THE NEUTRAL GROUND
new orleans’ canal street as a venue of racial conflict and social change
The idealized history of Canal Street conjures images of grand department stores, magnificent movie palaces, luxury hotels, and the site of the crescendo of every major Mardi Gras parade. While not as rosy, nostalgic, and marketable, the more significant history of Canal Street actually lies with its role in the cultural and racial division of New Orleans making the site a rich tapestry of bloody Reconstruction era conflicts and significant Civil Rights demonstrations at lunch counters and movie theatres. For decades Canal Street was the central artery of New Orleans; it is only fitting that the corridor represents the best the city has to offer – the rollicking pomp and circumstance of Mardi Gras – and the worst – a complicated history of racial discrimination and cultural discord that is still felt today. Canal Street began as a fortification designed to protect the Vieux Carré, became a cultural barrier between Francophone and Anglophone culture in the newly American New Orleans, morphed into a racial dividing line between black and white, playing host to both violent conflicts and peaceful protests that are now mere footnotes in most histories of the Canal Street corridor – a true illustration of race relations in America – before settling into its current role as what many people jokingly refer to as “America’s Largest Crosswalk.” The preservation of the important social justice movements, events, and protests that enlivened the corridor in addition to the glitzy commerce and entertainment histories of Canal Street are essential in creating a more dynamic and robust understanding of Canal Street’s role in the cultural development of New Orleans.
The Canal Street corridor is located on a land parcel once known as “The City Commons.” This parcel housed an earth and timber palisade with five equally spaced forts to protect the core of the city, what is now the French Quarter or the Vieux Carré. The fortified palisades were constructed along where Canal Street, North Rampart Street, and Esplanade Avenue are roughly located today. After the Louisiana Purchase of 1803, the land was gifted by the United States government to the Marquis de Lafayette. However, after much objection from the city, the United States ceded the land to New Orleans. By 1809, city surveyor Jacques Tanesse began developing a plan to remove all of the fortifications and convert the upriver side of the fortification into a 170-foot-wide canal; the canal was never realized and a grand boulevard aptly named Canal Street was constructed in its place.[i]
Following the Louisiana Purchase, thousands of Anglo-Americans migrated to New Orleans in search of economic opportunity in the lucrative port city. As native French Creole New Orleanians were reluctant to assimilate to American culture and Anglo-American newcomers sought to anglicize the Creole way of life in New Orleans, relations between the two groups were fraught with tension. In 1836, the Creole-American ethnic rivalry reached a fever pitch and New Orleans was divided into 3 municipal districts with Canal Street acting as the barrier between the Creole First Municipality and the Anglo-American Second Municipality. The broad grassy median on Canal Street was under technically under the jurisdiction of both the Creole First or the Anglo Second, rendering care and maintenance the responsibility of the extremely ineffective general council. The term neutral ground first appeared in reference to the extremely poor condition of this median in the March 11, 1837 edition of the Times-Picayune; by 1852, neutral ground was used to refer to medians throughout the city. Today, New Orleanians still share the origin story of the colloquialism framed with hyperbolic framing of the Creole 1st and Anglo 2nd’s adversarial attitude toward one another. The Creole First Municipality included not only the French Quarter, but also the Tremé neighborhood, which housed the majority of New Orleans’ free people of color population. The intense animosity between the Creole First Municipality and the Anglo Second Municipality stemmed in part from racial bias between white Anglo-Americans and Creole Free People of Color. The neutral ground on Canal Street came to represent this conflict rendering it the ideal central meeting place for a myriad of gatherings, protests, and marches.[ii]
One of the more infamous Reconstruction Era racial grievances came to an ugly head on Canal Street in a bloody confrontation between the White League, a white supremacist paramilitary company with the goal of intimidating black and white progressives out of public office, and the Metropolitan Police, which at the time was a majority black police force. On September 14, 1873, the White League, led by General Frederick N. Ogden planned an 11 a.m. rally at the Henry Clay monument on Canal Street which would act as a “Trojan horse” for the White League to undermine Governor William Pitt Kellogg’s Republican Reconstructionist regime. Dozens of Metropolitan Police, Louisiana State Militia, and members of the White League were left dead or wounded in the streets of New Orleans. While the Street Battle of 1874, also known as the Battle of Liberty Place, did not produce the successful coup d’etat that the White League hoped for, it did make a significant impact on the dismantling of Reconstruction Era policies that facilitated greater racial equality in New Orleans.[iii] In 1891, the White League erected a 35-foot stone obelisk, now known as the Liberty Monument, to commemorate the White League soldiers who died during the Battle of Liberty Place at the foot of Canal Street. The monument in and of itself became a visual manifestation of the racial tensions that collided on Canal Street. In 1932, city leaders added an inscription to the monument that declared the battle a “victory of white supremacy.” Then in 1974, a plaque was added to clarify that the inscription no longer represented the attitudes of New Orleanians, and in 1993, the monument was relocated from its prominent location on Canal Street to a small grassy patch on Iberville Street near a parking garage.[iv] Finally, at 2:00am on April 24, 2017, the Liberty Place Monument was dismantled and removed; the first of four prominent Confederate monuments in New Orleans to be removed following the Charleston church shooting. Workers wore bulletproof vests and were protected by police snipers while they dismantled the obelisk under cover of darkness due to threats of violence. [v]
