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How Black-Owned Newspapers Led Louisiana's Civil Rights Movement In The 1860s

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Courtesy of Mark Roudané
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The July 12, 1866 issue of the Tribune contains an editorial related to an upcoming constitutional convention convened by Black men and a few white radicals held at the Mechanics’ Institute on July 30, 1866. Attendees were attacked by white supremacists.";

Louisiana’s civil rights movement was spearheaded by two pioneering Black-owned newspapers published in New Orleans during the 1860s. L’Union and the New Orleans Tribune advocated for the abolition of slavery and voting rights for people of African descent during Union occupation of the city and the early Reconstruction era.

Researcher Mark Roudané speaks with New Orleans Public Radio’s Betsy Shepherd about his article, “United for Justice,” on the history and impact of these newspapers, which were founded by his great-great-grandfather, Dr. Louis Charles Roudanez. The article is published in the fall 2020 issue of 64 Parishes.

Betsy Shepherd: When we think about the fight for voting rights and desegregation, we often think of the 1960s Civil Rights Movement. But a century before that, two African American newspapers in Louisiana took up the fight for equal rights. Can you talk about the founders that launched these newspapers and the revolutionary cause that inspired them?

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Credit Courtesy of The Historic New Orleans Collection
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Louis Charles Roudanez in 1857.

Mark Roudané: There were three free men of color from New Orleans who began the newspaper L’Union in September of 1862. Paul Trevigne was the editor. He was an educator from the Couvent School, which is widely considered to be an incubator for civil rights activism in antebellum Louisiana. He was joined by Jean Baptiste Roudanez, who was the publisher of L’Union and the New OrleansTribune. Jean Baptist was an engineer, a kettle setter on the plantations in St. James Parish before he came to New Orleans. And the founder of the newspaper was Dr. Louis Roudanez. He was considered the guiding force and the financial source for the newspaper’s success. They were profoundly influenced by the Haitian, French, and American Revolutions. And they possessed what I would call a liberation mindset. Dr. Roudanez, who had lived in Revolutionary Paris, returned to New Orleans in 1857, and I imagine he still had the chant “liberté, egalité, fraternité” in his ears. He created the newspapers as part of his vision to permanently establish a truly republican racial democracy in the United States.

Dr. Roudanez and his associates had the education, the mobility, and the means to spearhead this cause. And he and the other founders were free men of color. Louisiana had an extraordinarily high number of free people of color during the nineteenth century. Can you talk about why that was and describe their role in the early freedom movement?

Louisiana had an extraordinarily high number of free people of color, especially in New Orleans. Part of that demographic was in place during the French and Spanish colonial era. But the population of les gens de couleur libres really exploded in the city after the revolution in San Domingue, now known as Haiti. There was a refugee exodus from the island and a large number of refugees settled in New Orleans. That population peaked in the 1840s somewhere around 15,000 people. These prosperous and confident free people of color directly contradicted the foundational idea of slave society, that servitude was part of a natural order. And the white population worried that … might offer enslaved people hope for their own freedom. That was the milieu that Roudanez, Trevigne and their comrades were part of.

L’Union helped organize a petition demanding voting rights for all African Americans, and that petition made it all the way to the White House. Can you describe this event, and what became of the petition?

By the fall of 1863 L’Union had been in existence for a little over a year. As activists, the editor and writers had been increasingly frustrated with intense opposition to their claims of citizenship, especially their right to vote. In response, the newspaper promoted and helped organize a series of meetings that resulted in a petition signed by almost a thousand people of color boldly demanding enfranchisement for all men of African descent, whether they were born enslaved or free. Jean Baptiste Roudanez and his good friend Arnold Bertonneau marched into the White House and presented the document to President Lincoln. The meeting influenced the president and he quickly asked Louisiana Governor Michael Hahn to consider voting rights for what Lincoln called “the very intelligent and those who have fought gallantly.” Governor Hahn ignored Lincoln’s recommendation and the push for equal rights. Voting rights stalled and it was becoming increasingly problematic for L’Union to navigate these disheartening political and racial currents.

Out of frustration for the failure of the petition, Roudanez decided to fold L’Union and start another newspaper called The New Orleans Tribune. How did it differ from the first paper in terms of its agenda?

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Credit Courtesy of Roudanez History & Legacy
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The Tribune offices at 21 Conti Street (now 527 Conti).

L’Union last appeared on July 19, 1864. Two days after L’Union folded, Dr. Roudanez unleashed a new and decidedly more radical newspaper. The New Orleans Tribune, or La Tribune de la Nouvelle Orleans, vowed “to spare no means to promote equality for all men of African descent,” and their agenda included redistribution of plantation land to the emancipated. It included streetcar desegregation. It proposed the creation of integrated public schools. It advocated for impartial access to public facilities. It fought for equitable legislative representation. In short, it fought for full citizenship rights. The Tribune walked away from old divisions between free people of color and the enslaved. Quoting from the newspaper, they said, “They are for us and we love them as we do ourselves. We are the organ of the oppressed without distinction.” They envisioned this new alliance and the actual liberation of their people.

