St. Bernard Parish is trying to recreate the isolated, backward community it maintained so carefully prior to Hurricane Katrina. By passing an ordinance that restricts rentals to blood relatives, this formerly almost entirely white parish would be freed of most of its Hispanic and African-American residents and pushed back to its status prior to the storm, the 1950s… St. Bernard needs outside assistance if it is ever to enter the second half of the 20th century, much less the 21st. This racist ordinance needs to be declared unconstitutional and the leaders closely monitored until they repent or resign.
–Letter to the Editor, New Orleans Times Picayune, October 1, 2006
I am proud of St. Bernard for wanting to maintain its affordable, but also stable, family-oriented atmosphere. I am tired of people…who attribute our desire for stable, family-oriented neighborhoods to racism!
–Response from a St. Bernard Parish resident, New Orleans Times Picayune, October 4, 2006
As you drive east on Claiborne Avenue through New Orleans’s famously devastated Lower Ninth Ward, you pass the destroyed remains of the Jackson Barracks, a nineteenth-century military base. Suddenly, the print on the street signs and the race of the people on the streets changes, and you find yourself on Judge Perez Drive in St. Bernard Parish. Both sides of the parish line were so devastated by Hurricane Katrina that the view here would bring tears to the eyes of both William C.C. Claiborne, the first elected governor of the state of Louisiana, and Leander Perez, the political boss of St. Bernard and Plaquemines parishes through much of the early and mid-twentieth century, for whom these streets were named.
Most Americans have heard about people, mostly black and poor, dying in their attics in the Lower Ninth Ward and seen television footage of the utter devastation left behind after the storm. Far fewer have heard of the struggle on the St. Bernard side of the line, where people, overwhelmingly white, toil in obscurity and against monumental obstacles to create a future in a parish that extends with little fingers of land through the bayous out to the Gulf of Mexico and where nearly all homes were rendered uninhabitable by the storm. People here feel overlooked but unsurprised. Being ignored, kicked around, set aside–these are facts that are etched into their collective history from a century of environmental exploitation, an intentional levee breach during the 1927 flood to save New Orleans’s Garden District, devastation from Hurricane Betsy in 1965, a “trappers’ war” with outsiders down in the marsh, and now Katrina.
In the early 1960s, Bill Schmidt took this drive across the parish line and moved his family here for good. Schmidt had grown up in the proud but castigated white working-class Lower Ninth Ward, where New Orleans “Y’at” culture was in full bloom, with ethnic whites speaking in a manner that sounded more Brooklyn than Montgomery. He was in the last wave of an exodus of his white friends and neighbors from the Lower Ninth, where the Orleans Parish School Board had recently begun integrating the city’s schools by ordering William Frantz Elementary School to accept the brave black 6-year-old Ruby Bridges.
According to Liva Baker’s Second Battle of New Orleans, this was the “worst possible choice of schools from which to launch racial desegregation.” As she described, “Ninth Ward whites were not much better off [than their black neighbors]. Originally settled by German, Italian, and French immigrants, the area began life as a truck-gardening section in the nineteenth century and remained a predominantly white working class section in the twentieth. Over the fifteen years since the end of World War II, white New Orleanians had been moving to the northeastern outskirts of the city, out toward Lake Pontchartrain, as fast as swampland could be reclaimed, leaving the Ninth Ward to those who couldn’t afford to move. Many of them had been defeated in the competition for material success and were least equipped psychologically to handle the added humiliation they believed racial desegregation of their children’s schools would impose. That they lived in a housing project already had demoted them to the level of the black families who lived in the nearby all-black neighborhood. ‘At least I’m not a nigger’ counted for less now than it once had. The prospect of black children transferring from the neighborhood black schools to the neighborhood white schools promised the final injustice.”