Archives by the Lake: Life and Libraries in New Orleans
My dissertation explores the African American ideal of civil rights and their struggles to secure equal access to public facilities in postbellum New Orleans, a topic that repeatedly brought me to the city to conduct archival research regarding public school desegregation during the Reconstruction period. I spent days and days at the Earl K. Long Library’s Louisiana and Special Collections at the University of New Orleans (UNO) every summer between 2012 and 2015. UNO holds the largest collection of New Orleans School Board records from the 1840s to the 1990s.
Left: The author examining Orleans Parish School Board records in the Louisiana and Special Collections at the University of New Orleans, summer 2015. (Photo by Dr. Al Kennedy.)
When I first visited UNO, I found an abundance of untouched resources. Perhaps one of my greatest discoveries at UNO was the Fillmore School Register, a student admission list created between 1877 and 1884. The Fillmore School was one of the most highly desegregated schools in postbellum New Orleans. Furthermore, this is the only individual public school record available from the 1870s and 1880s. When I found this material in the multi-volume collection catalog, I knew I had stumbled upon a treasure trove that needed thorough study. The research I conducted as a result of this discovery led me to create a digital history project, “The Fillmore Boys School in 1877." Using the register and census data records, I developed an interactive map of students’ residential information that allows visitors to visualize the extent of the Fillmore School’s desegregation at the end of Reconstruction. Although I arrived in New Orleans from Chapel Hill with no connections to the area, many historians and genealogists I met at archives helped me conduct my research. The New Orleans public school records would not exist at all without the preservation efforts of Dr. Al Kennedy, proof of the importance of individuals in archival efforts. He has helped me read through the school collection at UNO and locate other public school records scattered around the city. The local New Orleans community has assisted me as well. One day at UNO, I met Lolita Villavasso Cherrie, co-founder of Creolegen, a non-profit organization that documents the history of Creole families in the Gulf South.1 She and her colleague Jari Honora helped me learn about Creole students at the Fillmore School and taught me how to do genealogical research at the archives. This research revealed how Creoles’ francophone, Catholic ethno-racial identities were intertwined with the desegregation of the Fillmore School.
I am always impressed by the strong sense of communal history in New Orleans and the role that archives play in connecting scholars with the community. Indeed, the longer I have stayed in New Orleans and the more often I return, the more these incredible individuals have begun to treat me as if I am a family member. My fond relationship with them, facilitated by archival work, motivated me to continue writing my dissertation.
- Creoles are a diverse group of people who trace their ancestry to inhabitants of Louisiana during the French and Spanish colonial periods.