These are incredibly progressive ideas, especially when you think about the time when these papers were published in the 1860s. One of the things that politicians did to curb the fight for equal rights was they tried to pass quadroon laws, which gave special status to people of color who were three-quarters white. The law was an attempt to undermine the suffrage movement, the main platform of the Tribune. Can you explain this tactical move?

The Tribune was promoting unity and suffrage for all men of African descent, and this alarmed state legislatures in 1864. Soon after the newspaper came out they went, “Wait a minute, what can we do to stop this?” They attempted to drive a wedge between free men of color. In late 1864 the all-white legislature drafted the Quadroon Bill that proposed limiting voting rights to those who were one-quarter Black or less. Many men of the Tribune and their supporters would fit that category, but the Tribune vehemently rejected the divide and conquer tactic. Quoting from the newspaper, “There may be a few aristocrats of light skin but they are in the minority. The majority of us know by experience that caste distinctions can only create bitterness and weakness. Our first duty is to demand for all colored men what we claim for ourselves. And the Tribune actually succeeded. In 1865, the Quadroon Bill failed. It did not pass and the newspaper took credit for that.

The paper wasn’t just a news gathering agency, it was also an activist group. Can you detail some of the paper’s other political accomplishments?

The Tribune did much more than report the news. These articles look like they could be ripped from today’s headlines. Fiery editorials ignited mass meetings and demonstrations and the language in the newspapers is just inspirational: “It is not by remaining isolated that the oppressed people can obtain redress. It’s only by coming out in a phalanx, by marching in a strong column that we shall obtain our due.”

The newspaper did a lot of things. They organized the Freedmen's Aid Association, a Black land ownership alternative to the Freedman’s Bureau, a federal agency that was regulating plantation labor at that time. The Tribune characterized the Freedman’s Bureau as a system of disguised slavery. In early 1865, the Tribune was instrumental in the creation of a local branch of Frederick Douglass’s National Equal Rights League.

That summer of 1865 a coalition of Black and white radicals orchestrated unsanctioned statewide elections to demonstrate the fervor with which men of color would vote, and in a formidable exercise of citizenship rights, over 19,000 men of African descent unofficially cast their ballots for delegates to an upcoming convention. And then in 1867, the voting rights campaign grew. Congress was suddenly controlled by the progressive wing of the Republican Party and Congress wasted no time enacting radical reconstruction acts that mandated new constitutions and guaranteed Black suffrage in the United States. In September 1867, over 75,000 Black Louisianians voted for delegates to the upcoming state constitutional convention, this time legally. Fifty of the 98 elected representatives to the constitutional convention were Black, born enslaved or free.

The Tribune got a lot accomplished but ultimately was not a long-running publication. Can you talk about what became of the Tribune?

The Tribune started in July of 1864 and it more or less ceased regular publication in March of 1868. This constitutional convention that was populated by a majority of men of African descent drafted the most radical, progressive state charter in reconstruction history, which embodied many of the platforms advocated by the Tribune. But as the convention started to conclude there would be an election for state officials that would approach in the spring of 1868. The Tribune endorsed a former Black military officer, Francis Dumas, for governor. But Henry Warmouth — a white carpetbagger from Illinois deeply distrusted by Dr. Roudanez — was instead selected by the Republican party. Dr. Roudanez was furious by the nominating progress that he thought was rigged and he was unwilling to compromise. Dr. Roudanez bolted from the Republican Party and that move proved costly. The Tribune found itself without any institutional or financial support and had to cease publication that year.

In your opinion what is the enduring legacy of L’Union and the Tribune?

L’Union and the Tribune established a protest tradition that still continues today. We can see a second-wave civil rights movement 25 years later. The successor to the Tribune was an 1890s newspaper called The Crusader, published in New Orleans by Louis Martiner and other Creoles of color. They promoted the Plessy challenge against segregated rail cars in Louisiana. Their challenge was unsuccessful. The Supreme Court ruled against them and separate but equal became the law of the land and Jim Crow was legalized in the United States. Then there’s a third-wave in Louisiana. In the 1920s, prominent civil rights attorneys led by A.P. Turread challenged segregation laws in New Orleans, Louisiana, and throughout the South. And then today we have a new wave of protests in the United States that’s very much a part of the tradition established by the New Orleans Tribune in the 1860s.

This interview is part of “Split Press: Democracy, Race, and Media in Black and White,” a project of the Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities made possible by a grant from the Federation of State Humanities Councils with the support of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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