The Tribune

The New Orleans Tribune: An Introduction to America’s First Black Daily Newspaper

by Mark Charles Roudané

Part 1: The Tribune

Walking toward the Mississippi River on Conti Street in the French Quarter, one would pay little attention to an old Greek Revival building that provides storage for a local company. Built in the 1850s, the commercial property’s only hint of history is a faded, hand-painted “Raw Furs” advertisement on a granite entrance post. Yet in this uncelebrated and forgotten space, surrounded by the howling madness of the Civil War, America’s first black daily newspaper was born. The New Orleans Tribune, or la Tribune de la Nouvelle Orleans, proclaimed itself an “organ of the oppressed” and defiantly vowed to “spare no means at our command” to promote equality for all people of African descent.[1] Its perspective on race, politics, and history was new, radical, and audacious. Bravely challenging the very foundations of a white supremacist society, the Tribune was in the vanguard of a monumental struggle for racial democracy in a revolutionary age.

Original office of the New Orleans Tribune on Conti St., New Orleans
Original office of the New Orleans Tribune on Conti St., New Orleans. Photo: Leon A. Waters

The New Orleans Tribune debuted on July 21, 1864.   Publishing over 1,000 issues in the six years of its existence, the newspaper concentrated on matters of central importance to all blacks: suffrage; an equitable labor and land system to replace slavery; the situation of the freedmen; the creation of integrated public transportation and school systems; the black military; Union policies of accommodation with planters; Louisiana’s constitutional conventions; local and national elections; Reconstruction politics and legislation; and much more. The Tribune was instrumental in the creation of the Freedmen’s Aid Association, the local branch of the National Equal Rights League, the Friends of Universal Suffrage, and ultimately, the Louisiana Republican Party.[2] The newspaper actively participated in all the major political debates, and played a key role in the creation of the 1868 Louisiana state constitution, the most radical in Reconstruction history. Always an advocate of racially proportional representation, the journal helped many blacks win seats in the 1868 legislature, and campaigning arduously, almost succeeded in electing Francis Dumas as the state’s first Afro-Creole governor.[3]   Ultimately overpowered by conservative Republicans, the Tribune by and large suspended operation in the spring of 1868.[4]

The Tribune was initially a tri-weekly publication. It hit the streets on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays, selling for five cents or at a subscription price of $6 annually.   It would have to wait for the arrival of a press from New York before becoming a daily on October 4, 1864.   The newspaper was bilingual from the start, two pages in English and two in French. The English-language section was a strategic effort to expand the journal’s message outside of the francophone community of free people of color that had been served by the newspaper’s predecessor, L’Union. The French-language section mirrored the English coverage of local and national political news, but added an international focus on labor, race, and history. The French copy featured serialized popular fiction, “le Feuilleton,” and notably included florid poetic response to the chaotic milieu of race and politics that characterized the era. The newspaper changed its mottos frequently to reflect political concerns, ranging from “To Every Laborer His Due: An Equitable Salary and Weekly Payments, Eight Hours a Legal Day’s Work” to “Universal Suffrage is the Only Safe and the Only Just Basis of Reconstruction.” Speeches and articles from other presses found their way into its pages, as did notices of meetings and mass rallies, military orders, police and court reports, the shipping news, and brief advertisements. The Tribune grew, particularly after the Civil War, and by 1866 claimed a daily circulation of 3,000. The journal started with four columns, and with the patronage of local organizations and the United States government, gradually enlarged to seven. In late September 1866, the Tribune subscribed to the wire service of the Associated Press, allowing for the rapid receipt and sending of news. Thereafter, the daily raised its street price to 10 cents and its yearly subscription price to $16.[5]

Exchange Alley
Exchange Alley. The Tribune moved to 122-124 Exchange Alley in November 1866. The St. Louis Hotel (seen at the end of the street) was once the site of a large slave exchange. Courtesy Pelican Publishing Company.

Readership was largely in the Afro-Creole community of New Orleans, but the newspaper made a point of its distribution to newly freed people, with whom it recognized the necessity of being “united in a common thought: the actual liberation from social and political bondage.”[6] Additionally, the paper was disseminated throughout Louisiana and the Gulf South. The journal claimed a wide following in the Union Army. Members of the United States Senate and House of Representatives received every issue, and Radical Republicans in Congress corresponded frequently. Over 15 Northern newspapers, including the Chicago Tribune and the Philadelphia Enquirer, reprinted news from the Tribune, greatly expanding its reach.[7] News from correspondents in many cities, including Boston, Paris, and Mexico City, was published regularly. The words of Victor Hugo and Guiseppe Garibaldi appeared within its pages, and the paper circulated among republican intellectuals in Europe.[8] It was regarded with great interest by Northern abolitionists, including Frederick Douglass, who wrote to Tribune publisher Jean Baptiste Roudanez, “I read it with very great pleasure. I am proud that a press so true and wise is devoted to the interests of liberty and equality.”[9] The Tribune kept all these audiences informed about the treatment of black Louisianans and became a testament to their struggle as Reconstruction unfolded.