Canal Street’s role as the epicenter of retail in New Orleans was solidified by the mid-century. While many regard this era as the heyday of Canal Street, it is impossible to view solely through rose colored glasses. The corridor’s strict segregation and adherence to Jim Crow laws made shopping on Canal Street a precarious practice for the black community. “You kind of knew as you grew up where you had to go,” said Dr. Raphael Cassimere, the president of the NAACP Youth Council from 1960 to 1966, “You had a mental map because if you were in the wrong place and you needed to use the restroom or needed a drink of water, you couldn’t use it.” Sybil Morial, an Xavier University administrator shared her families strategies for shopping on Canal Street: “When I was growing up it was rigid segregation and we couldn’t go to any of the restaurants. There were lunch counters in the back of the stores, in Woolworth’s, Grant’s, and McCrory’s. It was always a practice in our house that before we went shopping we had to be sure we had enough to eat. I think my mother tried to protect us from any insults or bad incidents.”[vi]
There is a common misconception that New Orleans’ race relations were leaps and bounds ahead of the rest of the South during the Civil Rights Movement. This myth was perpetuated by the city’s mayor at the time, deLesseps Story “Chep” Morrison. In the spring of 1960 after students at Dillard University took part in an on-campus demonstration to protest racial segregation, Morrison maintained that New Orleans had “good race relations” and that white government officials strove to “create and maintain a climate for the realization of greater economic opportunity…within the framework of existing State laws and customs.” [vii] This was not the case. While Morrison was progressive in that he actively cultivated black leaders in New Orleans, invested in black neighborhoods, and encouraged the hiring of blacks for the city’s police and fire departments, he upheld that efforts to dismantle segregation laws were doing “a dis-service to the community in general and to the well-being of the Negro population in particular.” [viii]
In 1960, Canal Street would become the frontline for Civil Rights demonstrations to end racial segregation in all privately and publicly owned places: stores, lunch counters, public parks, transit, city-owned facilities, etc. The eponymous Canal Street “Neutral Ground” would once again play host to a clash of cultures and ideology regarding race relations. In July 1960, two Southern University students, Oretha Castle and Rudy Lombard, founded the New Orleans chapter of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE). Castle and Lombard were first exposed to activism during the successful campaign to integrate the workforces of Dryades Street corridor stores, which were owned by whites and frequented by blacks. By the summer of 1960, only one Dryades area store continued to refuse to hire blacks for anything other than menial jobs. Following the successful Dryades Street protests, Civil Rights leaders turned their attention to integrating Canal Street. On September 9, 1960, seven CORE members staged the first locally organized sit-in at the Woolworth’s department store lunch counter. All seven demonstrators were arrested. The following day, the NAACP Youth Council began picketing Woolworth’s. Mayor Morrison responded to the protests by invoking new state trespassing law and the New Orleans police chief maintained that the demonstrators did not represent “the intelligent thinking Negroes or whites of the community.” On September 17, 1960, CORE members Rudy Lombard, Sydney Goldfinch, and Oretha Castle demonstrated at McCrory’s department store on Canal Street. After this demonstration, the black community of New Orleans began to publicly support the students. All the while, the NAACP continued facilitating negotiations with Woolworth, Kress, and Grant to end segregation in their stores.[ix] The April 1961 issue of the CORE-lator shared the progress of New Orleans CORE members on the Canal Street picket line. The lead article is an account from a McCrory’s picketer who shares her experience utilizing nonviolence during a heated confrontation. The author was arrested two days after the article was written for “obstructing traffic” and six other New Orleans CORE members were arrested for picketing Woolworth’s and McCrory’s on Canal Street.[x] By July 1964, an integration agreement had been reached with 25 downtown retail establishments, including Krauss, one of the big five department stores. The remaining four of the big five, Holmes, Maison Blanche, Marks-Isaac, and Sears, refused to integrate until the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act required that they do so.[xi] The site of the first Canal Street sit-in, the Woolworth’s building at the corner of North Rampart Street and Canal Street was demolished in 2014. Plans to build an 18-story, 350 room Hard Rock Hotel were announced in February 2018. There are no plans to commemorate the site’s significant role in the New Orleans Civil Rights movement.[xii]
