bhm: how new orleans’ creole musicians forged the fight for civil rights

February 25, 2019
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While New Orleans’ Congo Square is acknowledged as the heart and birthplace of American music, New Orleans’ unique Creole musical community was the engine for what became America’s early civil rights movement.

During French and Spanish rule, a combination of rights and opportunities helped Louisiana Creoles and free people of color develop a unique society. Colonial Louisiana under Spanish rule was a society with liberal manumission laws (granting freedom from slavery) and rights determined by birthright rather than the color of your skin. Creoles also enjoyed the right to testify against whites in court, inherit land and buy and sell property and make loans to and receive loans from whites.

Louisiana was a multilingual society with inhabitants speaking French, Creole, Spanish and numerous Native American languages such as Choctaw, as well as open relationships between all the races and local tribes. Many Creole men and women were highly educated, skilled artisans, business and property owners, and entrepreneurs.

In one of his last acts as prefect of Louisiana, Pierre De Lussat reinstated these laws — known throughout French colonies as Code Noir — before handing control over to the Americans following the 1803 Louisiana Purchase. New Americans streaming into the territory did not understand the unique society they encountered in Louisiana. Alarmed by what they saw, they immediately went about changing it from a “state with slaves” to a “slave state.”

As racist legislators in Louisiana sought to take away public services based on race, there remained dances, balls, soirees, dinners and concerts sponsored by Creole clubs and societies to raise money for hospitals and other worthy community causes, from homes for aged slaves to schools for black orphans.

Creoles and free people of color fought hard to maintain their rights against the American legislative onslaught, and responded by forming institutions that helped maintain their cultural integrity. Starting in the 1820s, Creoles founded social clubs and benevolent societies. Two of these, Société d’Economie and La Loge Perseverance would become New Orleans landmarks, known today as Economy Hall and Preservation Hall. Both halls are now world famous for their musical history, but less well-known for the roles they played in the civil rights movement.

Creoles also ormed musical and symphonic societies. The Theatre de la Renaissance, formed in 1840, was an orchestra exclusively for Creoles of color. The Société Philharmonique was active in the 1830s and may have been conducted by Constantin Debergue, a musician from the band of the Battalion of Free Men of Color, which was formed during the Battle of New Orleans. The Société was composed of both professional and amateur Creole musicians.

In order for the city’s musical traditions and civil rights action to survive they needed stewardship. This was where the unique culture of New Orleans Creoles succeeded. The Lyre Club Symphony Orchestra was one example of this musical stewardship, collaboration, cooperation and civil-rights advocacy.

In New Orleans’ musical community, professional and amateur musicians often played together. The Lyres Club Symphony Orchestra was created by a mixture of professional and amateur musicians. Part of its mission was to promote the development of worthy musicians. Violinist/conductor and prominent Creole orchestra leader Charles Elgar performed with the group: “We had in those days an organization known as the Club Lyre, that was composed of a symphonic orchestra— people who played just for the love of music,” he said in a 1958 interview. “It was a non-profit organization. The sole purpose was to sponsor young people. We used to give two concerts a year, and whenever we found a talented person, we would sponsor them. I remember we sent one boy to Europe, a pianist….It was through that organization that I got my first training in conducting under Louis Tio….When he found out that I was interested [in conducting], then he used to let me take some of the smaller things that he felt I could handle.”

The network of musical families and musical venues in New Orleans’ cohesive Creole community also bred a tradition of strong political action. New Orleans’ musical community from its beginnings was part of political activities and the fight for civil rights. In 1864 a committee of more than a thousand free men of color met in the French Quarter to draft a first-of-its-kind petition that would be presented to President Lincoln and Congress, demanding the right to vote. The committee was chaired by Nelson Pavageau, who was a member of the Société d’Economie (Economy Hall). The names of many accomplished musical families appear on the thousand man petition that was sent to Lincoln and Congress in March of 1864, including the Baquets, Tios, St. Cyrs, Pavageaus, Hazeurs, Picous and Campanels. The names included many of the veterans of the Battle of New Orleans including musicians like the Hazeurs and Campanels who had been part of the military bands connected to the two Battalions of Free Men of Color who helped win the Battle of New Orleans.

In New Orleans, during the Civil War and Reconstruction, Creoles had a window of opportunity to exercise their civil rights. Dr. Charles Roudanez and his brother J.B. Roudanez formed La Tribune and L’Union newspapers in 1862 and 1864.The Tribune was the first African-American daily newspaper in the U.S. and was published in English and French. The newspapers advocated for the abolition of slavery and full civil rights, including voting rights for all people of color. The editor of both papers was the civil rights activist and educator Paul Trevigne.

Cousin of Octave Pavageau, Paul Trevigne was the son of a veteran of the Battle of New Orleans, a Civil War veteran, educator and civil rights activist. Trevigne served on the New Orleans Board of Education in 1876 until the Redeemers (Democrats whose collective goal was to destroy the political institutions and race relations that were formed during Reconstruction) replaced him in 1877.  Trevigne fought against segregation in New Orleans schools. In 1877 he brought the case of Trevigne v Board of Education of Orleans Parish to the Louisiana Supreme Court, an early precursor to 1954’s Brown v Board of Education.

