People and Places of the Civil Rights Movement in New Orleans:
St. James A.M.E: A Study in Courage, Commitment And A Cause

Raphael Cassimere Jr.
Seraphia D. Leyda Emeritus-Professor of History, UNO

A Lecture for the Louisiana Landmarks Society, at Historic St. James AME, October 16, 2014

“The Civil Rights Movement” is an oft used, but frequently misunderstood term. There is ongoing debate about its origin, place, and participants. Many date the movement from the late 19 fifties to the end of the sixties; others identify a definite post world War II origin; while a few insist that the modern civil rights movement had its beginning at the end of the so-called roaring twenties. The focus of tonight’s lecture will probably not settle those debates, but I have long advocated that a civil rights movement, especially here in Louisiana, predates Louisiana’s statehood, but underwent periods of dormancy; while in other times there were fervent activities. We can trace a movement in New Orleans, at least as far back as the 1805 Demand of the free black community for full citizenship rights, and their subsequent fight throughout the pre-Civil War period to enjoy the same privileges and responsibilities that whites took for granted. Time will not permit a full panoramic discussion of the movement, but I will basically limit my discussion to one specific group, Historic St. James A.M. E. Church.

Not surprisingly, St. James A.M.E. Church is older than this grand old building which bears its name. Its pedigree stretches backs for many centuries. It’s very name, St. James, is rooted in antiquity. St. James was one of Christ’s closest friends and favorite disciple, who along with his brother, John, were called the “sons of thunder.”There have been varying attempts to define this appellation, but the one I choose is “fiery preacher.” And because St. James was a fiery spokesman for Christ, it eventually cost him his life. At the order of King Herod, James, became the first apostle to be martyred. Similarly, most of the pastors of St. James AME were in that class; fiery leaders who led from the front, even at the risk of suffering personal danger.

Protest and martyrdom was at the core of the founding of St. James’s parent organization, the African Methodist Episcopal Church. Unlike many black Americans of its time these men of color proudly identified with Africa. The Free African Society which they formed in 1793 was in response to growing racial segregation within the Methodist Church. One of its founders, Richard Allen, became the first bishop of the successor organization, the AME church. From its inception it encouraged its churches to be actively involved in both secular and spiritual activities in their communities. Of utmost importance was the AME’s insistence that the whole community included free and unfree black people.

But the church’s suspected involvement in two major slave conspiracies forced it out of most Southern communities. In 1822 Bishop Morris Brown an early leader in Charleston, was forced to relocate to Philadelphia because many whites feared that the black Methodists had been involved in the Denmark Vesey Rebellion which may have involved as many as 7 or 8 thousand slaves, and a number of free blacks, as well. The AME’s strong anti slavery sentiments made it attractive to many black Southerners such as those in New Orleans, but as the shadow of the Civil War appeared, few Southern communities welcomed it within their borders.

Prior to the antebellum a number of black Methodists regularly attended services at St. Paul Methodist Church in Faubourg St Mary in the “American” sector of New Orleans. Both free and unfree African Americans attended services, although on a segregated basis. Slaves often attended church along with their masters. By the early forties local black Methodists had now become numerous enough to warrant their own independent congregation. In 1844 a group of ten free black men, led by Rev. Charles Doughty, a blacksmith, rented land on the Corner of Villeré and Bienville Streets, on the uptown side of Faubourg Treme which housed an increasing number of both Creole and Anglo black New Orleanians who were employed in skilled and unskilled jobs created by the many businesses located near the bustling Basin Canal.

Over the next four years they built an impressive neo Gothic structure a few blocks away in the area that had become known as “Back of Town.” Located on Roman Street the new church was situated very close to the city’s two main thoroughfares, Claiborne Avenue, the major artery which was designed to connect New Orleans to the adjacent parishes of Jefferson and St. Bernard, and Canal Street which was designed to run from the river to the lake. Much of the construction of St James was done by its own parishioners, some who had gained a foothold in carpentry, brick masonry, and plastering. Anyone who watched the progress was impressed that this new building would last a long time.

