by Gerald Boerner
Over the years, I have had the opportunity to visit New Orleans to attend educational conferences and other meetings. Who could ever forget having café au lait and beignets at the Café du Monde? Or walking down Bourbon Street on Halloween night in front of the wild parade? And there were always the street cars going down Canal Street, the luxurious mansions, and the barely habitable homes in the 9th Ward. New Orleans is an incredible city as well as an incredible trip back to a former time in our country’s history.
It was founded in 1718 and named after the King, the Duke of Orleans. It was a major port due its position at the junction of the Mississippi River and the Gulf of Mexico. We also remember the famous battle that occurred following the signing of the peace treaty that ended the War of 1812. So much history is found on these streets.
But then, in August of 2005, Hurricane Katrina hit the city. The levees broke and the city flooded. Destruction of property and lives were found all around the city. FEMA was late to respond, and the federal administration failed to respond with appropriate priority.
But the city is recovering — slowly and intermittently. Let’s just hope that this great city with a memorable past will once again delight us with its magic. GLB
[ 3638 Words ]
“And I wound up in New Orleans for all those years and it was a great place, really a catalyst creatively.”
— Jimmy Buffett
“Creole is New Orleans city food. Communities were created by the people who wanted to stay and not go back to Spain or France.”
— Paul Prudhomme
“And we live in a French Quarter a lot of the time, in New Orleans. And the camaraderie of everybody there. Everybody takes care of each other.”
— Delta Burke
“Coltrane came to New Orleans one day and he was talking about the jazz scene. And Coltrane mentions that the problem with jazz was that there were too few groups.”
— Branford Marsalis
“I have been robbed of three million dollars all told. Everyone today is playing my stuff and I don’t even get credit. Kansas City style, Chicago style, New Orleans style hell, they’re all Jelly Roll style.”
— Jelly Roll Morton
“About fifteen miles above New Orleans the river goes very slowly. It has broadened out there until it is almost a sea and the water is yellow with the mud of half a continent. Where the sun strikes it, it is golden.”
— Frank Yerby
“And if citizens of New Orleans who are really contemplating coming back heard that we’re really intent upon making the place secure again – regardless of whether the levees held or not – then I think a rebuilding process would really take shape.”
— Billy Tauzin
“I certainly wanted to write a book that was honest about New Orleans without explaining it to death, so much so that the first draft contained references absolutely incomprehensible to anyone who hasn’t lived here for several years.”
— Poppy Z. Brite
New Orleans: A Touch of France in America
New Orleans is a major United States port and the largest city and metropolitan area in the state of Louisiana. The New Orleans metropolitan area, (New Orleans–Metairie–Kenner) has a population of 1,189,981, the 46th largest in the USA. The New Orleans – Metairie – Bogalusa combined statistical area has a population of 1,360,436 as of 2000.
The city is named after Philippe d’ Orléans, Duke of Orléans, Regent of France, and is well known for its distinct French Creole architecture, as well as its cross cultural and multilingual heritage. New Orleans is also famous for its cuisine, music (particularly as the birthplace of jazz), and its annual celebrations and festivals, most notably Mardi Gras. The city is often referred to as the "most unique" city in America.
New Orleans is located in southeastern Louisiana, straddling the Mississippi River. The boundaries of the city and Orleans Parish (French: paroisse d’Orléans) are coterminous. The city and parish are bounded by the parishes of St. Tammany to the north, St. Bernard to the east, Plaquemines to the south and Jefferson to the south and west. Lake Pontchartrain, part of which is included in the city limits, lies to the north and Lake Borgne lies to the east.
Beginnings through the 19th century
La Nouvelle-Orléans (New Orleans) was founded May 7, 1718, by the French Mississippi Company, under the direction of Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne de Bienville, on land inhabited by the Chitimacha. It was named for Philippe d’Orléans, Duke of Orléans, who was Regent of France at the time. His title came from the French city of Orléans. The French colony was ceded to the Spanish Empire in the Treaty of Paris (1763) and remained under Spanish control until 1801, when it reverted to French control. All of the surviving 18th century architecture of the Vieux Carré (French Quarter) dates from this Spanish period. Napoleon sold the territory to the United States in the Louisiana Purchase in 1803. Thereafter, the city grew rapidly with influxes of Americans, French, Creoles, Irish, Germans and Africans. Major commodity crops of sugar and cotton were cultivated with slave labor on large plantations outside the city.
