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NOLA4Women: The Grassroots Activism of Dorothy Mae Taylor

April 3, 2017

 

Dorothy Mae (Delavallade) Taylor was an authoritative political figure in New Orleans and Louisiana, whose fiery rhetoric shook the old guard political establishment in the 1970s to the 1990s.

 

Born August 10, 1928 to Charles Henry and Mary Delavallade, Dorothy Taylor was a lifelong resident of New Orleans.

 

Her career in public service began with the Parent Teacher Association (PTA) of the Orleans Parish School Board. At that time, school segregation relegated Black children to under-funded schools. One of Taylor’s many efforts to equalize the segregated schools was the demand for equal supplies for Black schools from the School Board. She would eventually serve as the President of 3 different school PTAs.

 

Following the desegregation of public schools in New Orleans during the 1960s, she turned her focus toward integrating the New Orleans Recreation Department (NORD). Taylor showed that NORD operated a segregated program and demanded public funding be discontinued. Instead, the allocated budget went to neighborhood residents to fund and operate their own programs. Under her supervision, recreation was provided to children through a city-wide recreation committee. She also worked to promote adult literacy programs and facilitated voter registration drives in the Guste Projects.

 

Dorothy Taylor first entered politics in 1971, running as a candidate for Louisiana House of Representatives, District 20, representing the first and second wards of New Orleans.

 

A majority of the residents of the area represented lived below the poverty line. It was home to three large federal housing projects: Guste Homes, Calliope, and Magnolia. In addition to the residential neighborhoods, District 20 was also home to a bustling commercial corridor along Dryades St., dubbed the “new Rampart St.,” in reference to the popular avenue that stretched from downtown New Orleans to the French Quarter. Dryades was home to several important businesses, two theaters: the Dashiki Project Theater and the Free Southern Theater, and the Flint-Goodridge Hospital.

 

The incumbent, Ernest “Dutch” Morial, had relinquished his seat when he was appointed as Judge of Orleans Parish Juvenile Court. Taylor won the election, becoming the first African American woman elected to the Louisiana State Congress.

 

She viewed her election, along with the rise of other prominent African American women in politics such as Shirley Chisholm and Fannie Lou Hamer, as a symbolic continuation of the actions of the suffragettes of the 1920s. In a speech given titled “Women, Your Power, Your Vote, 1920 to the Present,” she praised the actions of pioneering suffragettes that has led to the visible and tangible exercise of power in the leading female politicians of the day. Taylor used her position in politics as a platform of support for African Americans and women. She actively encouraged women to turn their strengths into actions – campaigning for office, supporting other women, and supporting candidates who were focused on women’s issues.

 

In addition to her advocacy for women’s issues, Dorothy Mae Taylor was also an outspoken proponent of prison reform.

 

There were widespread efforts directed at increasing public awareness to the inhumane conditions that exist in American penal institutions, especially after the uprising in Attica, New York. Taylor participated in various community and national forums on reforming prisons. To quote a speech held in her collection: “As long as we perceive the need for prisons to exist and as long as juries of peers – people like you and me – continue to send a fellow man to live, degenerate, and even die in a home more mindful than hell – we must face up to the responsibilities it involves.” To understand the fundamental changed needed in the Louisiana’s penitentiaries, Mrs. Taylor visited every penal institution in the state. And during the 1971 Legislative Session, she authored legislation that created a joint committee to investigate conditions at Angola Prison.

 

Other highlights of her tenure as State representative include writing the legislation to secure funding for Louisiana’s first Sickle Cell Anemia Education & Screening program and introducing a resolution into the Louisiana House of Representatives to remove all segregation statutes from Louisiana Law – discriminatory laws that remained on the books although they were superseded by federal measures. The resolution failed to pass when other legislators left the chamber to avoid voting on the measure.

 

After 9 years as State Representative, Mrs. Taylor chose not to run for re-election, and worked as an administrator at the Central City Neighborhood Health Center, a clinic aimed toward providing quality health care to the poor. Despite her break from political office, she remained active in local and state politics. Governor Edwin E. Edwards appointed Taylor as Secretary of the Department of Urban and Community Affairs, chairperson of the Governor’s Community Action Agency Task Force, the State Job Training Coordination Council, and the Louisiana Housing Finance Agency.

 

In 1986, Taylor became to the first woman elected to New Orleans’ City Council. She is remembered most for the city ordinance introduced in 1991, prohibiting discrimination based on race, religion, and gender in Mardi Gras krewes. The writing of the law originally included jail time for those who violated the ordinance, but later revisions eliminated the associated jail time and removed the prohibition of gender discrimination. Despite her authoring of the ordinance, she ultimately voted against the revised law, arguing that violators should be treated the same as anyone else who break municipal laws. The law now simply requires krewes to state that they have no discriminatory practices to in order to receive a parade permit.

 

The ordinance caused a backlash against Taylor - despite the inefficacy of the amended law, several “old-line” krewes withdrew from public participation in Mardi Gras in protest. Residents from not only New Orleans, but also from outside the city as well, harassed her office with threats and racist remarks. Unfazed, she stood strong behind her belief that if public funds are used to subsidize or support a public project, parade, or program, then no one should be barred from participation through discrimination.

 

After two terms on the New Orleans City Council, Taylor ran unsuccessfully for the Office of Registrar and Conveyances.

 

The fight to pass the anti-discrimination law was one of the last efforts to of a woman who dedicated her entire life to the deconstruction of racial and gender barriers in Louisiana. Dorothy Mae Taylor was a grassroots activist through and through until her death on August 18, 2000.

 

 

Images from the Dorothy Mae Taylor papers, the Ernest Morial papers, and the A. L. Davis papers. Amistad’s website, newsletters, and blogs cannot be reproduced without permission.

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