While St. James’s founders had enjoyed earlier support from white Methodists, they decided to affiliate with the national AME church. This decision may have been influenced, at least in part, by a recent division of the national Methodist Church into two separate churches as Northerners and Southerners could not resolve their differences over slavery. Had the black members remained under the governance of the white Methodists, they would have existed in a patron-client relationship that would have offered some protection from white officials, but probably restricted their independence. That independence allowed them to quickly organize new churches such as Morris Brown and Trinity.

On October 6, 1848 the pastor and officers received a charter from the state to legally operate as a church, but for free blacks only. The new church had to decide if it would be true to the teachings of it parent body, or to the state. Perhaps they remembered the words of the Apostle James and the other apostles, “we ought to obey God rather than men.” The police frequently stopped and challenged worshipers to determine their legal status. The church was required to hire a constable to attend and observe its services to prevent slaves from attending, or to prevent anti slavery agitation. The second pastor, Rev. John M. Brown, a well-educated Northerner, was arrested several times for continuing to admit slaves into services. Eventually, in 1858 local authorities closed the building. The courts rejected the congregation’s argument that their first amendment rights had been abridged. In 1859 the state supreme court ruled, “the African race are strangers to our constitution and they are subject of special, exceptional legislation.” In other words, no black, free or unfree had any rights that whites were bound to respect.

Not only black Methodists, but all black Louisianians witnessed a continual diminution of civil rights. In 1850 the state prohibited free blacks from forming any religious organizations or secret societies, such as Masonic lodges, or private clubs. During the 1850s the legislature banned all further migration of free blacks into the state, and ordered those without specific authorization, to either leave, or risk re-enslavement. Moreover in 1857 a new state law banned any future emancipation of slaves, and in 1859 authorized and encouraged free blacks to voluntarily re-enslave themselves with an option to choose their own masters! These hostile actions directed against the black communities had an unintended, but also an unexpected effect. The state’s efforts to restrict free people of color out of fear that it would have a negative effect on slaves, actually undermined efforts of the free black class to maintain and function as a separate community apart from slaves.

On the other hand, the forced exclusion of free blacks from the white community allowed free blacks to become more self-sufficient, more self-reliant, more assertive, and more self confident. By continually reminding free black people that they were more black than free, ironically, it forced more interaction between free blacks and their unfree black brethren. Eventually the disappointment of a privileged free black class provided it with an opportunity to help develop and lead an entire black race. For many free blacks, especially some of the parishioners of St. James, these were not lost years, but a period that they could liken to the ancient Jews’ wilderness years where Israel became a nation prior to entering into the Promised Land. Similarly, by the end of the Civil War, instead of two separate tiers of black people, there would be one common black race, led by the wealthiest and best educated black people on the continent.

Undaunted by the closing, the St. James congregation, although locked out of their own building, attended services at other black congregations. However, after the fall of New Orleans to Union forces in 1862, St James successfully petitioned to reopen and welcomed new members including : Oscar Dunn, Caesar A. Antoine and his brother F. C. Antoine and Thomas Isabell. Later during Reconstruction all four served in the state government. Dunn and Caesar Antoine served as Lt. Governors. P. B. S. Pinchback, who served briefly as the state’s first black governor, and F. E. Dumas were also frequent visitors to the Church. It became a hub of activities as it hosted Union officials who recruited black soldiers and provided meeting space for civic leaders who supported the Union and black suffrage. Church leaders also provided assistance to newly freed slaves, especially those who began to pour into the city from the country side. They partnered with white officials who sought to hire day laborers. They also helped to prevent former slaves who were suspected of being runaways from being returned to slavery. In 1865 in recognition of its expansion and influence, the national church created the Louisiana Conference of the AME at St James, which served as the new state conference’s headquarters.

One of St. James’s biggest post-war fight was internal. Prior to emancipation, the church, at least its first pastor, had welcomed slaves, most probably as welcomed guests, not full members. After the church’s reopening, it rejected membership for recently freed slaves. The pastor tried to overrule the trustees led by Jacob Norager, a native of Copenhagen, Denmark. Apparently, Norager and a significant number of members were uncomfortable with the lack of education and refinement of many new freedmen. Instead, they persuaded the church to purchase two adjacent lots to build a separate church for the freedmen. This was unacceptable to the bishop because the national church advocated full membership for all.

