Ah, Do You Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans?

Recently I watched Spike Lee’s movie in four acts on the breaching of the levees in New Orleans during Katrina and I was often in tears. Although Katrina turned Eastward in the Gulf and actually missed New Orleans much of my favorite city was nevertheless destroyed by the rampaging waters from Lake Ponchitrain after the levees broke. The fumbling and distant attitude of government officials at every level toward thousands of destitute African-Americans did not surprise me. That is to be expected in a nation that systematically “sweeps under the rug” the truth about race and being poor.

I harbor serious reservations about what kind of city will eventually rise in place of the New Orleans I knew and loved. Black Mayor Ray Nagin speaks of a “chocolate New Orleans” but I don’t trust this black Republican. However, I do understand he was overwhelmed, and who wouldn’t be, by the unprecedented destruction of almost an entire city. Mayor Giuliani and New York City on 9/11 didn’t face one-third of the problems confronted by Mayor Nagin and New Orleans.

Nevertheless, it is fair criticism to say Mayor Nagin had no plan for action before the disaster and doesn’t have one now. Three times more money has been spent on rehabilitation of the Mississippi coastline than has been spent on New Orleans. Literally billions of dollars are on hold by Mayor Nagin and Governor Blanco while they create a rehabilitation plan, and millions of dollars in aid has disappeared. Nagin and Blanco don’t have a clue. All we can do is pray.

New Orleans is unique in many ways. I was 18 years young in 1949 when I stepped outside Alabama for the first time passed over into Mississippi and headed down to New Orleans to attend Dillard University. Up to that point, Birmingham had been the only city of any size I had visited and in my young mind it was akin to fabulous New York City. I would almost be in heaven when my mother took me to Birmingham during the summer to visit her sister. So way back in 1949, I hardly knew what to make of big, bustling New Orleans, “The Crescent City, the Big Easy.”

In fact, I was almost speechless when the Greyhound Bus slowly weaved along the beautiful Mississippi Gulf Coast on U.S. 90, passing Ocean Springs, Biloxi, Gulfport and all the wonderful little port cities now damaged by Katrina.  To be sure, I had never laid eyes on a body of water as large as the Gulf of Mexico, much less witness mile after mile of the longest man-made white sandy beach in the world and one lined with picture post card palm trees. To me, it was one huge movie set that fit my youthful imagination of glamorous Hollywood. Nevertheless, sitting with the other black passengers in the rear of the racially segregated Greyhound bus I sensed something quite un-Dixie about it all, almost foreign to the Confederacy. I was simultaneously delighted and apprehensive.

Then came another huge shock. Dillard University’s gorgeous campus (now damaged extensively by water and fire) a large green sea of beautifully manicured grass (like a well tended golf course), studded with magnificent and stately white buildings all in perfect symmetry and each featuring huge white columns patterned after the Pennsylvania Avenue facade of the White House in Washington. How would a young black boy, who had never been outside poor, race conscious Alabama adjust to living in such a place? I wondered if this sprawling, breathtakingly beautiful campus was itself part of a higher education. Of course it was, but how could I understand that in 1949?

Also, back in Selma, Alabama there were only black people and white people but in New Orleans there were black people, white people, Creole people, Cajun people and other ethnics. Make no mistake: New Orleans was Southern but only in its own peculiar way. I often sat in the rear of a segregated city bus and tried to guess from a boarding passenger’s skin color and appearance if he would sit in the front or the back of the bus. I guessed wrong as often as I guessed right. That would not happen anywhere else in the South. I was only 300 miles from home in Selma but in another world altogether and one that seemingly, in ways, was unrelated to Alabama, Mississippi and even the rest of Louisiana.

To complicate matters further, the French Quarter (spared by both hurricane Betsy and Katrina) was off-limits to African-Americans unless one was a musician, entertainer, bartender, waiter or in maintenance. The Dixieland music played in joints lined up on every street in the Quarter was often third-rate and strictly for tourists, but I quickly noted that a young saxophone player with his head on right could make money in this unusual section of this unusual city. Indeed, that is why I had chosen Dillard.

