade in the state came to an end.

Map of Camden, New Jersey

With the importing of slaves from Africa a thing of the past, cries against the inhumanity of the very institution of slavery began to be raised, as conscientious whites called for abolition during the years of the Revolution, and following. Nothing contrary to the practice of keeping slaves was written into the first state constitution, adopted on July 2, 1776. However, ten years afterward the state passed an act, the preamble of which betrayed a growing uneasiness regarding its morality: ". . . the principles of justice and humanity require that the barbarous custom of bringing the unoffending Africans from their native country and connections into a state of slavery ought to be discontinued, and as soon as possible prevented . . ."

The reluctance of the state to proceed with abolition notwithstanding, the 1786 law tried to ameliorate the predicament of the enslaved. It delineated the circumstances under which a slave could be brought into New Jersey, defined requirements concerning manumission, and authorized the indictment of persons suspected of the abuse and inhumane treatment of their slaves. By a 1788 law, masters were required to instruct their young slaves in reading and writing. The same law provided for the confiscation of any vessel within New Jersey fitted out as a slaver. An act summarizing and codifying the state’s slavery laws followed in 1798, though outright abolition of the institution was still rejected.

Human bondage existed in South Jersey at the turn of the 19th century, but its incidence was declining markedly. Whereas the slave population in the southern counties increased only 42% between 1745 and 1790, to a total of 624 in the last year, the population grew by 200%. Ten years later, the population having continued to climb, the number of slaves had decreased to 319. Contrasted with this noticeable reduction in the southern counties was the statewide increase of the slave population, during the same decade, in an amount just one short of 1000.

It is significant that the formerly Quaker counties were taking the lead in the gradual destruction of slavery as an institution in New Jersey at the approach of the 19th century. That the Quakers were among those who brought the institution to the New World is shown in directives of the Society of Friends in 1696, in which members were cautioned against the further purchase of slaves. The "Negroes" they already had were to be restrained from "loose and lewd living" and provided with opportunities for religious worship. Nevertheless, as early as 1688 a minority of American Quakers was agitating against slavery. At mid-18th century, the issue came to the serious attention of the Society of Friends, among whom John Woolman, in particular, in his superb essays and oral declamations eloquently denounced the enslavement of the black race. He, with three others, was appointed in 1758 to counsel with slaveowning Quakers about their Christian obligation to free those whom they held in bondage.

Although some progress was made, their efforts were not at once totally successful. As late as 1777, the Haddonfield meeting reported that twenty-eight slaves had been manumitted within their bounds, while a sizeable list of persons not complying was attached to the report. A similar account was submitted regarding Woodbury. Salem Quakers, too, were still in the process of freeing their slaves in 1777. After Woolman’s death, his cousin, John Hunt, pursued the good work of the Quaker saint. By September, 1788, partly because of his labors, the Haddonfield meeting was able to announce that "No negroes [are] held in bondage among us."

Sometimes the influence of New Jersey Quakers in discouraging slavery, other than among their own membership, is minimized. Nonetheless, it was a group of Quakers who petitioned the provincial legislature in 1775 to enact laws abolishing the institution. Even though unable to move the representatives toward this action, the Quakers set the example. By 1800, the residents of Burlington, Gloucester, and Salem Counties owned only 3% of the blacks still being held within New Jersey, whereas they comprised 23% of the state’s population.

Gradual abolition was enacted, at last, on February 15, 1804 in a bill which declared free every child born of a slave within the state after July 4, 1805. However, a boy was to remain the servant of his mother’s owner, or his heirs, until the age of twenty-five. A girl was to retain that status until she reached twenty-one. A master could forfeit his right of ownership if he chose, but he was required to support the child for one year, after which the child would become the ward of the county. A later law forbade the removal of a slave from New Jersey for the purpose of changing his place of residence, without the slave’s consent, or, in the case of a minor, the consent of the parents. A supplement imposed a penalty of a fine and imprisonment upon any violator of this law, and the slave in question was to be set free. Residents of New Jersey were forbidden to sell any of their slaves to non-residents.

The manumission of black slaves did not mean that Negroes had been accepted as equals by South Jersey whites, for free blacks also were legally and socially restricted. By judicial decision, for example, a Negro was to be deemed a slave unless he could prove that he was free. This ruling was pronounced in 1795 and again in 1821, when the chief justice said in his charge, "in New Jersey,...all black men, in contemplation of the law, are prima facie slaves, and are to be dealt with as such. The colour of the man [i.e. the plaintiff’s slave] was sufficient evidence that he was a slave until the contrary appeared. All our laws upon this subject are founded upon this principle, and all men of this colour are to be dealt with on this principle." Some Quaker masters, upon freeing their slaves, granted them tracts of land, which were then held in trust by the grantors, because titles of free blacks were not always recognized. The 1844 Constitution of the State of New Jersey limited the vote to white males.

