Making the Case for Homer Plessy

This past May I decided to take a historic walking tour with a local company, not Explore Historic New Orleans,  that had access to enter St. Louis Cemetery No. 1. The cemetery, located along the edge of the French Quarter on Basin Street, features graves from as early as the 18th century with iconic above ground vaults. Effective March 1, the Archdiocese of New Orleans closed the cemetery to the general public and limited admission to the families of the interred and tourists accompanied by a licensed tour guide. Before this mandate, I would frequent the cemetery whenever I wanted, but this time I had to go with a guide.

I had heard and read that Homer Plessy was buried at this cemetery.  Earlier attempts to find the grave were interrupted by tourist watching at the tomb of Marie Laveau, better known as New Orleans’ Voodoo Queen, or general dawdling through rows of vaults. I never could find Plessy’s tomb on my own, so when I booked my tour I was sure I could rely on the eyes of a professional to point it out to me. May 16th came sooner than I expected and I entered St. Louis Cemetery No. 1 like I had so many times before, except this time with a certified professional.

“Now ladies,” with a nasally inflection, “as we approach the back of the cemetery we will enter the Protestant section.” I followed the group, staying a little behind as a habit.  But as I followed, I happened to casually looked to my right and see Homer Adolph Plessy’s nameplate.

“Holy shit, it’s Homer Plessy!” flew out my mouth like a word vomit.  The two other women on our tour looked back at me, only to continue to hurry towards our guide in the Protestant section. While I followed my group for the rest of the tour, I remained distracted by our tour guide’s complete dismissal of Homer Plessy. Now, I am a history student, so I’m the first to admit I can get pretentious on a snap when it comes to history, but when it came to the story of Plessy and the doctrine of “separate but equal,” I was astonished when it went overlooked. 

Homer Adolph Plessy is known for his role in the 1896 Supreme Court Case Plessy v Ferguson. The ruling established the doctrine of “separate but equal” that legitimized Jim Crow era segregation until its reversal with Brown v Board of Education, in 1954. Born in 1862, Plessy witnessed a number of changes in Louisiana’s race relations throughout his lifetime. But, his decision to challenge segregation on a train in June of 1892 is a mere thread in the intricate history of both African Americans and civil disobedience in New Orleans after the Civil War.

In many ways, Plessy’s decision to sit in a whites-only railroad car did not aim to pressure Louisiana law into new and unchartered civil rights territory.  Homer Plessy sat to defend the rights he had before the passage of the Separate Car Act of 1890.  The decades between 1865 and 1890 granted the black population of New Orleans many freedoms not previously allotted.  This is not to say that segregation and discrimination did not exist in this brief era—African Americans were plagued by the reality of racial inequality—but before the advent of Jim Crow legislation, the lines were a bit unclear. 

During Reconstruction, Radical Republicans in Louisiana pushed for the passage of civil rights legislation that provided additional legal freedoms to Free Persons of Color and freed slaves.  Four months before the 14th amendment became federal law, in 1868, Louisiana had rewritten their state constitution to guarantee the black population’s equal political and civil rights and to desegregate publically funded schools.  Members of the black population now served on juries, in the state legislature, and in the Governor’s office.

But in 1871, when black students began to enter formerly all-white schools, the Metairie Racecourse sanctioned segregated seating on its grounds. And although Governor P B S Pitchback served from December 1872 to January 1873, five violent massacres and riots in 1873-1874 made it clear that Louisiana was in no way a safe haven for Southern blacks.  Louisiana’s history between 1865 and 1877 features a complicated mix of civil rights and unequal social norms.  When the Compromise of 1877 ended Reconstruction and removed Radical Republicans from positions of power in Southern state governments, racial lines in Louisiana, and specifically New Orleans got a bit more puzzling.

By 1879, two years after the end of Reconstruction, the state legislature ratified a new constitution that returned Louisiana to home rule and called for restricted rights for black voters.  But these legal terms had little effect in certain social spheres—most notably on trains. George Washing Cable wrote, in The Negro Question, “In Louisiana, certain railway trains and steamboats run side by side, within a mile of one another, where in the trains a Negro or mulatto may sit where he will, and on the boats he must confine himself to a separate quarter called the ‘Fredman’s bureau.’”