Dr. Louis Charles Roudanez, c. 1858
Dr. Louis Charles Roudanez, c. 1858

The Tribune was founded and financed by Dr. Louis Charles Roudanez.   Like many free people of color in New Orleans, he was wealthy, grew up with the French language, attended Catholic Church, and received his education in Paris.   And similarly, his parents were racially mixed refugees from the French colony of Saint-Domingue (Haiti), leaving after the island’s successful slave rebellion began in 1791.[10] Roudanez was inspired by the 1848 French Revolution in which the Second Republic abolished slavery and extended the vote to men of color. There, while studying at the faculté de médecine de la Sorbonne, he was a student of prominent republican activists and reportedly took to the barricaded streets of revolutionary Paris.[11] Eventually returning to New Orleans, Roudanez married Célie Saulay, a free woman of color, in 1857. The doctor established a successful medical practice on Customhouse Street (now Iberville) in the French Quarter, serving clients without regard to race or ability to pay.

The New Orleans Dr. Roudanez left in 1844 had changed significantly. The South’s largest city had an expanding white majority and was becoming more Americanized. Free people of color, while enjoying some measure of liberty, were increasingly denied “privileges” of citizenship, inter-racial marriage, public accommodation and education. Upon his homecoming, the doctor encountered a much more severely restricted and antagonistic racial environment, one which undoubtedly angered a spirit steeped in the values of liberté, egalitié, et fraternité.[12]

Residence of Jean Baptiste Roudanez at 1514 Dumaine Street, New Orleans
Residence of Jean Baptiste Roudanez at 1514 Dumaine Street, New Orleans. Photo: Leon A. Waters, Chairperson, Louisiana Museum of African American History.

The men surrounding Roudanez in the Tribune workroom were largely drawn from the free community of color in New Orleans, including his older brother Jean Baptiste Roudanez, the paper’s publisher, and Paul Trèvigne, the first editor. Later, Belgian utopian socialist Jean-Charles Houzeau became editor, greatly enhancing the paper’s content and reach. Staff members included, among unknown others, veteran newspaperman J. Clovis Lazier, and Moses Avery, the former secretary of the National Union Brotherhood in New Orleans.[13] The Tribune did not generally attach bylines to its stories, perhaps for security purposes, making it difficult to know the complete inner circle of regular writers. Pseudonyms further muddied the picture. Contributors included Armand Lanusse, best remembered as the editor of America’s first black poetry anthology, Les Cenelles; the celebrated poets Joannie Questy and Camille Naudin; a former slave named Palmetto; Louisiana Native Guard officer Henry Rey; French Romantic poet Charles Testut; poet and playwright Adolphe Duhart; poet and novelist Michel Seligny; philosopher and mathematician Louis Fouché; and Union soldier, school principal, and 1868 constitutional convention delegate Édouard Tinchant.[14]

Louis Charles Roudanez was the group’s guiding force and undoubtedly wrote for the paper as well. Tribune editor Houzeau said “Dr. Roudanez…steadfastly demanded and claimed his rights to their fullest extent with a strength of soul that I always admired.”[15] Roudanez was a brilliant rhetorician who crafted stirring essays.   “The time has come for all true radicals to make equality a practical thing in Louisiana,” he wrote. “Let them have the will; let them be well awaked to the importance and the character of that reform; let them above all, insist upon it, on every occasion and at any time.”[16]

Dr. Louis Charles Roudanez, Free Man of Color
“Dr. Louis Charles Roudanez: Free Man of Color,” by artist José Torres-Tama, 2007. Pastel on Arches paper, 15 x 22.”

The Roudanez brothers and their fellow radicals viewed the convulsive events surrounding them as the advent of a new racial democracy. Moreover, as internationalists, they believed the Civil War would lead to a broader democracy and the eventual demise of tyrannical oligarchies everywhere, “so that our brothers in every country can profit from this divine gift.”[17] The transformational events of the American, French, and Haitian Revolutions had profoundly influenced their philosophies and politics, and they were ready to take action.

The Tribune was a formidable political tool that built a courageous campaign for social justice. The paper’s primary mission, the right for all black men to vote, resonated throughout the nation and demanded Lincoln’s attention. For a brief period the Tribune also advocated black female enfranchisement.[18] The journal fought for the redistribution of confiscated land to enslaved people “who had, by dint of daily and long continued toil, created all the wealth of the South.”[19] To that end, the newspaper helped establish the Freedmen’s Aid Association, which cooperatively ran several plantations.[20] The Tribune agenda included streetcar desegregation, the creation of integrated public schools, equal accommodation in public facilities, equitable legislative representation, and full legal rights. The journal swiftly built a reputation as the leading voice of the black community, and was widely respected as a force in Louisiana politics and beyond.

