- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 2, 2005


As black New Orleans residents regroup and put down roots elsewhere — some temporary, some not — many wonder: What will become of one of the nation’s most complex black cultures?

Pre-Katrina New Orleans was a majority black city. It also was a poor one, and most of the people hardest hit by the storm were both.

But broad descriptions miss the subtleties of race and economics in a place where French, Spanish, Indians and West Africans mixed as far back as the 18th century.

Now city residents, spread nationwide, are speculating on how that culture will change in the wake of catastrophic flooding. Some even question whether it will survive at all.

“Once you scatter the people, I don’t know that you’re going to be able to capture the past,” said Arnold Hirsch, a historian at the University of New Orleans. “You may come up with something new … and that might be to the good. But it wouldn’t be the historical New Orleans.”

First claimed by the Spanish but settled by the French in the early 1700s, the port town quickly developed a large West African slave population. For generations under French rule, there were few white women in New Orleans, and much of the population mixed racially to a degree nearly unheard of elsewhere in what would become the United States.

Gradually, a community developed whose members were often called Creoles, a term frequently used to refer to mixed-race Louisiana residents.

Filling civil-service jobs and developing middle-class enclaves and social institutions, Creoles had more legal rights than other blacks, but fewer social freedoms than whites, said Carl A. Brasseaux, director of the Center for Louisiana Studies at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette.

“The unique culture of south Louisiana derives from black Creole culture,” said historian Gwendolyn Midlo Hall, author of “Africans in Colonial Louisiana.”

“It was a cultural accident,” Mr. Hirsch said. “Not conscious process.”

After the Civil War, Creoles maintained exclusive social clubs, schools, neighborhoods and Roman Catholic churches in which whites and darker-skinned blacks were not always welcomed. Historically, Xavier and Dillard universities, St. Augustine Catholic Church and High School and the Seventh Ward neighborhood were Creole bastions.

Darker-skinned blacks in New Orleans, without historic connection to parochial grade schools and universities, often faced barriers to middle-class jobs. Before the hurricane, many of the poorest lived in neighborhoods such as the Lower Ninth Ward.

“There has always been a separation in terms of classes of people,” said Ortez Taylor, a New Orleans native who lives in Harlem.

In practices that have long played out within black American communities, some class divisions have been maintained.

There is an elite in Louisiana that generally prides itself with being not entirely black, that prides itself upon its wealth and education,” Mrs. Hall said.

For some, the topic is a touchy one.

“Black Americans don’t want to admit that … we divided ourselves by a color line,” said Leonce Gaiter, a writer who was born in the city and now lives in California. “It’s hard to admit that that line exists.”

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