Before We Begin:
This website is the result of a semester-long digital humanities project exploring the early history of Black New Orleans, the rise of mutual aid and benevolent societies, and the resultant second line jazz tradition that the city gave birth to.
For a musical accompaniment while you read, please open the linked Spotify playlist.
More information about this project, an interactive GIS map, and additional resources may be found by scrolling to the end of this page.
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Part 1. Black New Orleans: The Early Days
The establishment of one of the most culturally important French-speaking cities in the Americas occurred relatively early. French exploration and claims to the entire Mississippi Valley in the late 17th century established French dominion over 1 million square miles of North America and prepared the way for a French fort and city at the mouth of the Mississippi River. Bienville Le Moyne, representative of the Company of the West, received orders to clear forest at the site of the current day French Quarter, a point, as required in his charter, "thirty leagues up the river [...] where landing would be possible from either the river or Lake Pontchartrain." Named for Regent of France, Phillippe, duc d'Orleans, Nouvelle Orleans is thus born in 1718. [ 1 ]
Part 2. The Rise and Fall of Mutual Aid
Even in a nation inclined to "constantly form associations," as [Alexis] de Tocqueville observed in 1831, residents of New Orleans excelled in organizing lodges, religious groups, literary societies, charitable organizations, sporting clubs, social clubs, and, most of all, benevolent societies - the most popular - and practical - organizations to which [the] polyglot population flocked.
-Leslie Gale Parr, "Sundays in the Streets" 
By the mid-nineteenth century, New Orleans had become one of the most cosmopolitan cities in all of North America. A major port city, and the largest and most important city in the southern United States, it was second only to New York City in terms of net immigration between the years 1837-1860. New Orleans attracted 52,011 immigrants during 1851, which was equal to new arrivals that year in Boston, Philadelphia and Baltimore combined. Between 1820 and 1860, over half a million newcomers made their way to America via the Port of New Orleans. Immigrants during this time period hailed from all over the world, and they left their cultural imprint on the city. Leslie Gale Parr, Professor of Communications and Director of the Center for the Study of New Orleans at Loyola University, describes how, "by 1850, the mixture of older and newer arrivals - French, Spanish, Africans, English, Germans, Irish, Greeks, Swiss, Portuguese, Italians, Cubans, Filipinos, Mexicans, Croats, Slavs, Chinese, Sicilians, and others - produced the fifth largest and one of the most ethnically diverse cities in the United States." 
Yet as New Orleans grew to be one of the most important and cosmopolitan American cities, the city's efforts in the area of public health were unable to keep pace with the large influx of immigrants. In her seminal work Social Welfare in the South, sociologist Elizabeth Wisner describes how prevailing attitudes around the topic of social aid and welfare stifled public investment in relief programs for the poor and destitute of New Orleans. Wisner posits that this outlook largely arose out of the Roman Catholic beliefs of the city's earliest settlers, who considered the church and private charity to be the primary caretakers of the city's poor. Even as yellow fever ravaged the city in 1822, the city's mayor, while acknowledging the desperate situation, nevertheless professed that "in circumstances so grave and injurious, public benevolence is much less effective and less powerful than private charity." Relative to neighboring southern states, Louisiana did not pass legislation requiring public aid for the state's impoverished until very late, in 1880, and in subsequent years, New Orleans would lag behind nearly every other major city in the amount spent per capita on public welfare. An 1899 report found that New Orleans' investment in its aid programs to be "trifling," at about three cents per person, and as late as 1930, this trend continued. [ 11 ]
New Orleans [would become the] nation's filthiest, least healthy, and most death-prone major city for much of the nineteenth century, a fact oftentimes denied or covered up by [the] city's commercial interests.
-Geographer Richard Campanella, Bienville's Dilemma 
At the same time, there was no shortfall of disease and unsanitary conditions within the city proper. Wisner attributes this in large part to New Orleans being a "major port in a semitropical climate near the mouth of the Mississippi River," where "shipping and epidemic disease [were] closely associated." Similar port cities in the American South -- including Savannah, Charleston, Mobile and Natchez -- all experienced occasional epidemics during this period. But no American city matched New Orleans for the intensity that scourges of yellow fever, cholera, typhus, malaria, ship fever and smallpox regularly visited upon the city's populace. Parr reports that the local government's investment in sanitation was completely lacking, and municipal piped drinking water was filthy, causing many people to drink from open cisterns of rainwater. This only aggravated the occurrence of mosquito-borne disease. Official records indicate that no fewer than 41,348 died from yellow fever between the years of 1793 and 1901, and in one especially bad outbreak of cholera in 1853, at least 8,000 reportedly died. In spite of these tragedies, the city's response was again trifling -- perhaps most remarkably due to the fact there were no governmental agencies tasked with monitoring or improving public health. Indeed, boards of health, such as they existed, were all-volunteer organizations staffed by concerned citizens, and had no governmental oversight. Not surprisingly, immigrant and black communities suffered disproportionately from these developments. Rates of mortality for poor and working-class African Americans were particularly high during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Parr summarizes: "Often living in crowded quarters with few sanitation services, drinking unsanitary water, having little access to health care ... and excluded because of their race from most charitable institutions, African Americans suffered significantly more health problems and higher death rates than whites." 