The Tribune tirelessly attacked “the lie of absolute white superiority”[21] and any notion of black inferiority, serving as a counter-narrative to an overwhelmingly prejudiced white press and public. Turning those lies around, the journal projected a positive image of black manhood and womanhood, honestly portraying blacks as intelligent, resourceful, and industrious people, fully capable of citizenship and therefore, the vote. Furthermore, the newspaper always rejected the paternalism of many white radicals and moderates, including the Northern abolitionists who did not support black suffrage. Most significantly, the Tribune gave voice and hope, self-representation and agency, to those whose skin color afforded them no place at the table. The Afro-Creole community had created one of the most politically active, sophisticated, and influential newspapers of its time, resulting in a greatly expanded sphere of power and influence for all of African descent. Their project, articulated in print and manifested in social protest, anticipated events 100 years later and forged the first coherent civil rights movement in United States history.

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Part 2: Whites, Free People of Color, and the Enslaved

Aimée Potens
Aimée Potens. Mother of Dr. Louis Charles Roudanez, circa 1844. Aimée is proudly wearing a tignon, the head wrap required by law as a reminder of “inferior” status. In defiance, free women of color wore the tignon as a symbol of beauty. Image courtesy of the Roudanez Family Collection.

Understanding the genesis of the New Orleans Tribune, as well as its audiences, requires a grasp of the social history of race that shaped the lives of everyone in the city. During Louisiana’s colonial period, a system of sorting people into racial groups was formed according to the French Code Noir. This Black Code, largely imported from France’s Caribbean colonies, was introduced to Louisiana in 1724. Later modified by the Spanish colonizers (1763-1802), the Code legalized a tripartite racial order that divided people into three broad categories: whites, free people of color, and the enslaved.   It regulated most aspects of daily life between these groups, enforced the authority of the Catholic Church, and served to safeguard the property and wealth of Europeans. Free persons of color were conceded many rights and were allowed to own property, conduct business, open schools, and attend church. They could not, however, marry a white person, occupy public office, establish unauthorized organizations, or vote. During the American territorial period (1803-1812), Louisiana enacted more draconian versions of the slave codes, gutting many of the earlier provisions that allowed for limited freedoms. “Free people of color ought never to insult or strike white people nor presume to think of themselves equal to the white,” stated a revised American Black Code. “…on the contrary, they ought to yield to them on every occasion, and never speak to them or answer them, but with respect.”[22] At the time of the Civil War, the three-way racial system was still in place, but it would soon succumb to the forces of Americanization, and ultimately, Reconstruction.

In 1860, the city’s expanding upriver districts were inhabited by 144,000 whites representing 85% of the total population.[23] They were comprised of wealthy merchants and planters; French Creoles; impoverished immigrants from Ireland, Italy, and Germany; slave traders; and Northern and Atlantic Coast Americans. As the Civil War approached, old rivalries within this diverse group were rapidly disappearing. Whites increasingly viewed free people of color and enslaved people alike as a common enemy. Even the poorest whites developed a racial solidarity with the affluent of their race.   “It was generally agreed–and all the whites in New Orleans held it on the best faith–that blacks…were intrinsically worthless,” observed Tribune editor Houzeau.[24]

“Slaves for Sale: A Scene In New Orleans.” Harper’s Weekly, January 24, 1863. Collection of Mark C. Roudané

In the 1840s and 1850s, pro-slavery propagandists had bolstered white unity throughout the South. As the Northern abolitionist movement portentously grew, so too did the Southern white belief that slavery was racially and biblically justified, and that paternal and benevolent masters safely managed their faithful and innately inferior servants. This mythmaking continued after the war, and to a degree, still persists today.[25]

Whites were especially confounded by prosperous and confident free people of color. Their very existence directly contradicted the foundational idea of slave society, that servitude was passed down through blood, that racial inferiority and helplessness were part of the natural order. The abstraction of black blood, even “one drop,” would be used to differentiate the “absolute white” from the “almost white.” Whites worried that free and autonomous blacks might offer the enslaved hope for their own freedom or assist them in running away, hiding, or retaliating against their masters.[26] In this intimidating climate, any white person was able to compel a free person of color to prove their freedom. And any free person of color could be arrested for insulting a white person. White supremacy had emerged as a powerful and unifying cause.[27]

“St. Louis Hotel Slave Block.” Vintage postcard. Collection of Mark C. Roudané

The Tribune arose from the community of free people of color, or gens de couleur libres, who lived downriver from Canal Street in the Vieux Carré, Faubourg Tremé and Faubourg Marigny sections of New Orleans. Within these tightly knit neighborhoods, they could come and go with a measure of independence not available in white areas. Racially mixed, French-speaking, and Catholic, this politically astute and assertive group was one of the first and, by far the largest of its kind, in the United States.[28]   Often more affluent, educated, and cultured than the whites, they formed a middle strata–a caste apart–between the whites and the enslaved. Many sent their children to private schools in New Orleans such as the Sainte-Barbe Academy on St. Phillip Street or, in some cases, to the Lycée Louis-le Grand, in Paris. Some owned enslaved people, including family members or friends purchased and later manumitted.[29] Free people of color worked as skilled tradesmen, merchants, real estate brokers, and professionals. A good number were armed and had served in Louisiana’s militias. The women—femmes de couleur libres—often attained economic success as property owners, business entrepreneurs, managers of boarding houses, or busy seamstresses. In general, les gens de couleur libres were proud of their cosmopolitan French culture and resisted most things American.