The Haitian Revolution of 1804 in what was then the French colony of St. Domingue established the second republic in the Western Hemisphere and the first led by blacks. Haitian refugees, both white and free people of color (affranchis or gens de couleur libres), arrived in New Orleans, often bringing slaves with them. While Governor Claiborne and other officials wanted to keep out more free black men, French Creoles wanted to increase the French-speaking population. As more refugees were allowed in Louisiana, Haitian émigrés who had gone to Cuba also arrived. Nearly 90 percent of the new immigrants settled in New Orleans. The 1809 migration brought 2,731 whites; 3,102 free persons of African descent; and 3,226 enslaved refugees to the city, doubling its French-speaking population. Many of these white francophones were deported by officials in Cuba in response to Bonapartist schemes in Spain.
During the last campaign of the War of 1812, the British sent a force of 11,000 soldiers in an attempt to capture New Orleans. Despite great challenges, the young Andrew Jackson successfully cobbled together a motley crew of local militia, free blacks, US Army regulars, Kentucky riflemen, and local privateers to decisively defeat the British troops, led by Sir Edward Pakenham, in the Battle of New Orleans on January 8, 1815. The armies were unaware that the Treaty of Ghent had ended the war on December 24, 1814.
As a principal port, New Orleans played a major role during the antebellum era in the Atlantic slave trade. Its port handled huge quantities of commodities for export from the interior and imported goods from other countries, which were warehoused and then transferred in New Orleans to smaller vessels and distributed the length and breadth of the vast Mississippi River watershed. The river in front of the city was filled with steamboats, flatboats, and sailing ships. Despite its dealings with the slave trade, New Orleans at the same time had the largest and most prosperous community of free persons of color in the nation, who were often educated and middle-class property owners.
Dwarfing in population the other cities in the antebellum South, New Orleans had, consequently, the largest slave market. Two-thirds of the more than one million slaves brought to the Deep South arrived via the forced migration of the internal slave trade. The money generated by sales of slaves in the Upper South has been estimated at fifteen percent of the value of the staple crop economy. The slaves represented half a billion dollars in property, and an ancillary economy grew up around the trade in slaves — for transportation, housing and clothing, fees, etc., estimated at 13.5 percent of the price per person. All of this amounted to tens of billions of dollars (2005 dollars adjusted for inflation!) during the antebellum period, with New Orleans as a prime beneficiary.
According to historian Paul Lachance, “the addition of white immigrants to the white creole population enabled French-speakers to remain a majority of the white population until almost 1830. If a substantial proportion of free persons of color and slaves had not also spoken French, however, the Gallic community would have become a minority of the total population as early as 1820.” Large numbers of German and Irish immigrants began arriving at this time. The population of the city doubled in the 1830s and by 1840 New Orleans had become the wealthiest and third-most populous city in the nation.
The Union captured New Orleans early in the American Civil War, sparing the city the destruction suffered by many other cities of the American South.
In the 1850s white Francophones remained an intact and vibrant community, maintaining instruction in French in two of the city’s four school districts. As the Creole elite feared, however, this changed with the Civil War; in 1862 French instruction in schools was abolished by Union general Ben Butler, and teaching of the language was forbidden in schools in 1868. By the end of the 19th century French usage in the city had faded significantly, although as late as 1945 one still encountered elderly Creole women who spoke no English.
During Reconstruction New Orleans was within the Fifth Military District of the United States. Louisiana was readmitted to the Union in 1868, and its Constitution of 1868 granted universal manhood suffrage. Due to the state’s large African American population, many blacks held public office. In 1872, then-lieutenant governor P.B.S. Pinchback succeeded Henry Clay Warmouth as governor of Louisiana, becoming the first non-white governor of a U.S. state, and the last African American to lead a U.S. state until Douglas Wilder’s election in Virginia, 117 years later. In New Orleans, Reconstruction was marked by the horrible Mechanics Institute race riot (1866) but also by the successful operation of a fully racially-integrated public school system. Meanwhile, the city’s economy struggled to right itself after practically grinding to a halt upon the declaration of war in 1861, the nationwide Panic of 1873 conspiring to severely retard economic recovery.
Reconstruction ended in Louisiana in 1877, and white southern Democrats, the so-called Redeemers, succeeded in stripping power from the Republican Party and gradually circumscribing the only recently-acquired civil rights of African Americans. In New Orleans, the public schools were resegregated and remained so until 1960.