An attempt in 1824 to relocate free blacks on the island of Haiti met with failure. A number of them having left for the Caribbean from Port Elizabeth, in Cumberland County, returned in a short time to their former homes and jobs.

Whereas the number of slaves in South Jersey declined steadily after 1790, almost reaching the point of nonexistence by 1830, the percentage of free blacks within the population was mounting. In 1820, the slaves in the four southern counties numbered 100, the free blacks 2875. There were only ten slaves in the same area in 1830, while the free black population stood at 3971. Of these, Gloucester County had the largest number. Salem County had the highest percentage of blacks within the total population; ten percent of the county’s residents were Negroes. In that year (1830), Gloucester County had four slaves and Salem County one. Before the Revolution, the total black population, slave and free, of any southern county never reached six percent.

Two factors may help to account for this changing pattern: the emigration of white farmers to the western lands after the Revolution and the opening up of New Jersey as a haven for fugitive slaves from Delaware, Maryland, and the South. Before 1826, slaves fleeing from southern masters could hope for little refuge in New Jersey, where bounty hunters hotly pursued the rewards offered for the capture of runaways. At the end of 1826, the incentive for tracking down fugitives was withdrawn when an act terminating the giving of rewards for their capture was passed by the legislature on December 26. Furthermore, the act so circumscribed the procedure for the apprehending and return of runaways that, in the southern counties, where many residents were inclined to give aid to escaping blacks, the Underground Railroad to Canada could operate more openly, and hundreds of blacks chose to end their flight and settle in the relative peace and security of South Jersey.

Under the 1826 law, to take up an alleged fugitive, the owner or his agent was required to request a judge of the common pleas or a justice of the peace to issue a warrant for the fugitive’s arrest. Moreover, proof of ownership had to be shown before the justice was permitted to release the fugitive for return to his home state or territory. To seize or remove alleged runaways without the necessary warrants was made a misdemeanor. A later supplement provided that any case involving a fugitive slave must be tried before three judges, and guaranteed alleged fugitives the right to trial by jury.

The Underground Railroad, carefully planned routes for southern slaves fleeing from their masters, operated in New Jersey. Each route had a chain of "stations," hiding places such as a barn, where fugitives paused during daylight hours for food and shelter before being transported, by night, to the next stop. Quakers, ministers, and other whites, and free blacks acted as "station masters." "Conductors" escorted the runaways from station to station.

Principal way stations of the Underground Railroad across South Jersey were located at Camden, Salem, and Greenwich. The most commonly used route from the South traversed Maryland and Delaware to Philadelphia, where the fugitives were sequestered by a freed slave, William Still, until passage could be arranged across the river to Camden. The station master at the New Jersey city was the Rev. T. C. Oliver, who provided sustenance and cover for the fleeing slaves, while they paused before starting their journey across the New Jersey corridor to New York City, and northward. Fugitives who gathered at Dover, Delaware, were boated across the river to the relative safety of the Jersey shore at Salem, where Abigail Goodwin was in charge. An unknown number of them relinquished the opportunity to escape to Canada, choosing instead to take their chances at planting new homes in Salem County. Those who elected to go on were routed through Woodbury to Bordentown, then over the Railroad’s main line to New York.

At Greenwich, escape boats flashing blue and yellow signal lights were met by station master Levin Bond, or one of the Sheppards, or Stanfords, after which conductors guided the fleeing slaves through Swedesboro and Woodbury to Burlington County, where they picked up the route to New York. Homes at Town Bank and Cape May Court House are said to have been havens for slaves escaping to the North.

Most of South Jersey lies below the Mason and Dixon Line, the traditional line of demarcation between northern and southern United States. Given its location, it would be expected that on any issue separating the two halves of the nation, South Jersey would be inclined toward a Southern viewpoint. Such was not the case, however, in 1860. Whatever pro-Southern sentiment there may have been in the southern counties did not surface, or was not of a vitality to sway majority opinion, in the crises that precipitated the Civil War.

Lincoln carried all but one (Camden) of the six counties of South Jersey in the 1860 election, whereas all but four of the counties to the north of the Mullica River, where the majority was contemptuous of the "Black Republican," voted for his opponents. Their heavier popular and electoral weight put New Jersey in the Democrat column in that presidential race. The state’s pro-Southern strength did not lie in the southern counties.