It took me about a year to put New Orleans in some perspective and learn to exploit it. In time, I organized a group of jazz players and we would make money by playing on weekends for the tourist trade in clubs in the Quarter, but about 2 or 3 A.M. we headed “Up Town”, the black nightlife section, and joined in some of the best jazz and entertainment anywhere in the world and we often partied until late the next day. The there’s a New Orleans jazz type wake, funeral and burial. Together they constitute a most unusual jazz tinted show and march or strut. Ah, do you know what it means to miss New Orleans?

There were many black clubs and among them were “The Dew Drop Inn”, Foster’s “Rainbow Room” and others. White residents of New Orleans often avoided the Quarter and came uptown to have a rollicking integrated good time. The major industry in New Orleans was tourism and nightlife, and it seemed that everyone was a musician, entertainer, bartender or waiter. Night people were my people and appreciated the genius of Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington and Count Basie. More than a few New Orleans musicians and entertainers from that era went on to become international musical stars. I knew Fats Domino when he, like the rest of us, was hustling any gig or engagement he could find. After he finally made it, Pat Boone made more money off his music than he did, but Fats has done well, and he never moved from the 9th Ward where Katrina did terrible damage.  Ah, do you know what it means to miss New Orleans?

Dr. Benjamin Quarles, one of America’s most noted black historians, a scholar and author, was in the late 40s and early 50s Dean at Dillard. He tried to “rescue” me from what he called “all that unhealthy nighttime dissipation.” Dean Quarles would say, “You must put that saxophone down young man and make something of yourself. You should become a lawyer.” I was having a ball and making more money than the dean and two or three black lawyers in New Orleans combined. I doubt that I would have become a lawyer except for Dean Quarles and Sociology Professor Daniel Thompson. Over the years I have debated in my mind how a little black boy from Selma, Alabama could be so fortunate. I don’t think it was chance. I don’t think anything is ever purely by chance.

On the bus to New Orleans those many years ago, I sensed that along with all the beautiful geography I would soon face very different standards and different values than I had known in Alabama. In Selma, it was often difficult to discern if the Union had really won the Civil War. New Orleans was a much more complicated and confusing place racially and otherwise, and I sort of understood that of necessity. I would soon begin to grow up quickly.

Recently I listened as black Republican New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin (a graduate of Tuskegee University and reelected primarily by black democrats largely because he is black) proudly told how President Bush invited him to take a shower in the Presidential quarters on Air Force One. Nagin was obviously quite pleased with himself as he described the president’s plane as “a penthouse in the sky.” Then, a few months ago prior to his reelection, Nagin told a black audience in Atlanta that President Bush invaded Iraq under false pretense. Nagin had never before been critical of Bush, to my knowledge. I am sure he voted for Bush and donated to the President’s reelection campaign. Nagin did not support Democrat Blanco when she ran for governor, and instead campaigned for her losing republican opponent. You can be sure Governor Blanco did not want to do anything that would make Nagin look good before, during or after Katrina. That hurt the poor people of the 9th Ward more than it hurt Nagin.

The Mayor’s reconstruction plans, such as they are, are not being run by “chocolate” people, but nevertheless this black republican claims the new New Orleans will be a chocolate city. Don’t bet on it! The conditions the mayor and his advisers have proposed for rebuilding and revitalizing the 9th Ward are both impractical and unreal. They will displace many poor homeowners, most of them black. Some of the strong black democrats who helped reelect Nagin over a liberal white democrat despite his Republican instincts are beginning to call his hand. I am looking for ways to help them.

J.L. CHESTNUT, Jr. is a civil rights attorney in Selma, Alabama. He is the founder of Chestnut, Sanders and Sanders which is the largest black law firm in Alabama. Born in Selma and, after graduating from Howard University Law School, he began practicing law in Selma in 1958. He started as the only black lawyer in the town and has been challenging the establishment since then. His law firm now owns two radio stations in Selma and Mr. Chestnut hosts a radio talk show three days a week touted as the most popular radio show in south and central Alabama. He is the author of “Black in Selma” with Julia Cass (1989 Farrar, Straus and Giroux), and writes a weekly column called the “Hard Cold Truth”. He can be reached at tmarshall@csspca.com.