However because the state charter had vested full authority in the pastor and congregation, Norager and 12 dissidents sued the bishop and the pastor but both the district and the state supreme court ruled in favor of the national church. This caused many of the dissidents to withdraw and most affiliated with the nearby Morris Brown AME, which later changed affiliations and became Central Congregational Church.

The Reconstruction years were very active years for the church. A large number of members of the church were Prince Hall Masons. One of the most prominent Masons was Oscar Dunn who became Grand Master of the Lodge and later the state’s first African American Lt. Governor in 1868. A former slave who had been freed as a child, Dunn received a good education and found success both as an actor, violinist, and a carpenter. Near the end of war, he became an outspoken supporter of universal male suffrage and public education for all former slaves. He opened an employment agency to help freedmen make the adjustment from slavery to freedom.

In 1868 Dunn was elected Lt. Governor on the ticket headed by Governor Henry C. Warmoth. Dunn was a key supporter of the state’s Civil Rights Act of 1869 which banned discrimination in public accommodations such as hotels, restaurants, street cars, and railroads. Many of the black legislators, especially, those from New Orleans, remembered the humiliation of standing in inclement weather as the streetcars by-passed them. Unfortunately their legislative victory was short-lived as the United States Supreme Court overturned the law less than a decade later.

As Lieutenant Governor Dunn held a number of prominent positions. These included: President of the Metropolitan Police with an annual budget of a million dollars. One of his fellow parishioners from St. James, James Lewis, was made superintendent of the metro police department. Dunn also headed the legislature’s committee on printing which doled out as much as one million dollars to friendly printers, especially those newspaper publishers who supported the Republican Party. Dunn parted company with Governor Warmoth whose racist actions helped to divide the party. He was rumored to be the choice of the national Republicans to replace Warmoth as their candidate for governor in 1872. However, his sudden death on November 21, 1871 brought his mercurial career to an end.

The Dunn Funeral was perhaps the earliest and one of the most historic moment for the Church. The local newspapers described the solemnities in great details. Dunn, who even his fiercest critics conceded was “incorruptible” was given a send-off befitting of a great leader. Local newspapers described in great details the funeral procession from his home on Canal Street, less than two blocks from the church. Literally thousands lined the streets around the church before services began. Formal church services were preceded by full Masonic rites. The public officials from the governor on down helped to form a mile long procession to St. Louis Cemetery #2 where he was laid to rest. For many years there were rumors that the Lt. Governor had been poisoned. A visit to Dunn’s sick bed by the governor helped to fuel the rumors. However, Mrs. Dunn, was satisfied that her husband had died from pneumonia and she declined to support demands for an official autopsy.

Dunn died at the zenith of black progress during Reconstruction. Although black leaders held on to political power for another decade or so, increasing resistance from conservative whites bolstered by conservative rulings from both state and federal courts made it hard to go further. Basically, black leaders spent most of the rest of the century trying to hold on to earlier hard-won gains.

The church’s geographic location, as well as the inclusion in its membership of a number of prominent black leaders, made it one of the leading black Protestant churches in the state. It opened its doors to political, civic, fraternal, and educational organizations. St James welcomed the city’s first black affiliate of the YMCA and it served as the temporary site of the Bienville School, later renamed for Albert Wicker, a trustee of the church. The 4th Ward Republicans remained active long after they had any true political significance. However, even after most black men had lost the right to vote, black leaders continue to protest and petition.

During the last decade of the 19th century, St James and other black churches encountered new opposition as white solidarity gave way to white supremacy which correspondingly lessened black political influence. In 1890 the state passed the first of its racial segregation laws, the separate car act which required segregated seating on railroads cars. Members of St. James, including James Lewis, actively supported the challenge of Homer Plessy to the law, but in 1896 the US high court ruled that public facilities for the races could be separate as long as they were equal. Subsequent to the passage of the separate car act, the legislature required segregation on the street cars in New Orleans. Eventually racial segregation was extended to practically every area of public contact, including theaters, circuses, jail houses and even whore houses! At the turn of the century none of the state’s public high schools enrolled a single black student. In fact in 1900, the Orleans Parish School Board eliminated grades six through eight. Sadly, for many black New Orleanians, the 20th century opened with almost as little promise as the 19th century had opened for their forebears a century earlier.

