Making Democracy Work

1950's Narrated by Sybil Haydel Morial

LWVNO HISTORY - 1950s by Sybil Haydel Morial

I was born in New Orleans and lived here until I went off to college in 1950. Those were years of rigid segregation in the city of New Orleans. And as an African American, and African American family, we had to deal with all that that brought to our lives: the humiliation, the being left out.

We had to make the adjustments because there was just no alternative. But my family and their friends succeeded in raising all of us, all of their children and my siblings, as a village. They provided lots of activities: picnics and Easter egg hunts. And we enjoyed all of the cultural activities at Xavier University and Dillard University, which were black universities. Back then, we could go to their operas. We could go to their theater presentations and hear their speakers. So we did get that exposure even though it was not the whole of New Orleans.

Voter registration during my early years was very difficult. That there were very few black people on the rolls. My husband said in the 50s that he observed that the numbers of black voters never went beyond 30%. The Registrar of Voters prevented black voters coming on the rolls and then the rolls were purged for various reasons.

The voter registration procedure was very involved and it was a humiliating experience for many black people. They had to pass a literacy test, a citizenship test, present appropriate identification--and on the whim of the deputy registrar, they would change what that was. And it was just a daunting experience because black people felt that they were not wanted. So our numbers stayed down and we were never a real force in any election.

I had grown up in the south, knowing what it meant and how it made me feel to be excluded from the whole. When I went to Boston to college, it was a whole new world. Everything was open to me and it was a wonderful experience. I always wanted things to change in the south because in Boston I experienced America as it should be. When I came home or even before I came home, I wanted to be involved to bring about that change.

When I was in Boston, Martin Luther King was a student at Boston University. He was in graduate school when I was in undergraduate school. He was part of our little cadre of southern black students who were enjoying the freedoms of the north but who were talking incessantly about what was to come. He was a strong influence on many of us from the south because he was an ordained minister before he came to work on his doctorate at Boston University. When a minister had to be out of town, they invited Martin to preach, and we always went to his sermons. And that was an enlightening experience for me each time I went to one of this sermons.

I was in Boston when the Supreme Court decision Brown v. Board of Education, which outlawed segregated public schools, came down. In Boston, we had to go to Roxbury, which was a suburb that had many African American residents, to find the national African American newspaper The Pittsburgh Courier. It kept us up to date on the court proceedings that were going on regarding Brown.

I was anticipating something soon. I was teaching in Boston at the time. I came home from work. My roommates were not there. I turned on the radio to put on some music and I heard this announcement. The Supreme Court was unanimous in the decision to outlaw segregation in public schools all over the country. I was just so thrilled. No one was around for me to talk to, so I got on the phone and called my parents. I called my sister. And, of course, when my roommates came home, we celebrated. That was the talk of my friends then. Over and over again. It's all we talked about.

I met with African American students who were at the Boston area schools: Harvard and MIT, Boston College, Boston University and other universities. And that's all we talked about. We were so excited about it. And those of us, who were from the south and had been enjoying all the freedoms of the north, agreed that we wanted to come back south because we wanted to be a part of the change.

We had no idea what that would mean. We didn't know but we just knew we wanted to be here. That's when I decided I wanted to be here. Of course, I had signed a contract to do another year in Massachusetts but I was really itching to get down south.

And shortly after that, it was in July, I came home for the summer. It was right after I came home that I met my husband, Earnest "Dutch" Morial. He was a young lawyer and we talked about the Brown decision and what it would mean and that was the beginning of our relationship. Not our love relationship but our person to person relationship with common interests, but it developed into a romance and we married shortly after that.

After we married, Dutch was drafted into the Army and was stationed in Baltimore at Fort Holabird in the intelligence corp. So I ended up spending the year in Massachusetts and began teaching there.

In 1954, the schools in Baltimore integrated voluntarily. I was hired to teach in a formerly white school with 30 white teachers and 5 black teachers. These white teachers had never interacted with black people who were their peers. That was quite an experience. But it wasn't until the end of that year when my husband was discharged from the Army that we came home and he resumed his legal practice with A. P. Tureaud.

Dutch was very involved in civil rights. I was at home with two little ones and I couldn't wait for him to come home to tell me what was going on. But that wasn't enough. I wanted to be involved myself. So I joined the Urban League Guild, which is the auxiliary group to the Urban League in New Orleans. That's what I could do at that time. I had two children and I was about to go back to teaching also.

When I began teaching in New Orleans public schools, the schools were still segregated. It wasn't until 1962 that they began integrating so I was in an all-black school in the Desire Housing Project. It had an all-black faculty.

