The social activism of sisters Oretha Castle Haley and Doris Jean Castle began when they were still young women. They came from a working class family. Born in Tennessee, the young sisters moved to New Orleans with their parents and brother around 1947. The girls’ father, John Castle, took a job as a longshoreman, and their mother, Virgie Castle, found employment as a bartender and waitress at Dooky Chase restaurant, which operated as a hub for civil rights activism in New Orleans.
Oretha, the older sister, became involved in activism herself in 1959 while she was a student at Southern University of New Orleans. A group called the Consumers’ League of Greater New Orleans spearheaded an economic boycott on Dryades Street that year, the first direct action of its kind in New Orleans. The boycott was aimed at stores frequented by Black clientele that refused to employ Black workers. There was a national movement toward social activism happening in the country at that time, and many young people in New Orleans were looking for a way to become more directly involved to address the problems they saw in their own city. Young Oretha, along with friends Cecil Carter, Rudy Lombard, Lanny Goldfinch, and Oliver St. Pee, began meeting at the Dryades Street YMCA to discuss ideas for action. They presented their ideas to the local branch of the NAACP, but were met with little enthusiasm. Undeterred, they decided to reach out to the national Congress of Racial Equality [CORE] and established their own branch in New Orleans. Haley would later become president of the group, and was responsible for planning many of their activities. Under her guidance, CORE focused on addressing public accommodations issues through activism.
Doris Jean said that when she joined CORE she was simply “following [her] big sister,” but she was a fearless activist in her own right. She became involved in the movement shortly after graduating high school in 1960. As a graduation gift, her parents had sent her to Chicago to visit her uncle. It was while she was on vacation that she first learned of Oretha’s involvement in the Dryades Street boycott and her subsequent arrest. She returned home and was invited by Oretha to attend the next Consumers’ League meeting, where she first dipped her toe into the world of activism.
The sisters worked well together. Their family home on Tonti Street became a meeting point for members of the civil rights movement. Their parents, though not themselves active in civil rights work, were supportive of their involvement. Doris Jean quickly developed a role as an “enabler” to her sister, who in turn saw herself as an “enabler” for her community. Doris Jean enjoyed participating in the execution of ideas, but preferred to leave the strategizing and negotiation to Oretha. Oretha naturally excelled in that area, and was one of the only women in the movement nationally who took on such a leadership role.
Both women were deeply dedicated to the civil rights cause. They were arrested many times for their participation in direct actions. Doris Jean recalled her participation in the Freedom Rides in 1961 as an eighteen-year-old, saying she understood the risks involved in the undertaking, but that they chose to ignore the physical risks. Oretha recalled making the decision to sit-in to integrate McCrory’s lunch counter on Canal Street in 1960, knowing that she would be arrested and lose her job if she participated. “There was really no question in my mind that it was something I wanted to do,” she said. “It really wasn’t a great deal of a struggle or decision for me to make. At that time, it was something that I felt very strongly about as a way that the problem should be addressed, and that was that we did.” Oretha’s devotion to the cause was so great that she even walked a picket line while hiding the pregnancy of her second child, only to give birth at home later that night, with Doris Jean’s assistance.
Oretha died of ovarian cancer at the age of 48 in 1987. Doris Jean followed a decade later in 1997. But the sisters’ impact is still felt in New Orleans. During their lives, they had together participated in countless boycotts and strikes, contributing to the desegregation of much of the city. In addition to co-founding New Orleans CORE, Oretha also created the New Orleans Sickle Cell Anemia Foundation and co-founded Voices of the New Orleans Movement, working to preserve the civil rights movement’s legacy. In 1989, the commercial corridor of Dryades Street was renamed Oretha Castle Haley Boulevard in her honor.
Amistad holds some fantastic oral history interviews with both Oretha Castle Haley and Doris Jean Castle-Scott in the Kim Lacy Rogers collection that are well worth a listen. In them, the sisters describe their upbringing and activism. Read more about the collection here.
Images from the Louisiana Weekly photograph collection and Connie Harse papers. Images from Amistad’s website, newsletters, and blogs cannot be reproduced without permission.
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