New Jersey was at one, however, in its dedication to the principle that the Union must be preserved at all costs. Although some would have preferred peace on the South’s terms to the suffering and economic dislocations of war, the state clearly supported the North, and the nation’s new leader, when the Union was confronted with the prospect of Southern secession. Triggered by the bombardment and capture of Fort Sumter on April 12-13, 1861, the southern counties were joined by those to the north, Democrats and Republicans, in giving way to a patriotic frenzy of flag waving, drum beating, and speechmaking. Resolutions to stand by the nation and her colors were adopted at every village, town, and crossroads.
Northern confidence in the ease and quickness of victory was summarized in a facile declaration by a South Jersey congressman at Bridgeton, in which he said, "This rebellion could easily be put down by a few women with broomsticks." Nonetheless, New Jersey quickly sent a fully organized and equipped brigade of four regiments to Washington, where they marched through the streets on May 6. As yet, there were no battles to be fought, so the Jersey troops were set to erecting a fortification around the city.

The battles came--Bull Run, Fredericksburg, Gettysburg, and on and on. In all, 88,000 New Jerseymen took up arms in the Civil War. More than 6300 of them, enlisted men and officers, perished of wounds or disease.

Called up for duty, South Jersey recruits bound for the battlefields of Virginia gathered at their county seats, where they were mustered into the service. By wagon, then train, they rode through Woodbury and Camden to the embarkation center at Beverly, a town on the Delaware River in Burlington County. Formed into regiments at Beverly, they departed by steamer for Philadelphia, to proceed therefrom by train to Baltimore and Washington. The Twelfth Regiment New Jersey Volunteers was stationed at Woodbury’s Fort Stockton, the largest Civil War encampment in South Jersey, until their troops joined the Army of the Potomac.

Early in the war, preparations were undertaken to protect South Jersey’s bay and ocean shorelines against Confederate attack. A telegraph line to Cape May was made operational; a maritime guard was posted along the coast; and Fort Delaware, on Pea Patch Island offshore from Salem County, was garrisoned to prevent any possible Confederate move upriver to Philadelphia. However, no Civil War battle or skirmish was fought on New Jersey soil, nor did a naval engagement of the war take place on the Delaware.

While the garrison on Pea Patch Island served to discourage any attempt at a seaborne assault on Philadelphia, it was used as well as a Northern prison. On this marshy island of 178 acres, in barracks built to accommodate 2000 men, by the summer of 1863 more than 12,500 Southern prisoners of war were suffering unspeakable horrors of brutality, malnutrition, and disease. An epidemic of cholera took more than 2000 lives; more than 700 others died from neglect and illness. Their bodies were interred at Finn’s Point, in Salem County, near the site where Johan Printz had built Fort Elfsborg.

President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863 angered many in New Jersey who, although willing to defend the Union with their last drop of blood, felt that Negro slavery was an internal matter to be dealt with by each state as its people saw fit. When the war was over, a majority of the representatives at Trenton had not yet changed their minds on the subject, and so did not immediately ratify the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution, the article which freed all slaves within the nation. After the amendment became federal law, in 1865, by ratification of the necessary three-fourths of the states, New Jersey concurred. As it applied to South Jersey, however, the issue was academic, for slavery had disappeared altogether from the southern counties before 1860. (source: West New Jersey)

Hurricane Katrina: The Race and Class

From Monthly Review, "Hurricane Katrina: The Race and Class Debate," by Kristen Lavelle and Joe Feagin -- Following Hurricane Katrina, many people sought to answer the question of whether its social effects and the government response to the country’s biggest natural disaster had more to do with race or with class. Media images broadcast from the Big Easy showed nearly all those left behind to suffer and die were black Americans—it looked like race. However, those families most able to afford homes in safer flood-protected areas and that had resources to evacuate easily suffered much less than poorer families, which seemed to make it more a class issue. There was no denying that those left behind were mostly poor and black. As public debate escalated amidst increasing allegations of lawlessness among the evacuees, white and conservative Americans vehemently fought the idea that racism had caused the extreme levels of black impoverishment and slowed the government response.

hurricane katrina fact Hurricane Katrina 10 Interesting Facts about Hurricane Katrina

Much public and progressive discourse sought to contribute to the “race or class” question. Some arguing the debate’s class side asserted that what became apparent in Katrina’s aftermath was basically a class dynamic: “Sure they’re black, but the reason they didn’t get out in time is because they’re poor, not skin color.” Political scientist Adolph Reed, Jr. argued that for liberals to blame racism for the Katrina disaster was a terrible political strategy. Although acknowledging discrimination historically, Reed asserted that those citing contemporary racism do so to feel righteous. Because the current government is not moved by accusations of racism, addressing the response to Katrina as a race issue is useless.1 Others, like Michael Dyson, said that the argument for class over race was used by many only to deflect attention away from race and thus discourage a deeper discussion about the ways race and class intertwine.2

To represent well the structure of New Orleans, or any urban area, one must look at the development of race and class there from past to present. We argue that race and class have always been used as tools by the white elite and have usually been supported by the white citizenry, first and foremost, to maintain white supremacy and white privilege. We view race and class as inextricably intertwined categories because of this country’s centuries of racial oppression.3 The reason the Katrina disaster seemed like a race issue was because it was. The reason it seemed like a class issue was because it was. In reality, race and class are deeply intertwined in New Orleans primarily because of a long history of well-institutionalized racism.

