Sometimes a simple question can lead you down a rabbit hole. That’s the enjoyment of reference, your ability to learn something new while helping a patron in their own research. In this case, someone looking for a speech led to a little-known organization, the New Orleans Improvement League, whose story had a far-reaching impact on the Civil Rights Movement in New Orleans.
The mid-1950s saw great strides in federal de-segregation, but not everyone agreed with it. For those who opposed integration, they fought it tooth and nail. The decision of the Brown v. Board case had declared segregation to be inherently unequal and the Montgomery Bus Boycott had flung the names Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King, Jr. into national spotlight. In a reactionary effort, state lawmakers doubled-down on segregationist policies and attacked those were attempting to change it. Their main target was nationally recognized National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, more commonly known as the NAACP.
On April 24, 1956, Judge Coleman Lindsey filed an injunction against the NAACP, forbidding the organization from “doing any business or acting as a corporation.” The NAACP resisted, arguing that they were singled-out as part of an organized effort to suppress all organized opposition to segregation. Branch leaders received instructions to form their own quasi-independent organization to carry on the work of the NAACP while the ban was challenged in court. Community members, led by branch president Arthur J. Chapital, met in the Peter Claver Building to form the New Orleans Improvement League (NOIL); in North Louisiana, Guiding Voice, Inc. was formed in Monroe; in the southwest, members in Lake Charles formed the Citizens Improvement Council. A meeting of the Louisiana Association of Civil and Improvement Leagues was held to coordinate the “shadow organizations” that were being formed around the state.
Officially, the New Orleans Improvement League was not involved with the NAACP’s state or national offices. Membership was open to anyone, as long as they did not espouse white supremacy, the violent overthrow of the government, or communism (one of the many accusations made against the NAACP was that they were communist infiltrators). The state purpose of the League was, according to its constitution and by-laws, “to promote economic, political, civic, and social betterment of colored people and their harmonious cooperation with other people.” Unofficially, its formation was part of a concerted effort by NAACP offices to circumvent the ban. In addition to continuing the efforts of the NAACP to legally challenge segregation, this new organization also served as a forum for citizens to voice their grievances. A.P. Tureaud and Daniel E. Byrd, the legal team representing the NAACP chapter in New Orleans, agreed to provide the League with the same assistance provided to its now-banned predecessor.
After its initial months of meetings, the records of the New Orleans Improvement League become spotty. I turned to Adam Fairclough’s Race and Democracy: The Civil Rights struggle in Louisiana, 1915-1972 to better understand how the NOIL fit into the fight to end segregation. As Fairclough explains, the law used to justify the ban was a 1924 law originally designed to stop the KKK. Called the Fuqua Law, it mandated organizations to provide a list of members to the state and if they did not, the organization would be prohibited from operating. The Louisiana NAACP was in a catch-22. Individual branches could remain open if they obliged the Secretary of State with a list of all its members, but doing so would cause a significant drop in membership. It was feared the anti-integrationist White Citizens Councils would publicize member’s names and expose them to harassment (I must add that the very name of the White Citizens Council was a slap in the face to the “Comité au citoyens,” the Creole organization that attempted to challenge segregation in the 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson case). People could still support the national organization, but the chapters were essentially paralyzed.
Despite fears of retaliation and the formation of the NOIL, the New Orleans branch of the NAACP never actually closed down. In November 1956, the injunction banning the organization was overruled, but that did not stop state Attorney General Jack P.F. Gremillion from dispatching State Troopers to the Claver Building to shut down NAACP meetings. On New Year’s Eve, the time had run out – either hand over membership list or cease functions all together. Feeling the pressure, Chapital provided the Secretary of State with the names of all members of the New Orleans branch of the NAACP. As predicted, membership in the city dropped by almost 75%. Statewide, the number of branches operating in the state went from 47 in 1956 to only 7 the following year.
While the Citizens Council declared themselves to be a shining example to other states and the nation on how to thwart the NAACP and stop integration, “shadow organizations” like the NOIL and others continued to meet and organize the fight for civil rights. A combined effort by the United Clubs, Inc., the Louisiana Council of Human Rights, the New Orleans Inter-Denominational Ministerial Alliance, and the New Orleans Improvement League brought Martin Luther King, Jr., to speak in an effort to spur popular support. In the months following, Louisiana courts ruled segregation on public transit to be unconstitutional and therefore invalid. It took an additional 12 months for the Supreme Court to affirm the ruling, but by May 1958, segregation in New Orleans’ buses and trolleys ended.
The New Orleans Improvement League continued to work alongside the NAACP, even when the ban was no longer enforced. A study, published by the NOIL in 1959, analyzed data from the Orleans Parish School Board to illustrate inequalities in the segregated school system. Consequences of school overcrowding, which was common in New Orleans’ Black schools, were (1) platooning – students attending school in half-day shifts, (2) combination classes – where one teacher instructs two grades simultaneously, and (3) denial of the opportunity to attend Kindergarten. The study made the case, in plain and simple terms, that unless there was school integration, Black schools would continue to face overcrowding and its related consequences. The following school year, New Orleans began to integrate its schools… but that’s a whole other story.
The banning of the NAACP arguably set back the march to full integration by years, but activists were determined to continue to wage, and win, the fight against segregation. The records of the New Orleans Improvement League serve as a little reminder that even small archival collections retain valuable pieces of our history. I would also like to thank Christian Williams, who processed the collection as part of a summer internshipat the Amistad Research Center, and the team of interns and volunteers who help makes these sometimes overlooked collections accessible for researchers!
Images from the New Orleans Improvement League records and George Longe papers. Images from Amistad’s website, newsletters, and blogs cannot be reproduced without permission.