Civil Discourse encourages guest submissions from academic and popular historians alike. Today's guest author is Fatima Shaik, a writer and assistant professor at Saint Peter’s University.
The 14th Amendment had an especially important meaning for black Americans in 19th century New Orleans. It was used by both sides in the philosophical conflict over equality, bringing the descendants of Africa into citizenship then shoving them away from its privileges.
The 1860 census, shows 24,074 blacks in the city. Among them were 13,385 enslaved people and 10,689 free people of color, the latter called gens de couleur libres in the largely French-speaking city. The proportion of free people to the black population had remained about 45% for the five decades that Louisiana had been part of the United States. At the time of Reconstruction, free people paid taxes on $15 million of property, as their representatives told President Abraham Lincoln when he received a petition in 1864 from more than one thousand of them asking for the vote. They had actually wanted the vote for themselves and the formerly enslaved but had been convinced that a better political tactic was to request the vote for only the literate, taxpayers who had been free before the war.
But as early as 1862, members of the free community had begun advocating equal rights in the pages of L’Union, published by a free man of color in 1862 and The Tribune, its successor published in both English and French. When the Friends of Universal Suffrage met in Economy Hall in 1865, they did so with a purposefully-integrated slate of delegates.
The 1868 Louisiana Constitution which allowed the Louisiana admission back into the United States was the nation’s most progressive – removing the Black Codes which had limited the rights of African descendants and offering free and unsegregated public education, equal access to transportation and other public facilities. The tally sheets of voters for the constitution in Orleans Parish, the area that makes up New Orleans, was unlike only one other state parish. It did not separate the numbers of voters into blacks and whites but showed only the equally integrated total for ratification.
Significantly, Louisiana along with South Carolina pushed the ratification of the 14th Amendment into law on July 9, 1868.
As historians know, the 14th Amendment was passed by Congress to put teeth into the 13th Amendment that freed the enslaved. They needed this additional protection because states had begun to restrict the freedmen after the passage of the 13th Amendment. The 14th Amendment made these kinds of state laws illegal.
The now federally-empowered activists in the black community in New Orleans bolstered the protections of the 14th Amendment by taking cases to court. Charles Sauvinet, a former Civil Sheriff of New Orleans, sued a restaurant owner for not allowing him to buy a drink because he was a colored man. He received damages of $1,000 in 1871. Also, in this city, a pair of friends – one black and one white -- Peter Joseph and James Rierdon took their case to the Louisiana Supreme Court and won the right to sit together in the better seats at a music academy 1874. And there were many others from the formerly free colored community who had the education and privilege to bring suit, and whose actions encouraged the freedmen to exercise their rights.
However, the former Confederates were enraged by these actions and other signs of racial progress, believing in white supremacy as God-given or based in 19th-century pseudo-science. Outnumbered in the polls and outsmarted in the courts, the supremacists moved to violence. As students of history, we know that taking the country back resulted in the lynchings and murders of thousands and threats of death to discourage black voters from the polls. We also know that the violence was effective and local laws promoting equality were reversed.
Still, a major last effort to uphold equal rights based on the federal protections of the 14th Amendment took place when the Citizens Committee (Comité des Citoyens) in New Orleans sent Homer Plessy to sit in the white-designated area of a railroad car in 1891. Plessy was arrested and brought to the city’s jail. The Citizens’ Committee bailed him out immediately and then went to court to argue for integration. The only difference between him and the nearby white men, he said, was his African ancestry, yet the Constitution had given him the right to equal protection in all things. The case began to make its way slowly through the lower courts, finally reaching the United States Supreme Court.
In this majority opinion for the United States Supreme Court in 1896, Judge Henry Brown, said, “The object of the amendment was undoubtedly to enforce the absolute equality of the two races before the law, but, in the nature of things, it could not have been intended to abolish distinctions based upon color, or to enforce social, as distinguished from political, equality, or a commingling of the two races upon terms unsatisfactory to either.”
In practice, it justified Jim Crow segregation throughout the South. As a result of that interpretation, the 14th Amendment no longer protected the equality of the children of Africans – almost all of whom had been born in the United States since importation of slaves was banned after 1808. It also denied parity to the descendants of Africans living for decades in Louisiana before it became part of the United States and the Native Americans who had settled in the area even before then. Finally, this segregation now protected under the 14th Amendment also limited the rights of Chinese, Indians or any other subjectively categorized person of color until the 1950s and 1960s.
I was a child of these segregated policies and did not sit in a classroom with whites until 1966. Even though Brown v. Board of Education passed in 1959, there were many who did not have the protections of federal troops or desires of parents to sacrifice their young children to test the United States Constitution.
The 14th Amendment was a part of Reconstruction history, but its effects and interpretations are still being debated. It was meant to engage the four million formerly enslaved people with its prevailing morality – the language of equal justice after the Civil War. This was quite meaningful to the people of New Orleans who brought some of the first suits in the nation to uphold the rights of African descendants. The 14th Amendment still holds a special place in the history of suits from my city. The legacy is nuanced: The 14th Amendment can be used to enact fairness or to pervert the ideals of its creators.
Fatima Shaik is an American writer whose sixth book, a non-fiction narrative set in 19th century New Orleans, will be published by The Historic New Orleans Collection. She is an assistant professor at Saint Peter’s University.
Sources and Further Reading:
Bell, Caryn Cossé Revolution, Romanticism and the Afro-Creole Protest Tradition 1718-1868 (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1997).
Berry, Mary Frances Black Resistance/White Law: A History of Constitutional Racism in America (New York: Penguin Books, 1995).
Davis, Donald W. "Ratification of the Constitution of 1868-Record of Votes." Louisiana History: The Journal of the Louisiana Historical Association 6, no. 3 (1965): 301-05. http://www.jstor.org/stable/4230854.Louisiana History: The Journal of the Louisiana Historical Association
Hollandsworth, James G. Jr. An Absolute Massacre: The New Orleans Race Riot of July 30, 1866 (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2004).
Hirsch, Arnold and Joseph Logson, Creole New Orleans: Race and Americanization Louisiana (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, paper 1992).
Itkin, Beth Kressel. “Creating ‘What Might Have Been a Fuss’: The Many Faces of Equal Public Rights in Reconstruction-Era Louisiana.” Louisiana History: The Journal of the Louisiana Historical Association, vol. 56, no. 1, 2015, pp. 42–74. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/24396494.
Kein, Sybil Creole: The History and Legacy of Louisiana's Free People of Color (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2000).
Medley, Keith Weldon We As Freemen: Plessy v Ferguson (Gretna: Pelican, 2003).
Schafer, Judith Kelleher Becoming Free, Remaining Free: Manumission and Enslavement in New Orleans, 1846—1862 (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2003).
Stern, Walter, Race and Education in New Orleans: Creating the Segregated City, 1764-1960 (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2000).