In 1882 when the Louisiana and Nashville Railroad added a separate black waiting room in its New Orleans depot, communities demanded the company end this policy.  The Weekly Louisianian reported that within the year the railroad company complied.  By 1887, our main character, Homer Plessy had become vice president of the Justice, Protective, Educational and Social Club in New Orleans—an organization dedicated to educational reform.  At the age of 25, Plessy was well aware of the blurred racial order in New Orleans that pinned blacks to second class citizenry while achieving mild integration. 

With the passage of the Separate Car Act of 1890, the unclear lines of segregation came into a stark focus. The Comite des Citoyans, or Citizens’ Committee, formed the following year to challenge the growing influence of racial segregation, and more specifically, the Separate Car Act.  But, by time that the Comite des Citoyans asked Plessy to board a whites-only train car, they had experienced their first blow.  Before Homer Plessy, the committee asked Daniel Desdunes to challenge the Separate Car Act. On February 24, 1892, Desdune boarded a white car on the Lousiana and Nashville railroad after purchasing a first class ticket.  The committee believed Desdunes would cause a legal stir because his trip attempted to cross state lines, ending in Montgomery, AL.  Daniel Desdunes was arrested and later released on a $500 bond.  All charges against Daniel Desdunes were dropped before the Comite des Citoyans’ legal team could attempt to challenge the constitutionality of the law.  It was decided the Separate Car Act held no legitimacy when crossing state lines. Judge John Ferguson of the Criminal District Court of Orleans Parish called for Desdunes’ release.

On June 7 of the same year, the Comite des Citoyans attempted again to challenge the law, this time with Homer Plessy.  He purchased a ticket on the East Louisiana Railroad from New Orleans to Covington, purposefully remaining within the state, and sat in a whites-only car. When the conductor reached for Plessy’s ticket, Plessy notified him that despite his light complexion, he was only 7/8 white. When asked to move to the blacks-only car, Homer Plessy refused.  Judge Ferguson, who ordered the release of Desdunes, convicted Plessy of breaking the law. The Louisiana Supreme Court refused to grant a rehearing.  A potential writ of error allowed the case to move up to the Supreme Court of the United States in April 1896, four years later. On May 18, 1896, Justice Henry Billings Brown delivered the majority opinion that “separate but equal” was constitutional. By 1898, Louisiana redrafted their constitution to segregate the public schools and disenfranchise black voters. Within two years, Jim Crow laws made it clear that the races would be separated.

On my walk back to the car from Basin Street, I couldn’t help but think of the guide’s missed opportunity to discuss a complex portion of New Orleans’ history. Tour guides may not have time to go into too much depth in 90 minute tours, but a disregard to certain aspects of African American history might be why so many believe the Civil Rights Movement began when Rosa Parks refused to move from her seat on a bus 63 years later. It was a similar message, but with a different carrier—or in this case, mode of transportation.  When the Archdioceses of New Orleans required licensed guides to interpret the historic St. Louis Cemetery No. 1, it raised the question of what histories would be told and which we would walk swiftly past.    


EJ Bellocq in New Orleans

Bellocq's Beauties

When I first came across the name E. J. Bellocq, I was reading a book about New Orleans history, which casually skimmed over his name, as if the book itself was in the process of forgetting him. Having an interest in photography and women of this time, I was immediately intrigued and eager to learn more, so I fumbled over the pronunciation of his name a few times before looking up this semi-famous, fully illusory Storyville “director of photography” (as I like to call him). I was somewhat disappointed and intrigued to find, however, that his life is as much of a wonder to most historians today as he was to his neighbors when he was still alive. He appeared in few newspapers of the time, kept away from the public eye, and confided in only a few close friends. So who was this mysterious man? First, it’s important to talk about the era he is now famous for documenting: the loud, shimmering, and fantastically unpredictable, red-light district of New Orleans.