In a nationally-televised address from post-Katrina New Orleans, even President George W. Bush admitted that “deep, persistent poverty” in the area “has roots in a history of racial discrimination, which cut off generations from the opportunity of America” and acknowledged a “duty to confront this poverty with bold action.”4 Although Bush administration policies have not shown a commitment to ameliorate discrimination, Bush’s comment was here on target. To illustrate this, we now discuss the historical structuring of New Orleans around race and class from the antebellum city of slavery to the contemporary city hard hit by Katrina.

Slave Trade and Slave Labor

One central historical question is: Why are there so many African Americans in southern Louisiana? The clear answer is that in the late 1700s and early 1800s many powerful white slaveholders, including the brutal slaveholding President Andrew Jackson, intentionally sought to make the Gulf Coast a major region for profitable slave plantations. The descendants of those enslaved African Americans forced to move to the Gulf Coast by powerful white oppressors are many of those who bore the brunt of Hurricane Katrina. Race was the characteristic chosen by whites to differentiate the labor that has brought great wealth to whites in the region—from slavery times, to the legal segregation era, to the present day.

Sugar plantations, commercial shipping, and enslaved labor distinguished the economy of lower Louisiana during the antebellum period. The sugar boom of the 1700s and 1800s increased demand for slave labor and turned New Orleans into the principal slave market for North America.5 During the antebellum period tens of millions of dollars were pumped into the southern economy through the slave trade. Purchase and sale of slaves linked New Orleans tightly to the larger southern economy. Each year thousands from across the South passed through New Orleans slave pens, arriving and departing via boat or driven on foot, in chains.6 Slave trading was a daily, bloody, highly visible public affair of New Orleans life.

Black labor was integral to sugar and other agricultural production, as well as to the development of city utilities and facilities. The City Council established a chain gang in 1805, where black prisoners worked side by side with slave laborers to develop public works projects. Civic improvement was carried out by jailed and enslaved African Americans who kept up levees, erected public buildings, cleaned streets, and expanded the city’s boundaries. Huge amounts of uncompensated black labor modernized New Orleans, ushering in a new era of city prominence.7

We should acknowledge the humanity of the forgotten millions forced through the New Orleans slave markets. The city symbolized countless “social deaths” for those torn from families, communities, and histories. Few would ever see or hear from most family and friends again once sold through those slave markets.8 Yet, their stolen labor generated hundreds of billions (in current dollars) in wealth for a great many whites in various higher classes in the region.

Race and Class in Antebellum New Orleans

By 1840 there were 23,448 slaves in increasingly diverse New Orleans and nearly 20,000 free people of color.9 The first free blacks had become visible in the 1720s, many of them the manumitted children of white men and enslaved women. Many gained freedom through service, fighting in colonial militias, or self-purchase. Many others came from northern states or Haiti during its revolution.10

At the beginning of the Civil War, according to contemporary reports, most free blacks were mixed-race and/or light-skinned, whereas most of those enslaved were darker-skinned. To help themselves maintain control, New Orleans whites aggressively furthered the notion of a distinct “third caste” of people composed of free mixed-race people. Stringent color-class lines were accented to ensure that free blacks and slaves, the lighter-skinned and darker-skinned, often remained at odds.11 By law the lighter-skinned free person was barred from mingling with those enslaved.12 Whites encouraged the color-class distinctions to maintain firm white dominance of both African American groups.

The numerous free blacks in antebellum New Orleans, many holding reputable professions, made the city’s racial landscape uniquely diverse. Free people of color had some entitlements that distinguished their legal status above that of the enslaved, such as the right to marry and pass wealth to heirs. Free blacks often had private schools and segregated militias but their freedom was tenuous.13 They were expected to defer to whites, usually not allowed to vote, could not legally marry whites, and had to obtain the mayor’s permission before leaving the city. They were required to give service to the white community, serving as city police and slave patrollers. In addition, no blacks could expect to receive justice from police or courts.14 Firm segregation was enforced locally in New Orleans well before the advent of post-Reconstruction Jim Crow laws. Theaters, hospitals, streetcars, restaurants, hotels, and cemeteries excluded people of color or kept their facilities segregated.15

Well-off white men courted free black women at “quadroon balls,” and concubine-like relationships would often result.16 Perhaps most frequently occurring were white men’s unwanted sexual advances on enslaved women. This situation for black women was acknowledged by a Louisiana court in 1851 when it declared: “the female slave is peculiarly exposed to the seductions of an unprincipled master.”17 However, rape of enslaved women was more than an act of a few “unprincipled masters,” for over one-quarter of those enslaved in 1860 were officially counted as light-skinned or “mulatto.”18 By the time Reconstruction began, more people in both the “white” and the “black” populations had ancestors in the other racial group than in any other U.S. city. Yet despite the long history of white-black sexual linkages, interracial marriage was a wholly different matter to most whites, who opposed the practice vehemently.19
Race and Class during Reconstruction

