feature: know your black history – repression: a creative force for black americans

March 23, 2016

Repression has often created solidarity between different groups in America. In the black community and throughout the nation continuing police brutality and murder of citizens, Wall Street misconduct and racist political demagoguery have galvanized activists and communities. In the face of repressive policies, African Americans have historically opposed injustice with vigorous determination and new levels of creativity.

1830 was a turning point in American history. Nat Turner’s rebellion in Virginia, which was attributed to the appearance of the anti-slavery pamphlet the Appeal by David Walker, changed how Americans viewed slaves and free people of color. In the 1830s one-third of all legislation in the U.S. concerned the control and repression of slaves and free people of color. Free people of color, who had previously been allowed to vote, were disenfranchised in states like Virginia and Tennessee. Between 1830 and 1861 sixteen states created legislation to disenfranchise people of color. Mississippi outlawed the freeing of slaves in 1842 and banished all free people of color from the state. Even Louisiana outlawed the freeing of slaves in 1857 and even introduced legislation to confiscate the property of free people of color and re-enslave them in 1859.

Yet these repressive times galvanized black communities in Louisiana. While resisting injustice they also managed to create a dazzling new art form. 

By Nick Douglas*, AFROPUNK contributor

In the 1820s and 1830s Louisiana Creoles and free people of color began to form social clubs and benevolent societies to resist whites’ efforts aimed at diminishing their rights and prosperity. These societies also served as places where people of color could meet outside of white supervision to conduct business, agitate for civil rights and against slavery, and enjoy social gatherings. Some clubs, like the Société d’ Economie, kept meeting minutes in French until the 20th century, a clever way to disguise their plans for civil rights agitation in the South in the 1800s. These organizations quickly began to fill gaps in the social safety net, replacing public services that had been legislated away from the black community.

By 1860 Creoles and free people of color owned $15 million worth of property in New Orleans (present-day value of $415 million) but these citizens could not use any of the public schools and public facilities that their tax dollars supported. Their clubs and societies often used dances, balls, banquets and musical performances to raise money for causes within the community. For example an 1841 ball was held to raise funds for the legal battle to establish l’Institution Catholique des Orphelins Indigents, a free school for black orphans funded by former slave Marie Couvent.

In 1862 two Creole brothers, J.B. and Charles Roudanez, started L’Union, the first black biweekly newspaper in the South. The newspaper continually carried article against slavery and repression. The newspaper was published in French and English. Within two years they were forced to close the newspaper due to constant death threats from hostile whites. But in 1864 the Roudanez founded the New Orleans Tribune, the first black daily newspaper. This newspaper continued the fight against slavery and following the war, during Reconstruction, the newspaper advocated for full civil rights for people of color.

In 1890 prominent members of various social clubs and benevolent societies formed the Comité des Citoyens (Citizens Committee) to “wage legal battles against discrimination and create public sentiment against these injustices.” In 1892 the committee began to aggressively challenge segregation in public transportation using a Creole shoemaker named Homer Plessy. Numerous societies and clubs held events to raise money for the legal battle including the Société des Artisans and Le Silence. The Committee and the citizens of New Orleans brought Plessy v Ferguson all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1896.

Besides forming social clubs and benevolent societies, networks of families and friends in the tight-knit communities of the French Quarter and the Faubourg Treme had another common interest—music. Many of the early Creole and free people of color musicians were related to each other, lived with or near each other, and worked in the same trades. Creoles and free people of color performed in the same musical groups and took music lessons from the same teachers.
New Orleans had always been a musical city. During the 1800s New Orleans was known as the “Opera Capital of North America.” The French Opera House, opened in 1859, premiered many European composers in North America. Not only were there early classical European musical influences, but between 1808 and 1835 African slaves were allowed the freedom to meet in Congo Square (Place Congo) every Sunday to enjoy a day of rest and relaxation that included dancing and music. Congo Square sat at the heart of the Creole community.

Creoles and free people of color also formed musical societies for professional and amateur musicians. The Société Philharmonique was formed on the 1830s. The Theatre de La Renaissance formed in 1840 was an orchestra exclusively for Creoles of color. In the 1875 minutes of the Société d’ Economie there was a resolution put forth calling for “brass bands” to be hired for society events.

