NEW ORLEANS—The communities of New Orleans have deep roots.
Fatima Shaik is the author of a newly published book titled: Economy Hall: The Hidden History of a Free Black Brotherhood. Her research began quite early because when she was a child, her father found a small library of handwritten records in a dumpster in their seventh ward community of New Orleans. The records dated back to a time before the civil war, emancipation for the rest of the country, and to a time where a free people of color community in New Orleans actively prospered.
The book is based on Economy Hall, a mutual aid organization, founded in the 1800’s. Slavery was the paramount reality, but a society of free people of color held discussion about the right to vote for African Americans, as well as a need in supporting a progressive republican party.
Highlighted in the book are the voiced of many members from that historic time. The main voice comes from Ludger Boguille, who was the Secretary of Economy Hall.
Shaik says her research was a delight and it helped to connect her to her own heritage, saying, “I found that I could understand Ludger’s personality, by reading the curls he made in his writing. When he was really excited his writing got bigger. He made exclamation points and underlines and when he was particularly happy, he drew hearts and stars. It was fun to watch his emotions.”
The book begins in 1857 at a party, with free people of color celebrating the beginning of Economy Hall, not knowing that the end of slavery, and later on eventual beginning of Jim Crow, would disrupt the exceptional freedoms of creoles of color.
Shaik says, “this party takes place near the time of the Dread Scott decision. The Dread Scott decision is saying that people of African descent would never be citizens of the United States. Dread Scott was a landmark decision holding a ruling that the Constitution was not meant to include American citizenship for free or enslaved blacks. The American rights in the Constitution therefore, would not protect any with African blood. Many of these people at this Economy Hall party, had never been enslaved and their families had not been enslaved. They were scoffing at the Dread Scott decision. They thought it was a ridiculous concept and they were drinking champagne and smoking cigars.”
The members of Economy Hall, like all free people of color were an exception, with the hall standing as a fortress throughout the story of race in America. The hall survived until about 1970.
New Orleans was a stark contrast. For decades, there was a free people of color community because of the Spanish law of coartación, which allowed for self manumission. However, just six hours away in Galveston, Texas, the enslaved would have to wait until two years after the Emancipation Proclamation, when Union soldiers came in to the area.
When freedom came in 1865, a lot of changes were already underway. The definition of creole, originally included any mixture of Spanish, French, African or Native American heritage. The definition of creole meant “of the Americas.” the term Creole adapted to define those who were of mixed race, when the United States assumed control of Louisiana in 1803. This was just five years before 1808, when slave ship transport was outlawed. As of consequence, many creoles of color either passed for white, to escape harsh treatment, or they joined with the newly freed African American population.
“Unlike much of the country, half of the population of New Orleans was free. Creoles of color started to align with people who were newly enfranchised. They were marching for the same rights. All of these people were disenfranchised after reconstruction,” says Shaik.
The first meeting of Economy Hall was held on What is now Dauphine but would move to Treme off of what is now Ursuline street.
The Economy Hall book, details the halls members outlasting slavery and many major events, including, how the hall would play a key role in the creation of jazz music.
On June 11, 1865, There was a proper New Orleans festival celebrating emancipation in Congo Square. Ludger Boguille was the organizer of the event and a passage from the book reads as follows:
Fatima Shaik wants readers to see a active and progressive spirt that bean early on and continued in Louisiana , saying, “what I found out after I started following Ludger Boguille was that his family had come from Haiti and that his father probably fought in the Haitian Revolution. I would like people to see this progress of thought.”