During the lead-up to the Civil War, venues like Preservation Hall and Economy Hall were some of the few places outside of church that people of color were allowed to congregate in large numbers, without suspicion or white supervision. Among the halls that musicians and citizens met to perform, socialize, fundraise, organize and advocate for civil rights were: Globe Hall, St. Peter, Geddes, Masonic, Veterans, Union, Les Jeune Amis, Frans Amis, Friends of Hope, Amis Sinceres, Mississippi, and Longshoremen’s.

Vicinity and blood relationships served to intensify the cooperation between musicians. The Lyres Club Symphony Orchestra was formed by members who were family. Octave Pavageau an amateur musician and son of Nelson Pavageau, chairman of the committee that helped draft the voting rights petition, was elected president of the club in 1889. His cousin, Octave Piron a professional musician and music teacher, was elected treasurer. Louis and Lorenzo Tio, early jazz teachers, performers and innovators, were prominent members and Pavageau’s cousins.  Piron allowed twice-monthly meetings and performances to occur in his home, an act that became a necessity because any congregation of people of color was looked upon as suspicious, no matter how innocent it may have been.

Armand Piron in band

The Pavageaus and Pirons lived on the same street. Octave Piron’s son, Armand Piron, would go on to become a successful band leader and co-owner of Piron and Williams Publishing. Founded in 1915 it was one of the first Black musical publishing companies in the U.S. His partner Clarence Williams would go on to arrange and book many of Louis Armstrong’s first recordings in New York.

Besides being the president of the Lyres Club Symphony Orchestra, Octave Pavageau was the secretary of Le Silence Social Club. In 1892 as secretary he organized a ball and dinner to celebrate the eighth anniversary of Le Silence, and raise funds for the legal battle against segregation in public transportation. This battle would continue to the Supreme Court with the Plessy v Ferguson, which legalized segregation.  Pavageau invited the eight officers of the Société d’ Economie to the celebration which included his brother-in-law Myrtil Piron, president of the society.

Myrtil Piron was a perfect example of how musical families were involved with political and civil rights struggles in New Orleans. Piron was a successful undertaker and one of the founding members of the Comité des Citoyens (Citizen’s Committee). Founded in 1890, the Comité des Citoyens was a group of 16 influential Creoles and free men of color. The committee was formed with two objectives: to wage legal battles against discrimination, and to create public sentiment against these injustices. The Comité des Citoyens aggressively challenged segregation on public transportation using one of their own, the New Orleans Creole Homer Plessy.

Myrtil Piron married Octave Pavageau’s older sister Philomene Pavageau and was the brother of Octave Piron, treasurer of the Lyres Club Symphony Orchestra. Both the Piron and the Pavageau families grew up around Congo Square. Fathers like Octave Piron taught their sons, cousins, nephews and friends how to play, transmitting the music heard in Congo Square, and hence the New Orleans musical tradition, through their DNA into the present.  Civil rights advocacy was also passed on via generations of musical families.

In the late 1920s Octave Pavageau’s son Robert would serve as the secretary of the Autocrats Social Club another club known for its dances and music. Robert was a union representative for the Cigar Makers International Union, part of the American Federation of Labor, one of the few unions to allow Blacks and women to join. Robert Pavageau was also first cousin to famous bass player Alcide ”Slow Drag” Pavageau. Another cousin of Alcide, the singer Ulysses Picou, taught Alcide to play the guitar years before he became a fixture at Preservation Hall with the George Lewis Band. Ulysses Picou was the brother of Alphonse Picou, a clarinet player best known for originating the solo on the standard, “High Society.”

On the adjacent street from Robert Pavageau lived the Baquet family, famous for its clarinet players: George, who was also a union representative of the Cigar Makers International Union and member of the Lyres Club Symphony Orchestra, and his brother Achilles, who played with Jimmy Durante.

Another member of the Comité des Citoyens heavily involved with the Plessy v Ferguson legal battle was activist and author Rodolphe Desdunes. Desdunes was famous for writing and publishing Our People and Our History: Fifty Creole Portraits (Nos Hommes et Notre Histoire) a book about the lives of prominent Creoles. Desdunes had two sons: Daniel became a music teacher, and Clarence, a bandleader who formed the Joyland Revelers with Armand Piron.

Last year marked the 300th Anniversary of the founding of New Orleans. It is tim we acknowledge the unique society and community that was forged in that great Louisiana city that not only created American music as we know it, but also helped forge America’s battle for civil rights.

Nick Douglas is the author of Finding Octave: The Untold Story of Two Creole Families and Slavery in Louisiana and Reclaiming Black History: Finding Admirable Ancestors, a Wealth of Heroism and Traits that Shatter Defeatist Clichés