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Louisiana wasn’t just built by immigrants and slaves; Louisiana was also rebuilt by immigrants.

Louisiana’s greatest asset is its multiculturalism, but the state’s greatest liability is arguably a more defining characteristic: Bigotry and intolerance are still the most powerful organizing forces in state and local politics.

Publisher’s Note: I am thankful to Big Easy Magazine, a new monthly online publication, for recruiting me to write on this subject for their second issue. You can find this column and a collection of original reporting and commentary on their website.

Update: The headline of this column has been changed.  

June 25, 2018

Right now in the United States of America, the wealthiest and most powerful country on the planet, 2,047 children, including babies and small toddlers, are currently in the custody of the Department of Health and Human Services, after being forcibly separated from their parents by the federal government.

Right now in the United States of America, mothers and fathers who attempted to seek a new life and asylum in the land of opportunity, mothers and fathers who took an extraordinary grueling journey, often traveling for hundreds of miles on foot and in treacherous terrain, arrived at our border and had their children snatched out of their arms by armed men and then placed into detention facilities.

Although President Donald Trump reversed himself and issued an Executive Order purporting to end the practice of family separation, right now in the United States of America, his administration has also claimed that children separated from parents seeking asylum will remain in the government’s custody until those claims are resolved, “a process that can take months and in some instances years because of a backlog of several hundred thousand cases.” (A federal judge ruled these children must be reunited within thirty days, but it isn’t yet clear if that can be easily accomplished).

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The cover page of the original 1853 edition of “Twelve Years a Slave” (Courtesy: Stephen Payne and Bruce Magee of the Louisiana Anthology Project)

Perhaps the most harrowing scene in the Academy Award-winning film “12 Years a Slave,” based on Solomon Northup’s extraordinary 1853 memoir largely set near my paternal grandmother’s childhood home in rural Rapides Parish, was of a slave auction held in a stately private mansion in New Orleans. (In the antebellum South, New Orleans was the epicenter of the slave trade.) The auction was hosted by Theophilius Freeman, a duplicitous slave trader played by Paul Giamatti, and in the scene, dozens of black men, women, and children are humiliated so that the well-dressed white men and women could inspect them like cattle as Northup obligingly played the fiddle.

Here is Northup, in his own words, describing what happened next:

Eliza shrunk before (a Baton Rouge planter), and tried to wipe away her tears, but it was all in vain. She wanted to be with her children, she said, the little time she had to live. All the frowns and threats of Freeman, could not wholly silence the afflicted mother. She kept on begging and beseeching them, most piteously not to separate the three. Over and over again she told them how she loved her boy. A great many times she repeated her former promises – how very faithful and obedient she would be; how hard she would labor day and night, to the last moment of her life, if he would only buy them all together. But it was of no avail; the man could not afford it. The bargain was agreed upon, and Randall must go alone. Then Eliza ran to him; embraced him passionately; kissed him again and again; told him to remember her – all the while her tears falling in the boy’s face like rain.

Freeman damned her, calling her a blubbering, bawling wench, and ordered her to go to her place, and behave herself; and be somebody. He swore he wouldn’t stand such stuff but a little longer. He would soon give her something to cry about, if she was not mighty careful, and that she might depend upon.

The planter from Baton Rouge, with his new purchases, was ready to depart.

“Don’t cry, mama. I will be a good boy. Don’t cry,” said Randall, looking back, as they passed out of the door.

What has become of the lad, God knows. It was a mournful scene indeed. I would have cried myself if I had dared.

I have a special connection to Northup’s story: My grandmother’s oldest sister, Sue Eakin, was an historian, and she spent her entire adult life, 70 of her 90 years on this planet, working to save his memoir from the footnotes of history and to prove that he had been telling the truth all along. Although she passed away before the film had been made, its director, Steve McQueen, thanked her by name on stage as he accepted the Oscar for Best Picture.

Today, I have no doubt that if she had lived long enough to see the images of children being separated from their parents along the Mexican border, she would ask all of us to remember the “mournful scene” that Solomon Northup witnessed nearly two centuries ago, right here in New Orleans.

