‘Separate but equal’ in 7th Ward New Orleans

The Seventh Ward of New Orleans was the quintessential Creole ward in New Orleans. It was like a city within the city of New Orleans.

A Big Old Pot o Gumbo from Easy Creole (easycreole.com)

The community of the Seventh Ward in the 1950s was a closely knit one, characterized by rituals, large families, family activities, shared values, common foods, common religion, and an extraordinary desire for upward mobility. There was hardly any reason to go outside of that community for anything!

Within twenty years after the 1954 Supreme Court decision striking down the “separate but equal” doctrine in education, and subsequent actions to eliminate “separate but equal” housing, etc., the Creole population of the Seventh Ward began to migrate within the boundaries of New Orleans (outside of the Seventh Ward) and also began to adapt to new ways of thinking, reflecting the change in thinking of blacks and whites throughout the country. Families moved to New Orleans East where lovely subdivisions were built. Concurrent with desegregation in New Orleans and the expansion of housing for the black middle class was the construction of Interstate 10 in the 1970s. The community in New Orleans most affected by I-10 was the Creole community of the Seventh Ward, as the commercial corridor mainly on Claiborne Avenue, which included many businesses owned or run by Creoles, was basically desecrated. This business center was virtually eliminated, as was the neutral ground with the beautiful oak trees where my family parked on Mardi Gras day to watch the “happenings.” The Seventh Ward and the concentrated Creole community and culture were clearly sacrificed to make way for I-10. So, for at least twenty years prior to Hurricane Katrina, there were limited vestiges of the Seventh Ward of New Orleans that I knew as a child and young adult.

Many of the Creoles before and during the 1950s were adamant about not being colored or white; they did not want to be black and they did not want to be white. Before the Jim Crow laws, they appeared to be comfortable in their own “race,” neither black nor white, and where they defined who belonged and who didn’t. Although many of the past generations of Creoles had their own language (Creole), parents of my day did not teach this language to their children, as some of them associated the Creole language with the uneducated or undereducated Creoles. They wanted my generation to master the King’s English. Consequently, my generation of relatives and friends did not learn the language.

The people of the Seventh Ward, when I was a child, were usually very warm and friendly with each other but tended to be more reserved and somewhat distant with those from other areas of the city or from elsewhere. In fact, some Creole parents wanted their children to play only with children from the Seventh Ward because they generally knew their parents or relatives. They did not seem to trust others, and some of those feelings were seriously tied to skin color. In the Creole community, the younger generation knew that they had better not marry someone who lacked the Creole heritage or the Creole look! That was punishable by at least family ostracism!

Writing About Life Before the Hurricane

I was initially motivated to write a book in the latter part of the 1980s about my fifth-grade teacher because she was an excellent teacher, and her characteristic qualities as a teacher and the strategies she used in the classroom could be beneficial for parents and educators, as they have been most beneficial to me as a student, parent, and educator. But, during the next fourteen to sixteen years, there was no apparent time to seriously write because of job, family, and community interests and concerns that seemed to take every moment of my time.

Shortly after the opening of the new millennium, I began to think about the book again, focusing on the possible effects that my fifth grade teacher had on my classmates.

Valena C. Jones School Building in Seventh Ward New Orleans

After talking with and learning more about my classmates and the factors they thought most important to their development, my interest for the book shifted to the impact of the teachers at Valena C. Jones School (our elementary school), our parents, our classmates, our culture, our principals, and our community on our success in life and on the paths we selected. Special consideration in this book is given my fifth grade teacher because she greatly impacted my life.

Although I had been jotting down thoughts for this book for several years, I didn’t really get started on it in a serious manner until after Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans on August 29, 2005, three months after I attended activities in New Orleans celebrating the fortieth anniversary of my graduation from Dillard University.

Hurricane Katrina attacked New Orleans almost two weeks short of the fortieth anniversary of my leaving the city for graduate school at Howard University in Washington, DC. I left New Orleans a few days after Hurricane Betsy hit in 1965, at which time hurricane waters had not yet receded in all sections of the city. Following Hurricane Katrina, I knew New Orleans would never be the same, and I wanted to focus and capture in writing the New Orleans of my formative years.

Crowning of Jacques Girls in 1944

I began planning the content for the book and talked with close relatives and friends about my plans. I developed a list of interview questions, selected a somewhat diverse group of classmates (initially 6) and subsequently interviewed twelve of my elementary school classmates who unselfishly helped to capture a period in the history of New Orleans and of the Creoles of color in the Seventh Ward as well as the engendering culture of my city during the 1950s. They relived the education and cultural experiences during that period. Many of my classmates interviewed have also contributed to an understanding of the evolution of the Creoles of color into the broader culture of African Americans as we learned to be accepting of and acceptable to the larger culture. I am most grateful that my classmates dug deep into their memories and were free and open in sharing their lives.

As a senior citizen, I feel free and compelled to share the many positives and some negatives of my Creole culture and educational experiences and of those of my classmates.

We noted with delight that our teachers in grade school, parents, and principals — all African Americans — valued education during racial segregation in the south; they set high standards for student achievement and believed that the students could reach those standards. They set standards of performance for the common good, and they believed that we could become good citizens and rewarded us for doing so.

Those beliefs and the experiences provided by the teachers and principals and supported by our parents helped to produce competitive individuals in all walks of life who serve their communities with distinction. Many of our parents were not formally educated; however, they were steadfast in supporting the education of their children.