Oretha Castle served as the chairwoman of New Orleans CORE from 1961 to 1964. During her tenure CORE began to picket theatres and public facilities to achieve desegregation. One of her most effective demonstrations took place at the Loew’s State Theatre. Beginning in November 1963, New Orleans CORE had been picketing three Canal Street theatres to integrate their facilities. As there had been no significant progress by March 1964, New Orleans CORE began to develop innovative ways to get their integration demands noticed. On Good Friday, 1964 a group of CORE members arrived at the ticket window of the Loew’s State Theatre and attempted to purchase tickets. As each member was turned away, they stepped back and linked hands around the ticket booth, forming a “Freedom Ring” around the box office. When the police tried to make the group disperse they sat down, hands still joined. Each demonstrator was promptly arrested for “obstructing passage” or “refusing to move on.” The dramatic imagery of the “Freedom Ring” was so effective that the Liston-Clay prizefight to be shown at the Loew’s State was moved to the municipal auditorium.[xiii] Tactics resembling the “Freedom Ring” are still used in civil rights demonstrations today. On March 23, 2018 in response to the killing of Stephon Clark, an unarmed black man, by police in his grandmother’s backyard, Black Lives Matter demonstrators linked arms around the Sacramento Kings’ Golden 1 Center to draw attention to the tragedy. The Sacramento Kings played to an empty arena and the protest garnered national attention.[xiv] Despite its significant role in the New Orleans Civil Rights movement, demolition of the Loew’s State Theatre was proposed in April 2018. While a city ordinance requires that the façade remain in-tact, there is no preservation protection for the interior – the most character defining feature of the building. A hotel developer is proposing a nine-story building with 132 rooms behind the Loew’s State Theatre façade, completely breaking with the historic use of the building and removing the in-tact box office on the riverside of the building.[xv]
In the case of Canal Street, preservation is not just about the physical built environment of the department stores, theatres, and hotels; it is about the corridor’s role in the social justice history of New Orleans. The most character defining feature of Canal Street is the social change that occurred in this grand community gathering space, from the popularization of the “only-in-New Orleans” term neutral ground to the department store sit-ins and the movie theatre “freedom rings.” The rich history of Canal Street gives us pause to contemplate race relations in New Orleans today. It begs us to consider not only how far we’ve come but how much we still have left to do. It is crucial that we preserve the social justice history of Canal Street to serve as a reminder of the errors of our past and to inspire us to be better in the future.
[i] Peggy Scott Laborde and John Magill, Canal Street: New Orleans Great Wide Way, Gretna, LA: Pelican Publishing Company, 2006, p. 21 – 23.
[ii] Richard Campanella, Cityscapes of New Orleans, Baton Rouge, LA: Louisiana State University Press, 2017, p. 16 – 24.
[iii] James K. Hogue, Uncivil War: Five New Orleans Street Battles and the Rise and Fall of Radical Reconstruction, Baton Rouge, LA: Louisiana State University Press, 2006, p. 116 – 143.
[iv] Andrew Vanacore, “Among contested New Orleans monuments, Liberty Place marker has always been a battleground,” The New Orleans Advocate, April 14, 2017.
[v] Beau Evans, “Removal of the first of four New Orleans Confederate monuments begins with Liberty Place,” The Times – Picayune, April 24, 2017.
[vi] Peggy Scott Laborde and John Magill, Canal Street: New Orleans Great Wide Way, Gretna, LA: Pelican Publishing Company, 2006, p. 115 - 117.
[vii] Adam Fairclough, Race & Democracy: The Civil Rights Struggle in Louisiana, 1915 – 1972, Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 1999, p. 216 – 217.
[viii] Glen Jeansonne and David Luhrssen, "Chep Morrison," In knowlouisiana.org Encyclopedia of Louisiana, edited by David Johnson, Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities, 2010, article published August 23, 2013, http://www.knowlouisiana.org/entry/chep-morrison. and Adam Fairclough, Race & Democracy: The Civil Rights Struggle in Louisiana, 1915 – 1972, Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 1999, p. 217.
[ix] Adam Fairclough, Race & Democracy: The Civil Rights Struggle in Louisiana, 1915 – 1972, Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 1999, p. 217 – 220.
[x] James Farmer and Jim Peck, editor. CORE-lator, April, 1961, Connie Harse Papers, Box 1, Folder 2, Amistad Research Center, Tulane University.
[xi] Adam Fairclough, Race & Democracy: The Civil Rights Struggle in Louisiana, 1915 – 1972, Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 1999, p. 216 – 225.
[xii] Richard Thompson, “Plans Unveiled for Hard Rock Hotel, New Orleans: 18 floors, 350 rooms on Canal Street,” The New Orleans Advocate, February 15, 2018.
[xiii] Doris Castle, “Freedom Ring Encircles Ticket Booth,” CORE-lator, March-April, 1964, John O'Neal Papers, Box 10, Folder 13, Amistad Research Center, Tulane University.
[xiv] Darran Simon, Sonya Hamasaki, and Madison Park, “Protesters block NBA arena over fatal Sacramento police shooting,” CNN, March 23, 2018.
[xv] Kevin Litten, “Hotel developer proposes demolition of State Palace Theatre, but will keep façade,” The Times – Picayune, April 24, 2018.