Desegregation in New Orleans Rooted in 1960s Dryades St. Boycott

(This article was published in "The Louisiana Weekly" in the August 4, 2014 edition.)

The former Dryades Street below Jackson Avenue in Mid-City New Orleans has staged a comeback over the last fifteen years or so, galvanized by Cafe Reconcile, Ashe Cultural Arts Center and Zeitgeist theater. But what was that stretch like before, and why did it fall on hard times? In the 1950s, 200 shops, department stores, banks, insurance companies and offices lined the street. Dryades merchants and professionals included African Americans, Jews from Eastern Europe, Germans and Italians.

The corridor changed after a 1960 boycott by Black shoppers in the city's first, big modern-day civil rights action. "The customers were African American but it was all white people working in the stores, except for some mop-and-broom jobs," New Orleans attorney Lolis Edward Elie said last week. "We decided to teach the merchants a lesson and started a selective buying campaign that went on for months."

In late 1959, the Consumers' League of Greater New Orleans was formed at the Dryades St. YMCA. The League's organizers included Reverends Avery Alexander and A.L. Davis, Henry Mitchell and Raymond Floyd.

Elie had just earned his Loyola law degree and joined Nils Douglas and Robert Collins in a firm across the street from the Y. He became the League's pro bono attorney. As for the boycott, "shoppers had done the same thing on 125th St. in Harlem in New York," Elie said. A "Don't Buy Where You Can't Work Campaign" started in Harlem in 1934 and was successful in securing jobs for Blacks.

"The campaign on Dryades was calculated to start just before Easter because that's when people bought lots of clothes," Elie said. Black students from Xavier, Southern and Dillard universities in New Orleans, along with a few white students from Tulane and University of New Orleans, joined picketers on Dryades. In summer of 1960, former Xavier student-body head Rudy Lombard, SUNO student Oretha Castle and others formed a local chapter of the Congress of Racial Equality or CORE. On September 17, 1960, Lombard, Castle, Dillard student Cecil Carter Jr. and Tulane student Lanny Goldfinch were arrested while sitting at the lunch counter at McCrory's Five and Ten Cents store on Canal St.

Because of the boycott on Dryades, "African Americans were hired at all levels in stores on that street," Elie said. The Consumer's League secured 30 clerk and cashier jobs for Blacks there, according to a 1996 teaching guide, written by Plater Robinson of the Southern Institute for Education and Research and based on the 1987 documentary film "A House Divided" about desegregation.

But some Dryades stores closed or moved to white suburbs in the 1960s, rather than hire Blacks. Many African American customers had taken their business elsewhere, and boarded-up buildings soon dotted the corridor. In the late 1960s, Kaufman's department store, by then called Levine's, closed.

Jackie Harris, founder and director of Louis Armstrong Summer Jazz Camp, recalls Dryades during her childhood. "It was the shopping district for African Americans from uptown and other parts of town," she said last week. From 1953 to 1961, her Catholic school uniforms came from the JoAnn Shop at 1526 Dryades. Harris ran errands for her grandmother on the street and visited physician Ernest Cherrie there several times as as a kid. Harris's mother worked as a seamstress and bought fabric on Dryades. Harris recalls Handelman's department store in the 1800 block, near Kaufman's in the 1700 block.

Harris said the boycott's spring timing was effective. "Easter was a big dress-up holiday, with new clothes for girls and boys from Dryades St.," she said. "It represented the change of season, when people put away their woolens and started wearing white. Easter Sunday was the biggest church day, followed by Mother's Day."

In the early 1960s, anti-discrimination boycotts, sit-ins and pickets continued in New Orleans, and on September 30, 1963, thousands of people walked from Shakespeare Park at Washington Ave. and LaSalle to City Hall in a Freedom March. After President Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act on July 2, 1964, public facilities were desegregated, albeit slowly. The city met a National Football League rule that public places in cities with franchises be integrated, and the New Orleans Saints were founded in late 1966.

In 1982, the U.S. Department of Interior designated the Central City area around Dryades--bounded by the Pontchartrain Expressway and St. Charles, Louisiana and South Claiborne Avenues--as a National Register Historic District.

Carla Daste, manager of Majestic Mortuary Service, Inc. at 1833 Oretha Castle Haley, said Dryades was blighted with a bar on the corner, but also a couple of active churches, when she started working there in the late 1980s. The stretch below Jackson was renamed O.C. Haley Boulevard in 1989.

Daste's grandfather, Adam Ray Haydel, Sr., started the mortuary on Dryades in 1949. Two years before that, he founded Majestic Life Insurance, which eventually moved from Dryades to North Claiborne Avenue. The mortuary is the oldest, continuous business on the corridor. In recent years, new apartment buildings and restaurants have opened on and near O.C. Haley, and the city is investing in the area, Daste said.

Hints of the bustling 1950s linger. "Dryades St. was built out with infrastructure for a strong commercial corridor," Jonathan Leit, director of Alembic Community Development's New Orleans office, said last week. His group is rehabbing the former Myrtle Banks School building in O.C. Haley's 1300 block. "Our development of the century-old school very much looks to respect and value the corridor's history," he said. On the first two floors, the structure will house Jack & Jake's Public Market, selling groceries. The third floor will provide space for nonprofits, art studios and small businesses. Work on the structure began last summer in partnership with the New Orleans Redevelopment Authority, and the building is slated to open this fall.

Meanwhile, Lolis Elie, now 84, retired three years ago after more than 50 years of practice as a civil rights attorney in New Orleans. end