By Thomas Kennedy Lowenstein
When I moved to New Orleans in 2008, I took a job as an investigator for a law firm that looked into cases of wrongful conviction—men who were in prison for crimes they hadn’t committed. Our office was in the Bywater neighborhood; stopping for coffee on my way to work, I would see lots of earnest young professionals or artists, up early to work on their laptops and talk into their cell phones. They are one aspect of modern New Orleans, part of the influx of people who moved to town after Hurricane Katrina destroyed the city in 2005.
Further away from the river, up by St. Claude Avenue, the Bywater is a mostly-African-American, high poverty part of town, where most of the small, old houses with peeling paint and rusted iron bars across their windows hold families. Outside some of them are flashy new SUVs with big, bright rims; maybe a couple of young men hanging around, eyeing you as you drive by. It can be a violent part of town; New Orleans is the murder capitol of the United States and that area of town had its share.
Just down the river is the French Quarter, the oldest part of New Orleans and the most famous; people come to the French Quarter from all over the world to drink and eat and listen to music. It’s full of neon signs and bars with the doors and windows wide open so you can hear the music, and incredibly bright bars that make incredibly strong drinks in to-go cups. Tourists walk around holding these drinks in plastic cups. In the doorways of the strip clubs, bored-looking women in lingerie lean against the wall while loud men rush at anyone who looks at the women, calling for them to come inside, come inside.
My job as an investigator was to drive around New Orleans trying to force open various pasts that most people didn’t want to see opened. Since entire neighborhoods had been washed away, finding people could be very difficult. Some days, I drove to four addresses looking for a person, only to find that each address had either been completely destroyed or simply didn’t exist anymore.
One of the cases I worked on involved a murder that had happened out in New Orleans East, a section of town that had been nearly wiped out by the storm. When I went to the scene of the crime, the house where the murder occurred was easy to spot—it wasn’t a house anymore, just the wood frame of one, with two or three concrete steps leading down from where the door had been, but it was the only structure that still existed on its block. I stood there and tried to picture the crime, looking out at houses across the street that had been badly damaged; at the outline of the house that had been next door; wondering how I could possibly reach back through the storm, and all the years of decay before it, to bring this story to life again. It was one of those crimes that would not have been high priority for anyone—one African-American drug dealer murdered, probably by another. The defendant’s trial took an hour or so, and at the end, he was taken off the witness stand by force, calling out that he was innocent, that his lawyer hadn’t helped him, that he hadn’t even had a chance to tell his story. He was very likely innocent.
In America, our founding ideal was simple and wonderful: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with inalienable Rights,” reads our Declaration of Independence. We meant to create a country that made every person equal, able to rise or fall on his own merits.
A great idea, and one, it’s worth remembering, not generally valued in the world at large at that point.
Great ideas are hard to live up to, and we’ve always had trouble living up to ours. Between 1861 and 1865, we fought a vicious Civil War when our southern states seceded in order to be able to continue the practice of keeping slaves. The North won the war and the slaves were freed, but white southerners simply switched tactics, launching campaigns of murder and terror to demonstrate to African-Americans throughout the South that they had no rights and could be killed for anything that made a white man unhappy: trying to vote, for example, or looking at a white sheriff the wrong way, or brushing against a white lady by accident.
Throughout the late 19th and early 20th centuries, thousands of African-Americans were arrested on fake charges like vagrancy, fined sums of money they could never pay by corrupt judges, and sent to work for coal mines or sugar plantations or various other kinds of brutal labor until they had “paid off” their fines. Usually they would then get fined again and have to stay. Thousands of African-American men died like this.
Our modern justice system, then, was built in conflict with itself: one part, the brutality, fostered by a culture that dictated that African-Americans were not fully people the way whites were; the other part, the ideals of freedom and equal protection under the law that we have sometimes achieved.
One aspect of the transition from slavery to “freedom” is alive and well a few hours from New Orleans: the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola, Louisiana. Angola got its name because, before the Civil War, it was a plantation named Angola and most of the slaves who lived, worked, and died there came from that far-off country. It sits on a peninsula in the Mississippi River, 18,000 acres, water on three sides and a fence on the fourth.
The first time I saw Angola prison, it was a clear, hot day. We stopped at the main gate to check-in and get searched, then drove, following our escort a couple of miles, passing the camps—prison buildings surrounded by barbed wire—and fields; somewhere on the prison grounds there’s a golf course and a town for the families of the men and women who work there. In a field, there was a group of inmates, all African-American, in a line, two-by-two, working. A little way from them, a white guard sat on a horse, the butt of a shotgun resting on his hip. It looked like a picture I’ve seen of slaves working in a cotton field before the Civil War. I learned later that the inmates at Angola call the guards “Freemen.”