Of African, Caribbean, European and sometimes Native American ancestries, free people of color resulted from unlawful but tolerated inter-racial relationships during the colonial and antebellum periods. Many gens de couleur libres immigrated to New Orleans from the French colony of Saint-Domingue in the wake of the Haitian revolution. Typically, their parents or grandparents were white planters or merchants and enslaved women of African descent. Their skin color ranged a spectrum from near white to dark, but most were of light complexion.[30]

The unique character of les gens de couleur libres obviously set them apart from whites, other free blacks, and enslaved people. They lived in a vague and conflicted border zone between American and French, white and black, free and slave. This group led what W.E.B. Du Bois would later term a racial “double life,” not all on one side of the color line or the other.[31] “There are nearly as many black whites with wooly hair,” commented the Tribune in 1864, “as there are white people of color with silky hair.”[32] Racial boundaries were porous in New Orleans, and free people of color intermingled with whites and blacks alike. Social dynamics of ownership, inheritance, manumission, marriage or cohabitation, shared festivity, kinship and even god-parenthood further blurred the dividing lines.

“Sale of Valuable Slaves.” Advertisement of Hewlett & Bright. New Orleans, May 13, 1835. Collection of Mark C. Roudané.

As the lucrative slave trade in New Orleans flourished with the expanding sugar and cotton economies, a heightened prejudice against all of African descent developed. From the early 1800s, various laws had been enacted to restrict the immigration of les gens du couleur libres, register those already in Louisiana, or in some cases remove them altogether. These “contravention” acts were erratically enforced until the late 1850s. With the approach of the Civil War, the fragile legal rights and economic liberties of free people of color became increasingly restricted. Free people of color were obligated to keep a pass with them at all times or be subject to exile or enslavement. In 1857, Governor Robert Wycliffe admonished state lawmakers “to remove all free negroes who are now in the state.”[33] In 1859, the Louisiana legislature directed all free people of color “to choose masters for themselves and remain slaves forever.”[34] When the war began, Lincoln recommended the colonization of free blacks and enslaved people who escaped behind Union lines.[35] In this desperate atmosphere, the social distinctions between free people of color and the enslaved were profoundly diminished. Furthermore, economic prosperity was concentrating uptown, away from the older “first municipality” and other free black areas of the city. As the vise tightened, many free blacks fled such indignities and moved to Mexico, Caribbean nations (Haiti offered political asylum), France, and elsewhere. The number of free people of color peaked in 1840 at just over 15,000, but by 1860, their number had dwindled to fewer than 11,000, less than 7% of the city’s population.[36]

As pinched as the free people of color were, they did not suffer the horror and degradation of those at the bottom of the hierarchy. New Orleans was the nation’s largest slave market, where over the years more than 100,000 men, women, and children were stored in pens, assigned a price, and sold as living property.[37] Enslaved people—whose labor and resourcefulness built New Orleans and helped it prosper—were the third social caste. By 1860 they numbered over 14,000 people, representing 8.5% of the city’s population.[38] Many were domestic servants, some were skilled tradesmen, but the majority toiled in the brickyards, foundries, rail yards, and riverfront docks.   Their situation, while deplorable, was significantly better than the 331,000 enslaved people who worked Louisiana plantations at that time.[39] Enslaved people living in New Orleans were often free to come and go in the anonymous and multi-racial environment of the bustling port city, which made it difficult for masters to police boundaries and control their property.

“Revival of the Old Slave Laws of Louisiana.” Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, March 7, 1863. Collection of Mark C. Roudané.

In May 1862, those boundaries became more problematic with New Orleans under Union control. Large numbers of the enslaved liberated themselves from their plantation masters, seeking freedom behind Union military lines or in the city. More than 10,000 enslaved people sought refuge in New Orleans that summer. Initially unprepared for the massive influx, General Benjamin Butler, Commander of the Department of the Gulf, considered the new arrivals to be contraband of war and believed it “quite impossible to free them here and now without a San Domingo.”[40] Indeed, throughout the time before the Civil War, Louisiana’s ruling class feared Haitian inspired uprisings, as happened in 1811 when 500 ill-equipped enslaved people torched upriver plantations and bravely set out to capture New Orleans.[41] With those fears in mind, and in the absence of federal policy, Butler ordered the enslaved refugees out of the city, ominously leaving them subject to the “ordinary laws of the community.” Fearing re-enslavement, some “runaways” attempted to fight their way into occupied New Orleans.[42]

Tomb of the Unknown Slave. Faubourg Tremé. Collection of Mark C. Roudané.
Tomb of the Unknown Slave. Faubourg Tremé. Collection of Mark C. Roudané.