During Reconstruction, from the late 1860s to the 1880s, newly emancipated African Americans saw some improvement in their access to U.S. and New Orleans’s politics, public accommodations, and education. However, most still faced harsh conditions, a type of “near slavery” without the chains. Morbidity and mortality rates were extremely high compared to whites, and life expectancies were ten years less. A few black professionals in New Orleans were able to advance, but most blacks were severely hampered from economic advancement because of recurring depressions in New Orleans’s economy, as well as pervasive racial discrimination. Unemployment was endemic and ensured that the few labor unions formed by black workers were weak.20

In public discourse whites almost unanimously favored complete racial segregation, while blacks desired integration in public facilities. Local white-owned newspapers were staunch defenders of white supremacy and frequently referred to African Americans as “niggers,” “darkies,” and “sambos.” In 1874 the New Orleans Bulletin boldly stated: “The white race rules the world—the white race rules America—and the white race will rule Louisiana—and the white race shall rule New Orleans.” Newspapers advocated violence as a means of maintaining the subordination of all blacks, no matter their class position.21

During the Reconstruction era, many African Americans argued for integrated schools, but most whites were violently opposed for the sake of maintaining white supremacy. A mass meeting of whites declared in September 1875 that “the compulsory admixture of children of all races, color and condition in the schools, in the same rooms and on the same benches, is opposed to the principles of humanity, repugnant to the instincts of both races, and is not required by any provision of the laws or constitution of this State.”22

Racial equality and integration have been hotly contested throughout New Orleans’s history, and organized white violence in stopping it has been commonplace. For example, in 1874, Canal Street, still one of the city’s main thoroughfares, was the site of the largest street fight in U.S. history. Dubbed the “Battle of Liberty Place,” 3,500 armed, white supremacist White League members attacked the newly-elected Republican and black-led government, displacing them until federal troops were able to restore order. The insurgents got what they wanted three years later, when the national “Compromise of 1877” allowed Klan-type terrorist groups to restore the former slaveholding oligarchy back to power across the South.23

Throughout the South, white terrorist groups typically had the full support of this white elite. In 1891 the white New Orleans City Council even ordered a monument erected on Canal Street commemorating these successful white supremacist attacks. The monument became highly controversial as the city’s black constituency and political leadership grew over the next century. However, it took years of trying by the city’s first two black mayors, elected in 1978 and 1986, to get it removed. Unfortunately, a weak “compromise” was reached with white supremacists and preservationists to have the monument relocated to a less visible spot merely one block away.24 White supremacy trumped equality-and-justice values once again, as the city’s whites maintained their dominant position of economic and political power.

Jim Crow New Orleans

By 1890 formal “separate but equal” statutes were written into Louisiana state law. In the century following the end of Reconstruction, New Orleans was completely dominated by supremacist whites in wealth and power. White flight from Orleans Parish (city of New Orleans) to surrounding suburbs started after the Second World War. Post-war prosperity facilitated the draining of the Jefferson Parish swamp, land soon converted to suburbs. New neighborhoods quickly filled with middle-class and working-class whites, most from Orleans Parish. Blacks were barred from moving there by economic constraints and blatant discrimination from white realtors. By 2000 very few blacks lived in the East Bank Jefferson Parish area.25

A federal marshal driving first grader Gail Etienne to McDonogh 19 school in New Orleans, November 14, 1960, one of four black children who entered two previously all-white schools in the city. Times-Picayune photo.

Decades of consistent white flight led to a major demographic shift. Between 1950 and 2000, the city of New Orleans lost almost two-thirds of its white population. Following national trends of white movement from cities to suburbs, between 1960 and 2000, the city went from 37 percent to 67 percent black. Some public housing projects had been white-occupied during legal segregation, but when housing segregation was outlawed, whites departed and blacks moved in.26

Sidewalk protest in New Orleans over school integration, November 15th,1960.

Even prior to school desegregation, public schools in southern Louisiana were underfunded because many Catholics sent their children to parochial schools and preferred not to pay public school taxes. Affluent white Protestants opened their own private schools. This private school system functioned as a gatekeeper for admission to the city’s ruling elite. The Brown v. Board of Education (1954) integration order solidified the plight of New Orleans public schools. National media covered angry white mobs in New Orleans reacting to federal-ordered desegregation in the late-1950s. Affluent whites with children in Orleans Parish public schools transferred them to private institutions or moved to whiter neighborhoods. Suburban Jefferson Parish developed a busing system that ensured a high white-black ratio in schools there.27
Ruby Bridges being escorted into school, November 1960.