For early 20th century parishioners of St. James, their church was a memory bridge. Intentionally or not, its location placed it close to the heart of the city. It was not far from Straight College a few blocks away on Canal Street. A number of Straight students regularly worshiped at St James, some who had seen President William McKinley when he visited their campus in 1901. Only a block away from Claiborne Avenue, it was near the center of black Mardi Gras celebrations Some of the children who grew up in St James during the first half of the 20th century knew well some older parishioners, who correspondingly had known Oscar Dunn, or P.B. S. Pinchback, and James Lewis. To these young people lessons on Negro History was not an educational abstract, but a living reality.

Several of my own elementary school teachers were St. James Parishioners. They related talking to older church members who actually knew black public officials. They spoke with pride and engendered in us a sense of appreciation for the accomplishment that the race had achieved despite adversities. I remember Mrs. Ernest Black Tillman and Mrs. Annette Minor Leonard, two of our teachers at Macarty Elementary School, talking about the role of earlier black local leaders such as Walter Cohen and Thomy Lafon. These, and other teachers spoke glowingly about conversations they had heard from parents, or older church members, about historic events such as Booker T. Washington’s 1915 visit to New Orleans, and the reception held for him within blocks from the church. I remember in 1955, the year after the Supreme Court’s ruling that segregated schools were unconstitutional, our annual school festival was centered around important black leaders such as Mary McLeod Bethune, Thurgood Marshall, Roy Wilkins and the “who’s who” in black music, sports and entertainment.

I remember the first time I visited St. James. It was in early 1961 and was the staging area for a march that Rev. Avery C. Alexander had called in response to Mayor Morrison’s attempt to stop these “silly acts that most colored people don’t support.” When I arrived in front of the church, I was more impressed with the exterior than the relatively small number of marchers. Still, we made the trek to City Hall, a little more than a half mile away. As we neared City Hall, walking two by two we picked up reinforcements, some who were relieved that we had not been arrested. Upon our return to St James, there were a few informal addresses from different community leaders and we adjourned for the day.

In the Spring of 1963 we used this same parish hall in preparation for implementing “The Dallas Plan.” This plan was crafted by the Citizens Committee to begin desegregation of public accommodation in the largest hotels, department stores and chain stores, such as Woolworth, Walgreen’s and Kress. “The citizens Committee” was a bi-furcated committee of an equal number of black and white community leaders. Harry McCall and Harry Kellerher represented white businesses and Lolis Elie and Revius Ortique represented black leaders. The two groups always met separately but communicated through their respective leaders. They adopted the plan that had been used successfully in Dallas, which had won an NFL franchise after desegregating its major facilities. Many local business leaders began to identify the progress made by other sister southern cities such as Houston and Dallas, and later, Atlanta, in attracting professional sports franchises, while professional sports in New Orleans continued to decline, largely because of a state law which forbade integrated sports matches.

“The Dallas Plan” called for groups of “testers” to seek services from select places and if there were no problems, the same business would be visited twice more. However, during the interim the status quo, segregation, would remain. After the third visit, if there were no problems then those places, would be desegregated for the general public, but no general announcement would be made. CORE, the NAACP, Consumers League and the Interdenominational Alliance recruited volunteers to carry out the plan.

At the first meeting, in St James’ Parish Hall we were addressed by Rev. B. Elton Cox, a young Congregational minister who first served as an NAACP youth organizer, but most recently as a CORE Field Secretary. In 1962 he had been convicted of inciting a riot in Baton Rouge and spent more than a 100 days in jail before his release on bond in February, 1963. Rev. Cox was soft-spoken but a gifted speaker. He assured the testers, most of whom were teenagers, that they were doing God’s work, and they had to be willing to suffer to carry out work for the Lord, But he admonished that his own personal suffering had made him stronger. He led us in singing “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing,” at that time often called, “The Negro National Anthem.” He and several other ministers offered prayers and a very highly motivated group of testers went out to complete their assignment. Upon our return to St James we compared our experiences.