Storyville

Storyville is better known today here in New Orleans as a local oriented T-shirt printer off Magazine Street. This name is a nod to New Orleans’ red-light district which glittered, swooned, and jazzed from 1897 until 1917. Named after Sidney Story, who sought to regulate prostitution, Storyville was the only legal red-light district in the United States. Patrons came from all over the country to the “unofficial American capital of vice” to see the sassy and beautiful ladies of New Orleans. Like so many of Storyville’s patrons, it’s said that jazz matured from adolescence into adulthood in the brothels and taverns that lined these streets. However, in 1918, the music ended and  Storyville became history, even making international headlines. After the doors closed to the infamous red-light district and before the glitter could comfortably settle comfortably on the shelves, the site was scrubbed clean and cleared out for the Iberville Housing Project. Today, there are few material remains from this provocative industry still lingering. At least that’s what we believed until some dusty glass negative plates were dug up in the 1960’s.

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A newspaper clipping from The Taylor Daily Press (Texas 1917)

EJ Bellocq

Bellocq got his start in the French Quarter, where he was born to a privileged French Creole family. While his beginnings were hardly humble, he was frequently spotted darting around the quarter with his camera as an amateur photographer. He soon picked up work commercially. Between 1895 and 1940 he made his living documenting landmarks, statues, ships, and machinery for local companies, and the Louisiana State Museum. Not surprisingly, with his skill and eye for photography, he likely got bored with static objects and began searching for more challenging and rewarding subjects such as the opium dens in Chinatown. Once the largest in the Southern United States, New Orleans’ Chinatown disappeared in the mid-1900s and so did Bellocq’s photographs of the dealings that happened behind closed curtains there.

While Bellocq’s photos may have been lost there, his ventures into documentary photography didn’t end in Chinatown. His most famous work today is his once secret stash of negatives portraying the women of Storyville. Bellocq was a frequent visitor of the brothels on Basin Street, though not for reasons most would suspect. He was an artist, and perhaps one of the only ones ever allowed to take pictures inside these institutions. Bellocq gives us a rare glimpse into these fascinating ladies of history, and the intimate spaces they occupied. His photos show women of varying figures, styles of dress, and levels of comfort. I highly encourage you to spend the time looking through all his beautiful portraits.

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Some of the ladies of Storyville photographed by E. J. Bellocq

You’ll notice as you look through his portraits that the faces have been violently scratched away from some of the nude images. There are many speculations as to why so many of these exist. Some suspect it was Bellocq’s own brother, a Jesuit priest, “defaced” these portraits when he found the stash among his deceased brother’s possessions. While the reason behind the intentional damage is uncertain, one thing is nearly for sure: the images were damaged in the emulsion process, leading many to believe Bellocq, himself, is the one responsible.

Bellocq’s been called a lot of things: a visionary, an artist, a dandy; and also some not so nice things: eccentric, senile, crazy. Many people, reporting on his life today, describe him as insane, hunched back, grotesque, dwarfish, and even hydrocephalic. I personally don’t believe these reports. Introvert artists are habitually pigeonholed and typecast into characterizations such as these due to wives tales, speculation, and sometimes jealousy. I do believe Bellocq may have been a little eccentric, as many artists, like myself, are. However, I also believe he had close relationships with many of the girls he photographed. Women in these photographs look comfortable, playful even. Many don masks and flirty poses, showing how comfortable they are with his presence. These women could’ve easily been his friends and confidants, as they were likely sociable, friendly and charismatic due to their profession. If the stories of his antisocial and neurotic behavior have any glimmer of truth, the ladies’ charisma and people skills would’ve put him effortlessly at ease. He likely felt comfortable in their presence, and felt a sense of responsibility to protect these women’s identity to some degree, and so censored their faces. Or perhaps some of the girls demanded this concession before allowing Storyville’s only “director of photography” access. Some believe he scratched out the faces out of some extreme neurotic fetishism, in an attempt to depersonalize the image. I don’t quite believe this either. As frequently as he visited the brothels, there’s never been a report of him doing anything but taking pictures, and there’s never been any record or evidence of him selling these images for profit in “blue books”.