Eventually Butler regarded the enslaved as free people, and despite Lincoln’s reprimands, used their labor in any necessary capacity. His goal was to stabilize the tattered economy by returning those who escaped bondage to a reconstituted plantation system. Butler’s successor, General Nathaniel Banks, systematically pursued this strategy. “Vagrant” freedmen were arrested and contracted to plantations, or conscripted into “fatigue duty” digging latrines, building fortifications, stabilizing levees, and servicing Union soldiers. Their working conditions, food, sanitation, health care, clothing provisions, and housing were frequently worse than had been the case on the plantations.   Sometimes physically abused, and often paid only with meager rations, they had been effectively re-enslaved.

Legally, the institution of slavery remained in place even after the January 1, 1863, Emancipation Proclamation. Lincoln’s edict technically did not apply to New Orleans and the Union occupied parishes, and people enslaved by those who swore loyalty to the Union were not granted freedom. It did not matter to the thousands who escaped. Believing themselves forever free and willing to defend that freedom, enslaved people had crossed the threshold of liberty. Unionist members of Louisiana’s all-white constitutional convention made it official in May 1864, and in compliance with federal mandates, voted to abolish slavery in the state.

As slavery gradually disappeared, so to did the perception of differences between free people of color and the newly freed. The tripartite racial hierarchy dissolved into two categories, black and white. Even under early Union occupation, free blacks experienced intensifying restrictions, including arbitrary arrest, confiscation of property, forced military service, and streetcar segregation. Like those formerly enslaved, free people of color were once again required to carry a pass when out and about. There were, of course, inevitable schisms between Afro-Creoles and the freedmen. These divisions would be exploited during and after the Civil War by Democrats and conservative Republicans in order to limit political alliances against white hegemony. But for all of African descent, Union occupation of New Orleans in the spring of 1862 was a unifying turning point, a hopeful moment in time that held promise of freedom.

“Negroes Escaping Out of Slavery.” Harper’s Weekly, May 7, 1864. Collection of Mark C. Roudané.

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Part 3: L’Union: The South’s First Black Newspaper

L'unionWith the Confederacy collapsing around them, leaders in the free community of color were strategizing a response that would give substance to that hope. Free blacks and enslaved people alike, facing common antagonists and an uncertain future, were now governed by forces that had a choke hold on the South’s largest city and most strategic port. With General Butler attempting to control a disloyal white population, the city brimming with utterly destitute freed people, and large numbers of black Louisiana Native Guard soldiers joining the Union army, the Roudanez brothers and Paul Trèvigne responded dramatically. On September 27, 1862, they unleashed L’Union, the South’s first black newspaper and the predecessor of the Tribune.

Pickets of the 1st LA Native Guard Leslies 1863 copy
“Pickets of the 1st Louisiana Native Guard.” Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, March 7, 1863. Image collection of Mark C. Roudané.

The front page of the inaugural edition featured the scathing Trèvigne editorial “L’Esclavage,” condemning slavery and its supporters. “The hour has sounded,” declared the paper, “for the fight of great humanitarian principles against a vile and sordid interest.” This first issue published passionate correspondence between Victor Hugo and Haitian journalist Eugène Heurtelou in which the latter declared, “We are on the eve of a great social revival…Everywhere an unseen work is underway, eroding, demolishing, one by one, the ideas…that still sustain aristocracies of every kind.”[43]

Economy Hall
“The Economy and Mutual Aid Association.” The Societé d’Economie et d’Assistance Mutuelle was the site of numerous political gatherings during the Tribune period. Image courtesy of the William Ransom Hogan Jazz Museum, Tulane University Library

The primarily French-language newspaper began as a two-page bi-weekly issued on Wednesdays and Saturdays, then expanded to three papers weekly in December 1862. For over twenty-two months, L’Union editorials concentrated on the issues of slavery, the black militia, and suffrage.   There was also frequent commentary and reporting on racial prejudice, segregation, education, economics, history, religion, the Civil War, and the labor system emerging from the ashes of slavery.[44] As the militant voice of les gens de couleur libres, the journal included the formerly enslaved in their cause, but focused on the concerns of their French-speaking constituency. On the one hand, L’Union fought for abolition; on the other, the newspaper often distinguished its readership from the freedmen, claiming themselves worthy of the franchise by wealth, education, and military service.

L’Union understood the limited reach of the Emancipation Proclamation and realized President Lincoln had little interest in supporting black suffrage. The journal also recognized that Louisiana’s wartime administrators would not tolerate black voters, especially with the election of delegates to a constitutional convention on the horizon. Raising objection to these injustices, L’Union promoted a mass meeting in early November 1863, hosted by the Union Radical Association and held at Economy Hall.

Petition of the Free Colored Population of Louisiana
“Petition of the Free Colored Population of Louisiana.” January 8, 1864. Image courtesy of the Center for Legislative Archives, National Archives and Records Administration.