Much white flight was enacted so white children could attend white schools. Whites’ fear that New Orleans’s public schools would be ruined by desegregation turned into a structural reality because of their staunchly racist actions. In a city where many (especially white) residents have been so proud of its supposedly “good racial relations,” it is notable that New Orleans’s demographic shifts and violent white resistance to black progress mirrored other racially tumultuous cities. In terms of well-institutionalized, white-on-black racism, New Orleans has consistently shown itself to be a typical southern city.

Contemporary Pre-Katrina New Orleans

Many analysts have argued that, among New Orleans whites, racist attitudes have been milder than in the rest of the South because of the Creole heritage and earlier easygoing attitude of the French and Spanish residents toward racial mixing. Yet, this imagery is full of white fictions and misrepresentations. Economic and political power has always been held primarily by the white elite and a handful of their chosen lighter-skinned black colleagues. In the 1970s blacks were nearly half the city population, yet held less than five percent of the highest leadership positions.28 The elite circle of white power was very difficult to crack well into this century. In fact, in the 1990s civil rights activists had to press hard even to desegregate the secretive Mardi Gras krewes and social clubs, into which a few black millionaires were finally, and reluctantly, admitted.29

Substantially grounded in oil, petrochemical, and fishing industries between the 1940s and the 1980s, the economy of the New Orleans area turned to a more tourist-oriented industry after the oil bust of the 1980s and the related economic downturn. Oil executives moved and took offices and capital with them. New Orleans had few manufacturing jobs to take up the slack. Tax revenues plummeted and unemployment increased. The black poor felt the decline hardest; most were unable to leave for better work opportunities. By 1990 unemployment among black men was 11 percent—more than double the rate for whites—and those who were able to keep jobs were often poorly paid.30 Thirteen percent of residents were employed in the relatively low-wage food and accommodations industry, compared with 9 percent of all workers nationwide. Total service jobs represented 26 percent of all jobs and paid an average of only $8.30 per hour.31 Industries such as shipping and oil and gas extraction, which pay above-average wages, accounted for relatively little employment when Hurricane Katrina hit in summer 2005.32

New Orleans always had one of the highest proportions of African Americans of all large cities, but it had, until recent decades, been one of the least geographically segregated. By 2000, however, with yet more white flight, disinvestment in public schooling, and the outmigration of decent-paying jobs, the city became more segregated than ever, and the inequities between rich and poor were as extreme as at any time since slavery.33

Two-thirds of pre-Katrina New Orleans was black, while just 28 percent was white. It was the sixth-poorest large U.S. city, with more than one in four residents living below the official poverty line.34 Four in ten black families were in poverty, the highest rate for black urbanites nationwide. Graver still was the fact that the majority of the poor scraped by on incomes of less than half the official poverty level.35

The city’s public schools were in horrific shape, even in comparison to the rest of Louisiana, which ranks third lowest for teacher salaries in the country. The public school system served poor whites better than poor blacks; poor white children were less likely to attend schools in areas of concentrated poverty. High school drop-out rates were very high, and over half of black ninth graders were projected to not graduate in four years. Upon finishing or dropping out of school, many young black men wound up at Angola Prison, a correctional facility located, ironically, on a former slave plantation where inmates still perform manual farm labor like their enslaved ancestors—and where many eventually die.36

Structural Barriers to Rebuilding New Orleans

This was the state of New Orleans’s poor (who were primarily black) and African American (who were primarily poor) residents when devastating Hurricane Katrina made landfall on August 29, 2005. After one day, major levees were breached, and parts of the city lay under deep water. Thousands had been unable to evacuate. As commentators scrambled to offer explanations, much reaction consisted of aggressive finger pointing, most initially directed at local and state governments or at black residents themselves.

Despite many (mostly white) commentators’ and onlookers’ tendency to lay blame on residents’ character or intelligence for not abiding by the mandatory evacuation notice, race and class conditions linked to past racial oppression were major determining factors in whether people were able to evacuate. Comparisons between poor whites and poor blacks in New Orleans got little publicity but clearly showed that poor whites were much better off overall. For example, only 17 percent of poor whites lacked access to a car, while nearly 60 percent of poor blacks did.37 Evacuees themselves frequently said the reason they did not leave prior to the hurricane had to do with lacking resources, yet few white officials or media pundits valued their voices.38

The city of New Orleans had a population of over 478,000 in the 2000 Census. As of March 2006, New Orleans’s post-Hurricane-Katrina population stands at far less, about 155,000. Approximately 125,000 homes remain damaged and unoccupied. Many months have passed, and an estimated 80 percent of former black residents remain scattered across the country with no clear way home. Such a large proportion of the black population is gone that some radio stations are switching from funk and rap to soft rock.39 Commentators of various political persuasions predict that a smaller, whiter, more affluent New Orleans will be created in the future, with thousands of poor black residents who survived the flooding staying dispersed across the country.