I was a little bit involved with the Urban League Guild, but I needed more than that. I belonged to a small social group. There were eight of us: young black women who had young children who also had jobs. Many of them were teachers. We looked at the landscape and decided we needed to do more than just rummage sales and other nice things that women's groups did back then. I had talked to someone who had heard Coretta Scott King speak and she had said to all of them, go back home and do something. So I brought up the subject of getting involved in voter registration because I knew from talking to my husband how critical this was, that we had to have a voice and, in order to have a voice, we had to become registered voters.

I had heard that the League of Women Voters was doing a lot in voter registration at that time. I knew a League leader who was from New York and who had moved here. Her husband was teaching at UNO. And she said you ought to join the League of Women Voters of New Orleans because we do voter registration. I said, well, maybe. She said, let me find out. Evidently she was privy to efforts being made to integrate the League of Women Voters, the New Orleans Chapter and the Louisiana Chapter. I had no idea what was going on but my friend finally told me they're not ready. There was a state law that had been on the books for decades excluding blacks from public placed but also prohibiting blacks and whites from meeting together and, of course, eating together. So if any whites or blacks met together, even in their own homes, it could've gotten out and could've created a problem not only for the League of Women Voters but for their members. In 1961, when the Louisiana Legislature was frantically enacting segregationist laws to preserve the status quo, one of the laws that was passed was that anyone who belonged to an organization advocating integration would be dismissed if they were employees of the state. New Orleans Public School teachers were paid by the state so that meant that they could be dismissed. Many of the members of the NAACP were teachers and they gave up their membership because they couldn't risk losing their jobs or their tenure. So that was a really, really rough law that not only applied to public school teachers, it was meant to frighten anyone from belonging to an organization that supported integration.

Since I could not join the League of Women Voters at that time, I went on with organizing my friends into our own women's group: The Louisiana League of Good Government. I was the founding president. We decided to go into black neighborhoods and do workshops to review the registration procedure because many people who were not registered voters had no idea what was expected of them to become a registered voter. We selected four neighborhoods. We met in churches because black churches were the only safe places and the only places where we felt we could do this. We did voter registration workshops and we encouraged the people attending to go get registered. We accompanied them sometimes.

At this time the segregationist were actively stirring up more dissent and more division in the community. Voter registration became even more difficult then. We were getting negative behavior from the deputy registrars which discouraged some of our people. But my group encouraged them to go back. This is your right, we told them. You don't let them do that. If they humiliate you just go on and become a registered voter. Do what you have to do. So those were bad times in Louisiana when those laws were front page news and discussed on the talk radio shows and television news.

We decided to have a membership luncheon because we needed more people to do what we were doing. So guess who was the speaker at our luncheon? Mathilde Dreyfus, who was a president of League of Women Voters of Louisiana. She and Rosa Keller were very informed. I knew them both. They helped the Louisiana League of Good Government. Mathilde knew what was going on and that the League of Women Voters was not ready yet to admit black members so she helped me set up the organization and Rosa offered financial support. They were strong backers of our efforts.

Integration of the New Orleans schools finally began in the 1960s and it was really horrendous. Two schools integrated with four little girls in one school and one little girl in another school. These first graders caused such a ruckus they had to be escorted into schools by US marshals, and then the whites stayed away so that these young children, these girls who integrated the schools, were taught with no white students there. Or just a few.

Some of the League of Women Voters members, those who were adamant in being inclusive and inviting African Americans to be members, became a part of Save Our Schools, which was a group of white women who were driving the children to school, who were positively talking about this is America.

In the early 1960s, the League of Women Voters had finally worked out their plan to admit black members. Edith Boggs was a young women who had moved to New Orleans from St. Louis. Her husband was a physician. She had been a member of the St. Louis League of Women Voters. She transferred to the New Orleans League of Women Voters and they accepted her because it was a transfer. She was already a member. So that sort of broke the ice and opened the door. Shortly after that, I was asked to join the League of Women Voters. I told them that our organization, which we had founded because of our rejection, was doing fine. We were getting more members. We were focusing on the black community which was our real concern.

So I did not join at that time but a couple of years later, I did join. I think Felicia Kahn was the president then. I got involved in the education study that they were doing. They were studying New Orleans Public Schools and, as a public school teacher, I brought another perspective to that study because I knew what was going on in schools and could share that with them.

In 1963, my husband and I decided to challenge the Louisiana law that forbid state employees from being a member of an organization that promoted integration. I was a plaintiff and he was my attorney. We challenged the law and for a little while, there was no response in the courts. But in 1964, the Civil Rights Act became law and things began to open up and all of the segregationist laws were repealed en masse.