Most of the testers did not know the full details of the plan. For example, I was sent to the stand-up lunch counter at Sears in Gentilly. I did not know the young woman with whom I was partnered. We had cokes and sandwiches and everything went well and we were out of there after an hour. That same night, we held our regular NAACP Youth Council meeting and decided to visit the nearest Katz and Besthoff, (later KB, now Rite Aide) on Esplanade and Broad. Because different testers had gone to various KB stores earlier that day, we assumed that everything was now open.

The waitress hesitated to serve us, but called for the manager, who informed us that we were not supposed to come back until next week. We told him that we didn’t know what he was talking about. (We really didn’t!) In any case we were served without incident. In fact, as far as I can remember there were no problems during the next series of tests. Sometimes individual employees went rogue, such as at a Walgreen’s on Carrollton and Airline when the waitress closed all of the curtains around us, and after we finished eating, we could hear her breaking the dishes in the kitchen. We responded by ordering more food and this time we left no tip. She broke the dishes, and I later wrote to the manager and informed him how much we enjoyed our visit, and if he didn’t mind his waitress breaking the dishes, neither did we, and we would return for future visits. He wrote a nice letter of apology and promised us that this waitress would not be there.

Little did we know it but this parish hall would soon become a second home as it became our headquarter for a selective buying campaign led by our youth council against nearly 40 stores on Canal Street and the Downtown Shopping District. The boycott lasted for 747 days. I named it the 747 Days Revolution which lasted from July 25, 1963 to August 12, 1965. We assembled at St. James in the morning and walked to Canal Street and Rampart where assignments were given. When we started we had less than a dozen active members of the NAACP Youth Council, but initially we were supported by CORE and the Consumers League. After the first day, we got little support from either, but everyday we picked up individual members, including a number of youth members from St. James. The immediate past pastor, Otto Duncan, then a student a Dillard also joined us.

Contrary to popular beliefs we didn’t get paid to picket. Most of our pickets were too young to work. The average age was about 16. Some of us were college students, some high school and we had quite a number who were elementary school students. Of course there were many adults; some who had been in the fight for a long time. I’ll never forget young housewives such as Madalyn W. Cochrane, Lorraine Poindexter Ambeau, and Margaret Cloud, who paid babysitters so they could come out to picket. We had a rule for those who picketed for 4 hours: we would pay your bus fare and pay for a hamburger and a soft drink for a total cost of 50 cents. A number of persons only picketed one time. Many picketed full time in the summer of 1963. Thereafter picketing was sporadic.

Because I was the president I was there all the time, sometimes alone, most of the time with our Senior Advisor, Llewelyn J. Soniat. Soniat would leave the picket line to go to work at the post office until 1 Am and then come back to the picket line the next morning. His wife, and son and daughter, often joined him on the line. Sometimes he would be so weary he’d go to sleep on his knees while saying his prayers. Some time well-wishers, black and white would give us a few dollars, but most of our funds came from our own fund-raisers. The most successful ones were our annual dances where we could net as much as $1500.00.

When we began I had only spoken with St. James' pastor, Rev. Gerald Hayden, once. In retrospect I’ve often wondered if he sought support from his trustees. As many days as we used the hall, we must have utilized a large amount of electricity, but we were never asked for a dime. I don’t know if the church ever received threats of bombings or burning, However, the pastor, and as far as I know the officers, were unwavering in their support. When we first started picketing, the church office remained open until about 5, but the secretary, a Mrs. Jackson, often remained longer if we were late in returning, so we could lock and secure our signs and personal belongings in the parish hall.