Many former residents of the city will never return, simply because they do not have the resources to do so. A 2006 report by the Bring New Orleans Back Commission predicts that, by 2009, just over half of the city’s population will have returned, and even fewer from its disadvantaged population.40 However, polls indicate that the desire of residents to return to their home city is strong, but many simply do not have the resources to rebuild, or, because over 50 percent were renters, will be severely limited in their housing choices if they return.41 According to a Gallup poll, 53 percent of black residents reported they lost everything, compared with only 19 percent of whites.42 However, these numbers are likely much higher, especially for the poor black constituency, because the poll only contacted residents with an active New Orleans telephone number!

New Orleans residents who owned homes in the most devastated, usually black neighborhoods fear that their property will be taken and resold. A recent Supreme Court decision set a precedent for that. The 2005 Kelo vs. City of New London (Conn.) case upheld the right of city governments to seize land for private economic development. In a new form of “ethnic cleansing” local, mostly white, developers will likely gain former black land at very low prices and, in doing so, rid the city of many modest income neighborhoods, and thus modest income people, for many years to come.43

The Bring New Orleans Back commission report claimed that the “heart of the matter” regarding city revitalization was to rebuild neighborhoods, to bring people back, and to attract new residents, claiming, “The Committee wants everyone to return and new people to come.”44 However, behind its welcoming words to former residents are no strong assistance measures actually to get them back and help them rebuild. Instead, the report puts the onus on poor people to return and become financially stable, which the governing elite that wrote the report knows will not happen. Joseph Canizaro, wealthy developer and head of the Commission’s urban planning committee, has stated: “As a practical matter, these poor folks don’t have the resources to go back to our city just like they didn’t have the resources to get out of our city. So we won’t get all those folks back. That’s just a fact.”45 Further, various economic barriers have been put into place that hamper progress in rebuilding for the city’s moderate-income black residents. These include the rejection of a majority of loan applications from local businesses and homeowners by the Small Business Administration and government channeling of construction and service contracts to outsider businesses.46

Ideological Barriers to Rebuilding

Structurally, the reality of moving back and rebuilding neighborhoods and infrastructure seems grim and unlikely for a majority of the black former residents. Social death looms large once again for the black population. The loss of families, homes, and communities on such a large scale is reminiscent of the devastating effects that the antebellum New Orleans slave pens symbolized for African Americans. As sympathies wane across the country for these hurricane victims, their plight is increasingly uncertain. Home, in New Orleans neighborhoods, whether impoverished or not, provided a support network and a strong sense of community. Providing the labor of the economy and the lifeblood of the city, this core of moderate-income and poor black citizens fostered pride and spirit unique to the Big Easy that welcomed 10 million tourists each year.

However, many, primarily white, Americans have been unable or unwilling to empathize with these relatively poor black New Orleanians. This social distance became apparent at the onset of the disaster. An incident that occurred in the first days on a bridge connecting New Orleans with the community of Gretna is telling. Due to dwindling resources, New Orleans police had directed a group of about 200 evacuees to make the two-hour trek on foot across the bridge to Gretna, a white-majority suburb on the west bank. They were met by warning gunshots from Gretna police officers. The black evacuees explained that “we were told by the deputies…that [they] were not going to allow a Superdome to go into their side of the bridge….So to us, that reeks absolute racism, since our group that was trying to cross over was women, children, predominantly African American.”47

At a trip to a Houston arena shelter, Barbara Bush, the elder president Bush’s wife, made a comment that reflected a lack of empathy for the hardest-hit hurricane victims and the stark social distance separating whites from blacks generally: “So many of the people in the arena here, you know, were underprivileged anyway, so this—this (she chuckles slightly) is working very well for them.”48 Some out-of-touch whites convinced themselves that the poor, black evacuees, without even resources to afford a hotel room, were better off after the hurricane than before. This kind of flippant reaction to suffering by thousands reveals the deeper dynamic of alienating racist relations, where racist notions have for centuries impeded empathy, understanding, and solidarity across the great American color line.

To make matters worse, in the wake of the arguably most traumatic event in their lives, black hurricane victims faced racism in their personal treatment. Interviews with forty-six evacuees at Houston’s Reliant Park shelter showed that being black was central to evacuation experiences. Several evacuees reported being discriminated against by members of the primarily white police, support, and volunteer staffs. Significantly fewer reported having experienced what they perceived to be class discrimination, because of their poverty.49

Thousands of survivors were homeless, many lost contact with family, and some were treated badly by white staff. Additionally, over 1,300 people died in Louisiana as a result of Katrina, most from flooding in New Orleans.50 Thousands more remain missing. The majority lived in Orleans Parish. However, at an early stage and even later, commentators and journalists were quick to deem the hurricane a race- and class-neutral force, asserting that badly flooded neighborhoods were not just black and poor, or that a disproportionate number of the identified bodies were white. Downplayed too was the fact that most of the hundreds of unidentified and unidentifiable bodies had been retrieved from poor, almost entirely black neighborhoods.51

Does Black New Orleans Have a Future?

