‘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!