New Orleans’ large community of well-educated, often French-speaking free persons of color (gens de couleur libres), who had not been enslaved prior to the Civil War, sought to fight back against the incipient forces of Jim Crow. As part of their ongoing campaign, they recruited one of their own, Homer Plessy to test whether Louisiana’s newly-enacted Separate Car Act was constitutional. Plessy duly boarded a commuter train departing New Orleans for Covington, Louisiana, sat in the car reserved for whites only and was arrested. The case spawned by this incident, Plessy v. Ferguson, was heard by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1896. The court, in finding that "separate but equal" accommodations were constitutional, strengthened by effectively consecrating the already-underway Jim Crow movement. The ruling was a key development in the nadir of race relations reached during this period.
New Orleans reached its most consequential position as an economic and population center in relation to other American cities in the decades prior to 1860; as late as that year it was the nation’s fifth-largest city and by far the largest in the American South. Though New Orleans continued to grow in size, from the mid-19th century onwards, first the emerging industrial and railroad hubs of the Midwest overtook the city in population, then the rapidly growing metropolises of the Pacific Coast in the decades before and after the turn of the 20th century, then other Sun Belt cities in the South and West in the post-World War II period surpassed New Orleans in population. Consequently, New Orleans has periodically mounted attempts to regain its economic vigor and pre-eminence over the past 150 years, with varying degrees of success.
By the mid-20th century, New Orleanians were observing with concern that the city was even ceding its traditional ranking as the leading urban area in the South. By 1950, Houston, Dallas and Atlanta had surpassed New Orleans in size, and 1960 witnessed Miami’s eclipse of New Orleans, even as New Orleans’ population was recorded as reaching its historic peak by the 1960 Census. Like most older American cities in this period, New Orleans’ center city commenced losing inhabitants, though the New Orleans metropolitan area continued expanding in population – just never as rapidly as its metropolitan peers in the Sun Belt. While the port remained one of the largest in the nation, automation and containerization resulted in significant job losses.
The city’s relative fall in stature meant that its former role as banker and financial services provider to the South was inexorably supplanted by competing companies in its now-larger peer cities. New Orleans’ economy was always more of a trade-based, commercial entrepot than manufacturing powerhouse, but the city’s smallish manufacturing sector also shrank in the post-World War II period. Despite some economic development successes under the administrations of DeLesseps "Chep" Morrison (1946–1961) and Vic Schiro (1961–1970), metropolitan New Orleans’ growth rate consistently lagged behind the more vigorous Sun Belt cities.
During the later years of Morrison’s administration, and for the entirety of Schiro’s, the city struggled to digest the ramifications of the legal enfranchisement of its sizable African-American population. New Orleans was very much at the center of the Civil Rights struggle. The SCLC was founded in the city, lunch counter sit-ins were held in Canal Street stores, and a very prominent and ugly series of confrontations occurred when the city attempted school desegregation, in 1960. That episode witnessed the first occasion of a black child attending an all-white elementary school in the South, when six year-old Ruby Bridges integrated William Frantz Elementary School in the city’s Ninth Ward.
The Civil Rights movement’s success in realizing the desegregation of public facilities and schools, and the enfranchisement of the black voter, constituted the most significant event in New Orleans’ 20th century history. Though legal equality was established by the end of the 1960s, a yawning gap in income levels and educational attainment persisted between the city’s white and black communities. The effects of this gap were amplified by accelerating white flight, as the city’s population grew poorer and blacker. New Orleans’ political leadership, from 1980 onwards firmly in the hands of its African-American majority, struggled to narrow this gap by creating conditions conducive to the economic uplift of the black community.
New Orleans became increasingly dependent on tourism as an economic mainstay, arguably fatally so by the administrations of Sidney Barthelemy (1986–1994) and Marc Morial (1994–2002). Unimpressive levels of educational attainment, high rates of household poverty and rising crime became increasingly problematic in the later decades of the century, with the negative effects of these socioeconomic conditions newly amplified as the United States economy increasingly rested upon a post-industrial, knowledge-based paradigm where brains were far more important than brawn.
The turn of the 20th century witnessed one of the earlier episodes in the ongoing series of energetic recommitments to jump-starting economic growth on the part of New Orleans’ government and business leaders. The most portentous development during this period was a drainage plan devised by engineer and inventor A. Baldwin Wood and designed to break the surrounding swamp’s stranglehold on the city’s geographic expansion. Until then, urban development in New Orleans was largely limited to higher ground along the natural river levees and bayous. Wood’s pump system allowed the city to drain huge tracts of swamp and marshland and expand into low-lying areas. Over the 20th century, rapid subsidence, both natural and human-induced, left these newly-populated areas several feet below sea level.