As the months proceed, sympathies for displaced poor, black New Orleanians wane. A recent survey showed the sentiment of Houston residents toward the 150,000 Louisiana evacuees (the largest of any U.S. city) to have grown quite negative. The Houston Area Survey showed that nearly half the residents questioned in early 2006 thought that the impact of the evacuees had been a “bad thing” for Houston. Representative John Culbertson, a Republican, referred to New Orleans evacuees as “deadbeats” and summed up his constituency’s feelings: “If they can work, but won’t work, ship ’em back. If they cause problems in the schools, if they commit a crime, there ought to be a one-strike rule —ship ’em back.” As of March 2006, Culbertson was attempting to add such a provision to pending legislation.52
The Houston Area Survey showed that two-thirds of Houstonians thought Louisiana evacuees had caused a “major increase in violent crime.”53 The crime rate indeed increased following the hurricane, but only a little; and only a minor part of that increase could be attributed to the often desperately poor New Orleanians.54 Sweeping generalizations about a “criminal element” from New Orleans simply do not apply to the vast majority of evacuees. In Houston alone, there are major economic benefits brought by the new residents. These families have contributed to double-digit sales tax revenue increases, spurred the housing market, and brought $150 million in loans from the U.S. Small Business Administration.55

Mainstream media portrayed poor African Americans who did not evacuate New Orleans as criminals from the first days. Many media-fueled notions—such as rampant looting, shooting at rescuers, and countless rapes in the convention center—turned out to be unsubstantiated and false. Still, many media outlets continue, months after the hurricane, to vilify the displaced and characterize them generally as criminals or deviants. An article in City Journal, which touts itself as responsible journalism and “the nation’s premier urban-policy magazine,” titled one recent article “Katrina Refugees Shoot Up Houston.” The article refers to a “uniquely vicious New Orleans underclass culture of drugs, guns, and violent death,” explaining that “it’s bad news for cities like Houston, which inevitably must struggle with the overspill of New Orleans’s pre-Katrina plague of violence.”56

These grossly overstated, often inaccurate, representations play upon white notions of the combination of blackness and poverty being pathological—crime-for-crime’s-sake, inner-city, ruthless gang violence. Most of all, the white-washed images are of young black men dedicated to committing crimes against innocent bystanders and civilized (white) society generally. These images mask a long history of racial oppression and, disturbingly, mirror crazed white notions of black inferiority that have proliferated since Reconstruction.57

Fish killed during Hurricane Rita in the Gulf of Mexico in 2005.


Even now, these powerful tools of white racism are used to justify racial inequality and perpetuate the still fundamental racist relations of the United States. Under the watchful eyes of white elites, New Orleans and the United States generally, have developed structurally over fifteen generations now to maintain these alienated and alienating racist-relations in major societal institutions. In this manner, white elites, as well as rank-and-file whites, have kept a large proportion of our African American citizens in unjust poverty—with chronically underfunded schools, diminished job opportunities, and limited housing choices. This unjust impoverishment takes place within a continuing framework of well-institutionalized racism, which provides most whites with the current benefits and privileges coming from many generations of unjust enrichment. In the history of most U.S. cities and rural areas, whites have imposed racial oppression so long and so often that it has long been a foundational and undergirding reality routinely shaping both the racial dynamics and the class dynamics of U.S. society.

Today, as in the past, systemic racism encompasses many negative realities, including the reality that the white majority has only rarely attended to the pained voices and racism-honed perspectives of black Americans. The Katrina catastrophe, at least for a short while, forced white America to hear and listen to some of those impassioned and insightful black voices. These voices often expressed views, albeit in the language of everyday survival, similar to those we develop here.

In the future, only by attending carefully to the perspectives of oppressed Americans can the United States ever expect to see improvement in the direction of real democracy. Attending well to those perspectives will enable us to understand that the survival of the United States, and indeed of humanity, requires us to see and act beyond the boundaries of our own racial group and social class interests. Just before his assassination by a white man, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote that all human beings live in a “great world house,” in which we must find a way to go beyond individual selfishness and group dominance: “From the time immemorial human beings have lived by the principle that ‘self-preservation is the first law of life.’ But this is a false assumption. I would say that other-preservation is the first law of life precisely because we cannot preserve self without being concerned about preserving other selves.”58 [source:  Monthly Review, "Hurricane Katrina: The Race and Class Debate," by Kristen Lavelle and Joe Feagin ]


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