Two events in New Orleans history seemed to have significantly affected the development of jazz. First, the 1894 city segregation law forced all Creoles of color and free people of color previously living in the French Quarter— “downtown”— to move “uptown.” It forced Creoles and free people of color to sell valuable French Quarter homes that they had owned for generations for pennies on the dollar to poor whites. The second event was the 1897 vice segregation ordinance that set up the tenderloin district that would later be called Storyville, after Alderman Sidney Story who sponsored the ordinance. The black community was now zoned to include red light districts, with speakeasies, brothels, etc.

But these segregation laws had an incredible unintended consequence. The law forced two different types of music together. Classically trained “downtown” musicians began collaborating with “uptown” virtuosos, some of whom could not read music. In Storyville, brothels and speakeasies needed musicians for musical entertainment. These repressive laws became a catalyst to help create jazz.

Membership in benevolent societies and social clubs provided early jazz musicians with ready-made access to performing venues. Musical gigs entertaining in Storyville also provided performing venues. Regular performances not only provided jazz musicians with a way to supplement their income, but also fueled the development of the art form. These musical performances served as vehicles to support clubs, community organizations and common causes which became the blueprint for events like the Concert for Bangladesh and Farm Aid concerts 100 years later. Two of the societies and halls formed in the 1820s and 1830s became household names synonymous with New Orleans and jazz. They were La Loge Perseverance and Société d’ Economie et d’Assistance Mutuelle, now known as Preservation Hall and Economy Hall.

Preservation Hall – Founded in 1819

Economy Hall – Founded in 1837 by 15 free black men

Economy Hall advert—A 1909 benefit to support the Tommy Lafon Old Folks home (which still is in operation today) A dance with the Imperial Orchestra performing.

It was no coincidence that the heyday of the social clubs and benevolent societies, the 1870s through the 1920s, coincided with the end of Reconstruction and the imposition of Black Codes and Jim Crow. This same period coincided with the birth of jazz in New Orleans. The art form created out of the repression in the South exploded onto the worldwide scene in the 1920s and 1930s. Jazz became a force unto itself.

Today we have what seems like the insurmountable task of changing a criminal justice system that targets people of color for extraordinary punishment. We have rampant income and wage inequality. Racist demagoguery and violent behavior during an election cycle is being used to try to foment conflict and blame.

But as in the heyday of New Orleans’ social club activism and creativity, today groups like Black Lives Matter have been galvanized to confront and combat these evils. Coalitions throughout the country are forming activist networks and they are not being sidetracked by attempts to impose racist divisions.

The parallel of repression and racial demagoguery in present-day American and America during the formation of jazz is palpable. But Black Americans along with other Americans of goodwill have historically been able to turn repression into a source of tremendous strength and creativity. The determined cooperation and resistance of the people of color of New Orleans can serve as a powerful example to present-day America. Today’s coalitions and networks of activism are winning tools against entrenched systematic racism and injustice.

Sidney Bechet famous clarinetist and student of Lorenzo Tio Jr.

Louis Armstrong in the 1930s played with Barney Bigard and Johnny Dodds

Edmund Dede famous classical composer and musician.

Lorenzo Tio Jr. – famous clarinet player and teacher. Pupils included Sidney Bechet, Barney Bigard, Omar Simeon, Johnny Dodds. Featured clarinetist in Armand Piron’s Band

Armand Piron and his band featuring Lorenzo Tio Jr. Piron was a bandleader, musician and early music publisher. His band played in the Cotton Club in the 1930s and at the all-white New Orleans Country Club and Tranchina Restaurant.

Lorenzo Tio with his clarinet. Affectionately known as the “Mexican” because he was born in Mexico, he formed some of the earliest jazz bands.

Alcide Pavageau on bass. Cousin to the Tios and Alphonse Picou

Alphonse Picou at a jam session

*Nick Douglas’ book, Finding Octave: The Untold Story of Two Creole Families and Slavery…. Blog: http://www.findingoctave.tumblr.com/