After our civil war, the men who had fought bravely and passionately to destroy the Unites States were not punished. They were openly treated as heroes in the South and lived out their days in peace, before passing into the realm of statues and street names. This can be strange to northerners who come down here—is there really a street named after Robert E. Lee, the leader of the southern army? And a statue and a street named for General P.T. Beauregard, a southern general? In many southern states, the Confederate (Southern) battle flag hangs over courthouses, or on monuments to confederate dead alongside the courthouse. In some states, the southern battle flag is even part of the state flag.
One day, I travelled with several of my colleagues to a town in Mississippi to be there for the release of a man who had spent 30 years in prison for a murder he hadn’t committed. Outside the courthouse, we gathered on the steps, waiting for him to be freed. Next to the courthouse was a large statue of a Confederate soldier, topped by a large confederate flag.
The day was bright, not too hot. Eventually our client was handed two laundry bags with everything he owned in them and set free. He had nowhere to go, so one of our lawyers was going to let him crash at her house for a while. We walked with him past the statue to a restaurant across the street, where he had his first meal as a free man. Someone handed him a cell phone to talk to his sister in California; he’d never held one before, and it took him a minute to get the hang of it.
In the years after our Civil War, gangs of white southerners won back what they had lost in the war: anyone who had any African-American blood lost their rights. Though the constitution was amended to say that all citizens are due equal protection of the law—that how you were treated would have nothing to do with your skin color—by the end of the 19th century, the Supreme Court had ruled that “equal” did not have to mean “together”: white people could keep black people completely segregated as long as the facilities each had were of equal quality.
That decision came out of the New Orleans case of an African-American named Homer Plessy, who was arrested in 1892 for trying to ride a streetcar with whites. He was arrested at the corner of Royal and Press streets—a few blocks from our office in the Bywater. “Separate but equal” became the law of the land. The separate happened, but the equal never did; white schools, white hospitals, white libraries were almost always better than their counterparts for black people. Blacks in the south couldn’t use the same bathrooms or drink from the same fountains as whites.
Not too long after Mr. Plessy was arrested, jazz music was “invented” in New Orleans—the only uniquely American form of music there is, people down here will tell you. And that past is still living here, too—in the French Quarter, in the Marigny, in Treme. All over New Orleans, people play music, appreciate music, love music. Funerals here have music and marching. High School bands are a big deal.
Treme, which is very near the French Quarter and the Bywater, is known as the first community of free African-Americans in the country. This is another part of New Orleans that is unique and loved by the people here—long before our Civil War, lots of free African-Americans lived here, creating their own institutions and culture, including the musical culture that everyone here values so highly. Not far from Treme is Congo Square, so known because, before our Civil War, it held one of the largest slave markets in the country.
The existence of this African-American community and culture must have made “separate but equal” seem plausible to many white New Orleanians, but by the 1950’s, separate but equal had been proven a farce. World War II helped with that—America spent 3 ½ years and thousands and thousands of lives fighting a country, Nazi Germany, that had been founded on an ideal of racial purity, and in the wake of that kind of sacrifice, people began to wonder how we could put up with our own racists holding such complete power over the men and women of a race they deemed inferior.
And so, African-Americans, who had never stopped pushing against the bounds of their re-enslavement, pushed even harder, and many more whites realized the system as it was was indefensible. Some northerners came south to help again. White southerners resisted again, and there was widespread violence again. But we got a little closer to our ideals.
When Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, the city had a black mayor and a black police chief, and yet the storm laid bare, for anyone who looked, how profoundly the two hundred years of systemic racism had rotted the very frame of the city. Most of the people who couldn’t evacuate in time were black, so most of the people jammed into the Superdome or the Convention Center were black. Most of the people plucked off of rooftops were black. When a group of blacks tried to walk across a bridge to get away from the flooded city, the sheriffs from the neighboring community lined up and fired rifle shots over their heads to get them to turn back. The New Orleans Police officers were involved in a number of unjustified shootings, mostly involving blacks.
If these shootings were not intentionally racist, like the murders that brought the end of Reconstruction, it also was not a coincidence that the victims were mostly black. The local authorities never charged any of the shooters. Finally, years after the storm, the Federal government came in and took over, sending the police who murdered people and those who helped them lie about it to prison.
The gaudy surface of the French Quarter is layered thinly on the past: there are restaurants, hotels, and bars that have been there for a hundred years, some for longer than that. There’s a bar that was, in the 18th century, the home of a famous pirate. Walking through the Quarter, as it’s called, surrounded by this generation of tourists, it’s easy to feel that this is just our moment, our turn to drink our drinks and eat our food before we give way to the next generation. It’s easy to understand that our past was built by people just as flawed and discouraged but hopeful as we are—not just the strong famous ones who made it into history.
In the mornings, small trucks with large tanks of lemon-scented water drive through the Quarter, spraying the streets and gutters clean so that the new day’s drinkers will start fresh. A fine lemon mist hovers behind the trucks for a while. It’s quiet for a few hours in the Quarter; the jazz musicians, bartenders, strippers, and tourists are mostly asleep.
In all the other neighborhoods, people are getting up and going to work.
Thomas Kennedy Lowenstein is the author of The Ghost Detective.