Initially, the church janitor was concerned that he often had to clean up after us, but he soon became an ally. Sometimes, one of the church auxiliaries would hold functions in the parish hall, but they were always cordial and helpful and offered encouragement to us. I remember one day when we returned from Canal Street, and seemingly there were more than the usual complaints about insults and threats. Probably the biggest disappointment we faced on the picket line was to see someone we knew cross the line. This day while different members were relating some negative incident, someone starting playing the piano and we starting singing freedom songs, and before too long, everything was alright.

We naively expected the boycott to last about a week--- or two at most. The merchants proved to be more stubborn than we expected. At no time however, did St. James pressure us to leave. In fact when Rev. G. R. Haughton replaced Rev. Hayden, he quickly calmed our fears and informed us that he had just come from Jackson, Ms where he had worked with both Medgar and Charlie Evers.

Time does not permit a full recitation of that two year effort which involved hundreds of young men and women, black and white, from every part of the city, but at its conclusion, we had successfully desegregated eating and rest room facilities and perhaps as many as five hundred new jobs above the menial level had been filled by black Americans. I remembered when we announced the end of the campaign on August 12, 1965, Bill Slater of WDSU-TV stated that his station had been called out to hear the announcement of the beginning of a boycott, but this was the first time that an announcement had been made about the successful ending of one. Longtime newspaper columnist turned TV reporter, Iris Kelso expressed, surprise at the large number of jobs African Americans had gained.

Historic St. James AME played a major role in the successful conclusion of that campaign. It was not unexpected because community outreach and community service had always been a major part of its church work. However, St. James’s unique and historic place in the civil rights movement was not a solitary role. To be fair, there were others churches and organizations that played similar roles, perhaps not as long as St. James’s, but others made significant contributions to the overall success of the movement. Institutions such as Union Bethel AME and Mount Zion United Methodist Church opened their doors for important civil rights meetings and voter registration classes. I will never forget Corpus Christi Catholic Church hosting a mass meeting for the NAACP despite threats from the American Nazi Party. Actually we should thank the Nazis because they proved to be a bigger draw than our speaker, Thurgood Marshall, as there was a standing room crowd in and outside of the auditorium even though there was a continuous thunder storm the whole night. and the Claver Building were indispensable to the success of the movement.

The Claver Building provided office space for Attorneys Tureaud, Morial and Trudeau, and Earl Amedee. Younger attorneys such as former Chief Justice Bernette J. Johnson got their starts working with these legal luminaries. The NAACP and the Urban League maintained offices in the Claver Building for many years. When many church were fearful of openly identifying with the movement, we could count on a few churches to host meetings: St. John Institutional Missionary Baptist Church and St. Peter Claver Catholic Church.

While public schools were closed to civil rights activities, St. Augustine High School was always available on a moment’s notice. The Louisiana Weekly was an important ally, as was the ILA. Who can forget the role that Historic New Zion Baptist Church played in hosting the founding of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and numerous civil rights meetings over the years? When there was no room at most inns for visiting dignitaries and civil rights leaders of color, Dooky Chase was always a welcome stop. And finally for the six years I served as president of the New Orleans NAACP Youth Council, our weekly meetings at Mount Zion Baptist Church was a very important part of my life. There, I met my future wife, and 8 other young couples married their soul mates.

St James and all of these groups and individuals, too numerous to name, were ordinary groups of people who did extraordinary things. However incomplete were their successes, however lengthy is the list of remaining problems, we are the better for their efforts. Their legacy of achievements amidst adversity should not only sharpen our interests in future studies of this field, but should challenge us to renewed actions to combat old problems in new forms whether in Ferguson or St. Louis, Missouri, or Florida or California. We should always remember that with much fewer resources, they went to battle against overwhelming odds, but in the words of James Weldon Johnson, “yet with a steady beat, did not their weary feet come to a place for which their fathers sighed? For years they traveled over a way that with tears had been watered. For too long they were forced to tread through the blood of the slaughtered. Let us hope that one day we can sing with them, ‘out from the gloomy past till now we stand at last, where the white gleam of our bright star is cast.’”

To all of the people and places of the Civil Rights Movement, here in New Orleans, and everywhere, thank you!


Copyright © Raphael Cassimere Jr.


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