The audience enthusiastically endorsed an appeal to take the suffrage issue to Washington. In December, a petition demanding the right to vote was crafted and eventually signed by over 1,000 free men of color. On March 12, 1864, Jean Baptiste Roudanez and Arnold Bertonneau, a veteran of the First Louisiana Native Guard, presented the petition to President Lincoln in the White House. The document boldly proclaimed, “We are men, treat us as such.” Attached to it was an addendum that included “those born slaves” in the demand.[45] The White House meeting influenced the president, who likely saw potential political advantage in restricting the vote to free blacks only. Lincoln quickly asked Louisiana’s governor to consider limited black enfranchisement, and the president addressed the issue in his last public address.

Unsurprisingly, L’Union infuriated whites, resulting in repeated threats of arson and death to its publishers and editor. Eventually these terrorizations, as well as financial difficulty, caused L’Union to fold on July 19, 1864.   Undaunted and indefatigable, Louis Charles Roudanez had the New Orleans Tribune up and running just two days later.

As proud free black men in a society built on the backs of enslaved people, the Tribune crusaders risked their lives and fortunes to publish a journal like no other. For the first time, New Orleanians of African descent openly spoke against their oppressors and decried the racial injustices of slaveholding society. They faced some of the South’s worst violence, yet remained steadfast in their fight. These militants were an elite group within the free community of color and easily could have sought self-preservation through accommodation, passing as white, or exodus. Instead of reconciliation with “the powers that were,”[46] instead of cooperation with often prejudiced Union occupiers, they embraced their blackness and built unity with the freedmen in the pursuit of liberty and justice for all of African descent. Instilled with revolutionary fervor and armed with a critical understanding of American Civil War politics, they dared to articulate a new American order.   With the very meaning of citizenship on the line, Roudanez and company envisioned genuine participation in a civil society, independent of color. It is difficult to overstate the enormity and courage of their undertaking.

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Part 4: The Tribune’s Legacy

New Orleans Tribune, Still in the fight
“Still in the Fight.” Cover image: 25th Anniversary Issue, the modern New Orleans Tribune, Vol. 26, No. 11. Dec/Jan 2011. Image courtesy of the New Orleans Tribune & the McKenna Publishing Company.

While the Tribune’s vision of freedom unraveled in the face of conservative Republican victories and the nightmares of white terror, black serfdom, disenfranchisement, and segregation, the paper’s legacy endured.   The Comité des Citoyens emerged from the next generation of Afro-Creole activists, as did the newspaper the Crusader, both important in the fight against Jim Crow laws that led, unsuccessfully, to the Plessy v. Ferguson challenge. Those skirmishes produced a new cadre of black Louisiana lawyers eager to redress racial injustice, including the pioneering twentieth-century civil rights attorney A.P. Tureaud. Tureaud’s efforts became part of a greater battle that would overturn the Plessy verdict, culminating in the 1954 Supreme Court decision Brown v. Board of Education that ended legal segregation in public schools.

Le Musee de F.P.C.
Le Musée de f.p.c., 2336 Esplanade Avenue. Image courtesy of the McKenna Publishing Company.

Commenting on the men of the Tribune, Caryn Cossé Bell wrote: “Although their dream of a utopian millennium of racial justice and harmony far exceeded what their state and nation were willing to concede, their actions assured the survival of their protest tradition. Their legacy of dissent had changed the political dynamic during the Civil War and Reconstruction and shifted the expectations of both blacks and whites. This dissent, which would be later used to rescue the Reconstruction amendments in later Supreme Court decisions, offered a vision for the future.”[47] That legacy is reflected in the contemporary New Orleans Tribune, founded in 1985 by Beverly Stanton McKenna, Dr. Dwight McKenna, and Dr. S. Mark McKenna. “So when you pick up a copy of the modern New Orleans Tribune, states the newspaper, “you are sharing a part of history–a contemporary publication that speaks to the issues of the day as eloquently and as forcefully as Roudanez did then. We think he would have been proud of how well our Tribune speaks to the language of the modern African-American experience.”[48] Determined to keep the torch burning, the McKennas recently established Le Musée de f.p.c., dedicated to remembering the contributions of New Orlean’s free people of color.

Many historians have noted the profound significance of the New Orleans Tribune. W.E.B. Dubois recognized it “as an unusually effective organ.”[49] Eric Foner described it as “a rallying point for Louisiana Radicalism.”[50] Joe Gray Taylor called the journal “unquestionably the most valuable single newspaper source,” for Louisiana Reconstruction history.[51] Marcus Christian stated “the influence of the New Orleans Tribune…lasted from the beginning of the Civil War to…the beginning of the World’s (first) War.”[52] Rodolphe Desdunes commented that Dr. Roudanez and his associates “acquired a prestige that made them as powerful in Washington as in New Orleans.”[53] It is generally agreed, in other words, that the Tribune had a deep impact.