The aid dispensed through governments and organized charities during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was not only minimal, but carried a great stigma. [Benevolent societies] allowed Americans to provide social welfare services that could be had in no other way.
-David T. Bieto, From Mutual Aid to the Welfare State 
It was only natural that in this environment African Americans and immigrants would seek out opportunities for mutual aid. In the period between the end of the Civil War through the 1880's, more than 226 such benevolent associations formed in New Orleans alone. The organizations were based on the idea that dues-paying members would support one another in times of financial hardship and beyond for all manner of social welfare services, including lodge practice-style healthcare, retirement pensions, medical and life insurance, and funeral and burial benefits. Perhaps equally important, such organizations provided for the spiritual and social needs of the community. In his book From Mutual Aid to the Welfare State, historian David T. Beito of the University of Alabama explains, "fraternal aid rested on the ethical principle of reciprocity. Donors and recipients often came from the same, or nearly the same, walks of life; today's recipient could be tomorrow's donor, and vice versa." By 1897, he reports that 55,000 adults, or approximately one fifth of the population of New Orleans belonged to fraternal societies offering their members pastoral and healthcare benefits. Citing what may be exaggerated data from an 1888 medical journal, Claude Jacobs, associate professor emeritus of behavioral sciences at University of Michigan-Dearborn, notes that "an estimated four-fifths of the local [black] population belonged to [benevolence societies]" during this period. Whatever the exact figures, it is clear that huge numbers participated. This development in New Orleans certainly mirrored a larger trend across the United States; but according to Beito, New Orleans represents "the oldest and most extensive traditions of lodge practice" in the country. The charter documents of the New Lusitanos Benevolent Association (1858--ca. 1920) are suggestive of the greater movement; Parr reports that the organization would "support and aid all members, when ill and in need of help, to bury those members who are called by the Supreme Maker, to console the parents, and to aid and support their widows and orphans." 
In spite of their enormous growth during the previous 100 years, mutual aid societies had reached their zenith by the early twentieth century. Bieto and others point out that by 1910, "more Americans belonged to lodges than any other kind of organization aside from churches." And 20 years later, The President's Research Committee on Social Trends produced a report which indicated that fully 20 million Americans belonged to such societies, though actual numbers may have been as high as 35 million nationwide. However, the period of huge growth that had characterized the nineteenth century was by this point past. Bieto analyzes a series of important changes that impacted lodge membership, including changing attitudes toward benevolent societies, management and recruitment challenges faced by the organizations, and new forms of entertainment and recreation which were entering the popular consciousness. But perhaps no challenge was greater for mutual aid societies than that posed by the Great Depression, and the subsequent societal changes it wrought. 
Nationwide unemployment grew rapidly in the early years of the Depression, peaking at 25% in 1933. Not surprisingly, lodge membership declined accordingly. Members with no source of income found their payment of dues falling into arrears. Often non-paying members were given opportunities to get back into good standing with the society, but habitual delinquency would prove problematic for the society's finances. At the same time, private insurance had become available to more and more individuals who still could manage to pay health insurance premiums. Similarly, the creation of federal welfare through the 1935 Social Security Act and other New Deal programs provided access for millions to new forms of governmental aid which had previously been unavailable. Investment into state and local welfare programs also improved. Parr suggests that "black associations tended to survive longer than most white organizations, bolstered by need, custom, and social offerings." But even these would eventually see their membership and influence decline. Many societies would not recover from the major challenges posed by the 1930's, and a great number closed their doors during this time. Some organizations would ultimately survive, but of those that did, the vast majority no longer offered traditional insurance benefits to their members. Surviving groups morphed into the so-called "social aid and pleasure societies," which focused their energies on building community and providing entertainment and cultural offerings to their members. Though the cultural impact of New Orleans mutual aid societies would prove to be incredibly profound, the rise of the modern welfare state marked a drastic change in the scope and core mission of these organizations. 
Part 3. The Bands
You see, New Orleans was very organization-minded. I have never seen such beautiful clubs as they had there -- the Broadway Swells, the High Arts, the Orleans Aides, the Bulls and Bears, the Tramps, the Iroquois, the Allegroes -- that was just a few of them, and those clubs would parade at least once a week. They'd have a great big band. The grand marshal would ride in front with his aides behind him, all with expensive sashes and streamers.
-Jelly Roll Morton, New Orleans Jazz Pioneer 
In his work Music in New Orleans: The Formative Years 1791-1841, Henry Kmen emphasizes that parades and bands were integral to the social fabric of New Orleans from almost the very earliest days of the colony. "It began early and grew fast, this romance between New Orleans and parades," he asserts. The historical record shows that as early as 1787, the Spanish Governor Esteban Rodríguez Miró decided to entertain a visiting delegation of thirty-six Choctaw and Chickasaw chiefs with a parade through the town center. As the city grew, so grew the musical forms. Military bands, drum and fife corps, veterans bands, and other neighborhood ensembles formed at a rigorous pace during the antebellum years. It was only natural that mutual aid societies and a growing community of immigrant groups would add their own musical influence to the mix. Even outside of the Mardi Gras and Carneval traditions for which New Orleans would become most famous, the early days of the colony witnessed parades for all manner of public events: national holidays, days of remembrance, religious holidays, elections, weddings, and funerals. "But when one came right down to it," Kmen relates, "good weather on a Sunday was the only excuse needed to turn out the bands."