Rumors of Bellocq’s odd demeanor increased near the end of his life and after his death. It’s said that he became more and more eccentric and unfriendly. Only his closest friends knew of these illicit photos in his possession. One of his doctors pondered his senility not long before his death. Many report, that in the final years of his life, he showed interest in nothing but photography, and spent his days drifting in and out of camera stores, and sometimes even falling asleep in them, which lent credence to his doctors’ claims and concerns.

Bellocq After Death

Bellocq was born, raised and died here in New Orleans, and in 1949 he was buried in Saint Louis Cemetery No. 3. Stories say that Bellocq stashed the memories of the women of Storyville under his couch and were later discovered by his brother. Hurricane Betsy destroyed most of these negatives in 1965. A few years later, however, another photographer by the name of Lee Friedlander acquired the negatives, some say from a junk shop, and gave a new life to Bellocq’s photography. In 1970 Bellocq’s photos were printed and hung in the Museum of Modern Art in New York and conjointly published in Storyville Portraits. In 1996 he was also published in Bellocq: Photographs from Storyville, once again breathing new life into his well-deserving work.

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Portrait of E. J. Bellocq

Since his posthumous fame, Bellocq’s hand-printed commercial and professional studio prints, have begun to resurface. While there are no Storyville prints by the photographer himself, this work, in particular, is what gives life to his name in and outside of New Orleans today. He is the namesake for Louisiana Tech University’s E. J. Bellocq Gallery of Photography, and is the subject of many books and films. Perhaps most notably, he lives on in the controversial box office movie: Pretty Baby (1978), starring a young Brooke Shields, Susan Sarandon, and Keith Carradine as Bellocq.

Here in New Orleans, we still have a speakeasy where at any moment you feel Bellocq could materialize. I imagine voices would dull to a purr as people watched him shuffle in to sit in the corner to nurse a drink and fumble awkwardly with a camera. On the skirt of Lee Circle there is a bar that dons his name, plush with velvet armchairs, soft curtains, and candles at every table. When I was there, on a Thursday night, it was an intimate tête-à-tête with the expert mixologist barkeep, who really helped set the atmosphere for my friend and me. In allegiance with the age, I ordered a Sazerac (a New Orleans invention I’ve always resented, but for the first time ever: thoroughly enjoyed) and the colonial punch of the day, handcrafted by our bartender, Matt. He combined cognac, and two kinds of rum, cinnamon, apricots and citrus for a punch that was reminiscent of this epoch of New Orleans history, and, perhaps more importantly, delicious to drink. He was eager to explain the drinks and their historical origins, show us a book about Bellocq, and swap cocktail recipes. While enjoying my drink, and surveying the elegance of the room, but was surprised when I noticed on the ceiling in the corner what looked like an ugly water stain from a distance, which seemed like a horrible oversight in the otherwise posh bar. However, when you get a closer look (which is exactly what our bartender Matt recommended), you’re struck with a sense of surprise. Here, I’ll admit, I’m a bit cruel. I won’t tell you what’s up there. I want to encourage everyone to check out this truly enchanting lounge for yourselves, sazerac in hand, and enjoy the whimsy of being transported back to a time of booze, illicit activity, and free flowing entertainment. Perhaps you can pay it a visit this July 6th, to celebrate (because here in New Orleans we’ll look for any excuse to do so) the start of Storyville, way back in 1987.

I’ve always had a sincere interest in how people of past generations lived, looked, and conducted themselves, especially when it came to the stories they weren’t allowed to tell us in history class. While Bellocq’s lovely ladies may not be history book approved, I think it’s a fascinating glimpse into this neglected and quickly forgotten time in New Orleans’ past. These portraits give us a cursory glimpse into the life of women that live behind curtains, veiled in mystery and sensuality. His pictures are touchstones, records of the time, and perhaps some of the only pictures inside this elusive and enigmatic industry.

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One of the ladies of Storyville photographed by E. J. Bellocq