Tomb of Dr. Louis Charles Roudanez
Tomb of Dr. Louis Charles Roudanez (second from left). St. Louis Cemetery No. 1, Alley 9. Photo: collection of Mark C. Roudané

Yet sadly, this inspiring story receives little or no attention in the schools, general history texts, or film documentaries.   How can it be that such dramatic resistance is largely an untold chapter of the American experience? How can it be that one can still stroll past the former offices of the Tribune and see no plaque, no recognition, no reminder?   How can it be that tourists are guided through Saint Louis Cemetery No. 1 and not learn that Louis Charles Roudanez is buried right around the corner from Marie Laveau and Homer Plessy? Some scholars, perhaps thinking French-speaking free people of color unrepresentative of the black cause, have avoided the critical role they played. And, like so many seminal events that characterized the African-American struggle for freedom, little or no attention is given to the underlying story, the history is marginalized, and the public remains clueless.   Too often, the narrative concentrates on what happened to blacks and what was done for them, not what occurred within their communities and the acts of resistance that emerged from them.

Dr. Louis Charles Roudanez c. 1889
Dr. Louis Charles Roudanez c. 1889. Image courtesy of the Roudanez Family.

In spite of the efforts of numerous academics, the contributions of Louisianans of African descent remain largely unknown.   And to date, there is no book focused on the Tribune itself. I hope this introduction to America’s first black daily newspaper will engage a wider audience and encourage it to explore this underrepresented history in greater depth. May the reader come away with new reasons to appreciate and be inspired by the black struggle for freedom, equality, and power made manifest in 1860s New Orleans. We need to listen carefully to the voices preserved in the pages of the Tribune and think about parallels to our time. The despicable heritage of slavery and unrepentant Jim Crow racism still haunts us. The gap in household wealth between America’s African- American and white households has grown spectacularly large over the last 25 years.[54] African Americans are disproportionately impoverished, murdered, incarcerated, miseducated, disenfranchised, stripped of fundamental rights, and abandoned to perish in the floodwaters. Victories long believed to be secure—including African-American voting rights—are under attack by well-funded and highly organized conservative groups. In the protest tradition of America’s original civil rights leaders, modern activists are fighting to preserve and expand past achievements.   Roudanez’s voice still resonates: “Let them have the will; let them be well awaked to the importance and the character of that reform; let them above all, insist upon it, on every occasion and at any time.”[55]
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[1] New Orleans Tribune, January 17, 1865.

[2] Tribune, January 2, 15, 1865; April 13, 1865; June 30, 1865.

[3] In this study, the terms gens de couleur libres and free people of color refer to the francophone, racially

mixed, Catholic community of New Orleans until 1864. Thereafter this group is referred to as Afro-Creole. The term freedmen is used in reference to the formerly enslaved.   When referring to all of African descent, the term black is used.

[4] The Tribune stopped publishing on April 25, 1868. A few editions appeared in late 1868 and again in early 1869 and early 1870.

[5] For an excellent summary of the Tribune’s material text, see Kristi Richard Melancon, “An African American Discourse Community in Black and White: The New Orleans Tribune,” Dissertation. (Louisiana State University, 2011), 47-48.

[6] Tribune, January 15, 1865.

[7] Tribune, December 17, 1865.

[8] Norman R. Shapiro, trans. Creole Echoes: The Francophone Poetry of Nineteenth-Century Louisiana (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2004), xxvii.

[9] Tribune, October 27, 1865.

[10] A typescript of the Trist Wood Papers, provided by Dr. Robert Judice, Hermitage Foundation Papers, indicates Dr. Roudanez’s father, Jean-Louis Roudanez, was born in Dondon, Saint-Domingue, the child of an enslaved woman named Nerestine and a French Army officer named Nemourin Roudanez. The Woods Papers also indicate Dr. Roudanez’s mother, Aimée Potens, was born in the same area, the child of an enslaved woman and A.D. Tureaud, a French merchant. Now held at The Historic New Orleans Collection, Trist Wood Papers, MS 180, B-I-97A; B-II-11.

[11] Paul Trèvigne, “Dr. Louis Charles Roudanez,” New Orleans Daily Crusader, March 22, 1890.

[12] Nathalie Dessens, From Saint-Domingue to New Orleans: Migrations and Influences (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2007), 96.

[13] For reference to J. Clovis Lazier, see Melancon, An African American Discourse Community, 46. For reference to Moses Avery, see Joseph Logsdon and Caryn Cossé Bell, “The Americanization of Black New Orleans,” Creole New Orleans: Race and Americanization, ed. Hirsch and Logsdon (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1992), 237.

14 For reference to Lanusse, Questy, and Duhart in the Tribune, see Rodolphe Lucien Desdunes, Our People and Our History, trans. and ed. Sister Dorothea Olga McCants (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1973), 28, 46, 68; For reference to Testut, see Shapiro, Creole Echoes, 198; For reference to Tinchant, see Rebecca J Scott and Jean M. Hébrard, Freedom Papers: An Atlantic Odyssey in the Age of Emancipation (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2012), 121-23; For reference to Seligny, Fouché, and Naudin, see Marcus Christian, “Negro Periodicals, Literature, and Art in Louisiana.” unpublished typescript, “A Black History of Louisiana.” Chapter 21, Subseries XIII.1, Box 8. Marcus B. Christian Collection, Earl K. Long Library, University of New Orleans, 10, 17, 18.