New Orleans was vulnerable to flooding even before the city’s footprint departed from the natural high ground near the Mississippi River. In the late 20th century, however, scientists and New Orleans residents gradually became aware of the city’s increased vulnerability. In 1965, Hurricane Betsy killed dozens of residents, even though the majority of the city remained dry. The rain-induced flood of May 8, 1995 demonstrated the weakness of the pumping system. After that event, measures were undertaken to dramatically upgrade pumping capacity. By the 1980s and 90s, it was worrisomely clear that extensive, rapid and ongoing erosion of the marshlands and swamp surrounding New Orleans especially that related to the Mississippi River – Gulf Outlet Canal had left the city far more exposed to hurricane-induced catastrophic storm surges than it had ever before been in its history.
New Orleans was catastrophically impacted by the failure of the Federal levee system during Hurricane Katrina in 2005. By the time the hurricane approached the city at the end of August 2005, most residents had evacuated. As the hurricane passed through the Gulf Coast region, the city’s federal flood protection system failed, resulting in the worst civil engineering disaster in American history. Floodwalls and levees constructed by the United States Army Corps of Engineers failed below design specifications and 80% of the city flooded. Tens of thousands of residents who had remained in the city were rescued or otherwise made their way to shelters of last resort at the Louisiana Superdome or the New Orleans Morial Convention Center. Over 1,500 people died in Louisiana and some are still unaccounted for. Hurricane Katrina called for the first mandatory evacuation in the city’s history, the second of which came 3 years later with Hurricane Gustav.
A Little Background on Hurricane Katrina
Hurricane Katrina of the 2005 Atlantic hurricane season was the costliest natural disaster, as well as one of the five deadliest hurricanes, in the history of the United States. Among recorded Atlantic hurricanes, it was the sixth strongest overall. At least 1,836 people lost their lives in the actual hurricane and in the subsequent floods, making it the deadliest U.S. hurricane since the 1928 Okeechobee hurricane; total property damage was estimated at $81 billion (2005 USD), nearly triple the damage wrought by Hurricane Andrew in 1992.
Hurricane Katrina formed over the Bahamas on August 23, 2005 and crossed southern Florida as a moderate Category 1 hurricane, causing some deaths and flooding there before strengthening rapidly in the Gulf of Mexico. The storm weakened before making its second landfall as a Category 3 storm on the morning of Monday, August 29 in southeast Louisiana. It caused severe destruction along the Gulf coast from central Florida to Texas, much of it due to the storm surge. The most severe loss of life occurred in New Orleans, Louisiana, which flooded as the levee system catastrophically failed, in many cases hours after the storm had moved inland. Eventually 80% of the city and large tracts of neighboring parishes became flooded, and the floodwaters lingered for weeks. However, the worst property damage occurred in coastal areas, such as all Mississippi beachfront towns, which were flooded over 90% in hours, as boats and casino barges rammed buildings, pushing cars and houses inland, with waters reaching 6–12 miles (10–19 km) from the beach.
The hurricane protection failures in New Orleans prompted a lawsuit against the US Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) the builders of the levee system as mandated in the Flood Control Act of 1965. Responsibility for the failures and flooding was laid squarely on the Army Corps in January 2008, but the federal agency could not be held financially liable due to sovereign immunity in the Flood Control Act of 1928. There was also an investigation of the responses from federal, state and local governments, resulting in the resignation of Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) director Michael D. Brown, and of New Orleans Police Department (NOPD) Superintendent Eddie Compass. Conversely, the United States Coast Guard (USCG), National Hurricane Center (NHC) and National Weather Service (NWS) were widely commended for their actions, accurate forecasts and abundant lead time.
Nearly five years later, thousands of displaced residents in Mississippi and Louisiana are still living in trailers. Reconstruction of each section of the southern portion of Louisiana has been addressed in the Army Corps LACPR Final Technical Report which identifies areas not to be rebuilt and areas and buildings that need to be elevated.
Other Events on this Day:
French Colonists founded New Orleans, named for Philippe II, the Duke of Orleans.
The Tom Thumb of the B$O Railraod loses a race to a horse.
The fierst practical seeding machine is patented by Joseph Gibbons of Michigan.
The Allies liberate Paris after four years of Nazi occupation.
Photos send by the Voyager 2 spacecraft reveal the complex structure of the rings surrounding Saturn.
Dates and events based on:
William J. Bennett and John Cribb, (2008) The American Patriot’s Almanac Daily Readings on America. (Kindle Edition)
Background information is from Wikipedia articles on:
Wikipedia: New Orleans…
Wikipedia: Hurrican Katrina…
Brainy Quote: Orleans Quotes…