It’s interesting that in the last year there have been two books published about what were famous kidnapping incidents in Louisiana. In the early part of the twentieth century was the Bobby Dunbar case wherein a little child wanders off, disappears, and is suspected to be a victim of kidnapping and apparently turns up later in the possession of an itinerant tinker. The book entitled A Case for Soloman shows just how duplicitous the news media can be and how their supposedly honest reportage of the supposed facts can influence a court case.
This latest such book, The Great New Orleans Kidnapping Case by Michael A. Ross, points up what initially was the opportunity but finally the tragedy of Reconstruction and what it wrought for the blacks in the South and especially New Orleans.
After the Civil War Republicans sought to correct the injustices that had been done to these people for so long. During these attempts at reconstruction blacks could hold public office and barriers to black-white equality were slowly and painfully starting to come down.
During this time in New Orleans blacks were allowed on the police force and one of the main characters in this book, an intelligent, refined, light-skinned Afro-Creole detective name John Baptiste Jourdain, was instrumental in attempting to crack this case of a white Irish baby who was stolen in broad daylight by two well-dressed and apparently refined light-skinned Negroes. (Descendants of Jourdain now own Lil Dizzy’s Cafe on Esplanade Avenue.)
Back in the early days of New Orleans there were many free people of color who, prior to New Orleans becoming part of the United States, had businesses, careers and many of whom were well-respected artisans in the city. The white and black populace intermixed rather freely and out of that came liaisons that produce many mixed-race children.
Although it was still against the law for the races to intermarry it was an accepted practice for many married white men to have a black or mixed-race mistress. The French who settled Louisiana and New Orleans had a very different attitude about race than the English who settled America.
Even under the slave regime, Creoles of color took great pride in the Francophone identity they shared with White Creoles. [Both] read French language periodicals, and relished wine, food served with rich sauces, and French colonial architecture. White Creoles patronized black Creole butchers, grocers, tailors, carpenters, masons and mechanics…
The city’s francophone Masonic Lodges accepted members across racial lines. Both black and white Creoles felt culturally besieged by the tens of thousands of Americans after 1803, and subsequent waves of German and Irish immigrants. They disdained the rough Kentucky flatboatmen, noveau-riche South Carolina planters, impecunious Irish, and blunt northern merchants filling the city’s newest neighborhoods. [And] the relationship between white and black Creoles was usually one of good will and mutual respect.’
The big tragedy of our city is that when it became part of the United States a whole culture of free people of color or gens de couleur libre, who enjoyed more equality with the French inhabitants, was basically destroyed. The American whites, new to the city and who were bringing their own laws and customs, put all blacks and even those light-skinned, educated creoles of mixed race in the same category.
If you were black you were less than. If you were black you were the same as a slave whether you were free or not. And slaves and their descendants could only be servants and could not stand on any equal footing with whites no matter how refined and educated they may have be.
So during Reconstruction these refined, educated Afro-Creoles were able to enjoy more freedom and the possibility of advancement in business and politics. This is why Detective Jourdain was such an important figure in this story. And why when Reconstruction ended in failure it spelled a tragic time for those of African ancestry especially in New Orleans.
Blacks here enjoyed a lot more freedom than in the rest of the country, and all of that came crashing down when Reconstruction ended. There was a backlash of pro-Confederate, white supremacist southerners and it did not matter if you were light-skinned, educated and refined, you were black and as such not equal. These folks had their opportunities stripped away and it was not till 100 years later that things began to finally change.
A fascinating, real whodunit, the author’s done an extraordinary job of making it read almost like a detective novel, with sparse and straight-forward, engaging prose. It’s a real page-turner. Especially well done are the court scenes that use the actual dialogue from the case. You can almost feel the heat and the claustrophobic air of the courtroom. The story is populated with fascinating local characters who would easily fit right into the New Orleans of today.
And like A Case for Soloman it points at how the newspapers of the day sought to influence the outcome of a case with speculation and twisted facts. It seems not much has changed.
The kidnapping and the subsequent court case depicted in The Great New Orleans Kidnapping Case takes place in that window of opportunity for blacks during Reconstruction. It makes the book important for anyone who wants to understand what blacks in New Orleans faced, had attained and what they eventually lost. And also how New Orleans culture suffered because of it.
It’s also for anyone who enjoys a really juicy whodunit.