[15] Jean-Charles Houzeau, My Passage at the New Orleans “Tribune”: A Memoir of the Civil War Era, ed. David C. Rankin and trans. Gerald F. Denault (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1984), 74.

[16] Louis Charles Roudanez, “Planks XIII and XIV.” Private Roudanez Family Collection, 1870.

[17] L’Union, September 27, 1862.

[18] Tribune, June 8, 1865.

[19] Tribune, September 10, 1864.

[20] Tribune, May 2, 1865.

[21] Houzeau, My Passage, 94.

[22] Edward C. Carter, et. al., eds. The Journals of Benjamin Henry Latrobe, 1799-1820: From Philadelphia to New Orleans. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1980), Vol. 3, 211.

[23] David C. Rankin, “The Impact of the Civil War on the Free Colored Community of New Orleans.” Perspectives in American History, XI, (1977-1978), 380.

[24] Houzeau, 83.

[25] Nathalie Dessens, Myths of the Plantation Society: Slavery in the American South and the West Indies (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2003), 148.

[26]Judith Kelleher Schafer, Becoming Free, Remaining Free: Manumission and Enslavement in New Orleans, 1846-1862 (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2003), 129.

[27] Virginia R. Domínguez, White By Definition: Social Classification in Creole Louisiana (New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 1986), 136.

[28] Mary Gehman, The Free People of Color of New Orleans: An Introduction (New Orleans: Margaret Media, 1994), 4.

[29] Schafer, Becoming Free, 80.

[30] Shirley Elizabeth Thompson, Exiles at Home: The Struggle to Become American in Creole New Orleans (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2009), 14.

[31] W.E.B. Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk (New York: Dover Publications, 1994), 2.

[32] Tribune, October 23, 1864.

[33] Official Reports of the Senate of Louisiana: Session of 1857 (New Orleans: John Claiborne, 1857), 17.

[34] “An Act to Permit Free Persons of African Descent to Select a Master and Become Slaves for Life,” Act of March 17, 1859, (Louisiana Acts: 1859), 214-215. For an insightful analysis of the contravention laws, see Schafer, Becoming Free, 129-144.

[35] Caryn Cossé Bell, Revolution, Romanticism, and the Afro-Creole Protest Tradition in Louisiana, 1718-1868 (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1997), 225.

[36] Rankin, Impact, 380.

[37] For details of the New Orleans slave trade, see Walter Johnson, Soul by Soul: Life Inside the Antebellum Slave Market (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1999).

[38] Rankin, Impact, 380.

[39] John W. Blassingame, Black New Orleans, 1860-1880 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1973), 1.

[40] Peter C. Ripley, Slaves and Freedmen in Civil War Louisiana (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1976), 33.

[41] Albert Thrasher, On to New Orleans: Louisiana’s Heroic 1811 Slave Revolt (New Orleans: Cypress Press, 1996), 48-72.

[42] Blassingame, Black New Orleans, 28-30.

[43] L’Union, September 27, 1862.

[44] Laura V. Rouzan, “A Rhetorical Analysis of Editorials in L’Union and New Orleans Tribune.” Dissertation. (Florida State University, 1989), 69.

[45]Jari Honora, “Cast Your Eyes Upon a Loyal Population, Lincoln and Louisiana’s Free People of Color.” La Créole, A Journal of Creole History and Genealogy, Vol. 2.1 (October, 2009), 1-8. The original petition included freedmen, but was modified at the urging of white radicals in New Orleans to include only “citizens…of African descent, born free before the rebellion.” The addendum including freedmen was added on March 10, 1864 at the urging of Charles Sumner and other Radical Republicans. See The Liberator, April 1, 1864. See also Bell, Revolution, 250-51.

[46] Tribune, November 30, 1864.

[47] Bell, Revolution, 282.

[48] “The History of the New Orleans Tribune.” The New Orleans Tribune. McKenna, 2014. Web. 15 April 2014.

[49] W.E.B. Du Bois, Black Reconstruction in America (New York: Free Press, 1998), 456.

[50] Eric Foner, Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877 (New York: Perennial Classics, 1989), 63.

[51] Joe Gray Taylor, “Civil War and Reconstruction,” in Cummins and Jeansonne eds. A Guide to the History of Louisiana (Westsport: Greenwood Press, 1982), 45.

[52] Marcus Christian, “Negro Periodicals,” 24.

[53] Desdunes, Our People, 133.

[54] Thomas M. Shapiro, “Policies of Exclusion Perpetuate the Racial Wealth Gap,” in One Nation Underemployed, 2014 State of Black America (New York: National Urban League, 2014), 106-07.

[55] Roudanez, “Planks XIII and XIV.”

© Mark Charles Roudané, 2015. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Mark Charles Roudané and with links to the original content

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