We are a better, fairer, more just, and more equal nation than anyone who lived in the antebellum South could have possibly imagined, and to suggest otherwise would be to diminish the extraordinary work and sacrifice of those involved in the suffrage and then the civil rights movement, among others. But the stain and the legacy of slavery still haunts this country, particularly those of us in Louisiana.

There is a commonality to almost every single piece of travel reporting published about Louisiana during the past decade, and for the most part, our politicians and those in the tourism industry have embraced the idea without hesitation. The line goes something like this: Louisiana is a “gumbo” of unique cultures, architecture, music, traditions, and people, and if you go to New Orleans, you’ll encounter all of that in the span of a single day.

It’s a nice sentiment, I suppose, even if the persistent attempt to redefine “gumbo” seems like it must’ve been cooked up (pardon the pun) by a group of marketing consultants. It also belies an unfortunate and inconvenient reality.

Yes, Louisiana’s greatest asset is its multiculturalism, but the state’s greatest liability is arguably a more defining characteristic: Bigotry and intolerance are still the most powerful organizing forces in state and local politics.

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Monument to the Immigrant in New Orleans, Louisiana

On Sept. 8th, 2005, eleven days after Hurricane Katrina made landfall in Louisiana, President George W. Bush temporarily suspended enforcement of the Davis-Bacon Act, a law passed in the aftermath of the Great Depression that requires federal contractors to fairly compensate its workers based on a region’s prevailing wage.

At the time, in New Orleans, the prevailing wage for construction work was $9 an hour; Bush’s decision, which outraged union leaders and congressional Democrats, effectively gave contractors legal permission to severely underpay people hired to do the most critical and most labor-intensive work imaginable. Bush would reverse himself more than a month later, on Oct. 26th, citing, among other things, concerns that the law’s suspension was being exploited by fraudulent businesses and unethical profiteers.

But although the focus of criticism against Bush had largely and understandably been about fair wages, the law’s suspension also had another, arguably more consequential effect: It allowed federal contractors to hire undocumented workers.

America is proudly a nation of immigrants, and for generations, we have especially welcomed political refugees from all corners of the world, recognizing the moral imperative inscribed on the Statue of Liberty herself:

Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!

But, with all due respect to Lady Liberty and New York, there is no other state in the country that has been more enriched and more influenced by the diverse cultures and contributions of its immigrants than Louisiana. For much of its 300-year history, New Orleans was the second-largest port of entry in the entire country, and we were also, at times, the epicenter of the African slave trade.

“Cajun Country,” the 22-parish region of the state also known as Acadiana, would not exist if Louisiana hadn’t welcomed thousands of political refugees from present-day Nova Scotia in the latter part of the 18th century, more than 1,500 of whom arrived by way of France. At one point, Acadians represented the single-largest demographic group in the state, and today, the word Cajun is synonymous with the state itself.

Similarly, during the early 19th century, nearly 10,000 Haitian refugees settled in Louisiana, and in the 20th century, thousands of Vietnamese refugees fled their war-torn home country and made Louisiana their new home. There are others from across the planet: Irish and Italians in the 19th century, Filipinos and Greeks and Germans, among others.

However, there is no question that Louisiana would have never been built or even turned a profit if it were not for the generations of Africans and African-Americans, like Solomon Northup, who forcibly migrated to the state and were treated, pursuant to the law at the time, as nothing more than a piece of property, a commodity that could be sold and resold without impunity or any sense of humanity.

“I would cite you to the Apostle Paul and his clear and wise command in Romans 13, to obey the laws of the government because God has ordained the government for his purposes,” Attorney General Jeff Sessions recently said during a speech to law enforcement officers in an attempt to justify the Trump administration’s horrific childhood separation policy. “Orderly and lawful processes are good in themselves. Consistent and fair application of the law is in itself a good and moral thing, and that protects the weak and protects the lawful.”

That’s the same scripture that white lawyers and judges used to justify discriminating against and arresting a New Orleans man named Homer Plessy in 1891.

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Louisiana wasn’t just built by immigrants and slaves; Louisiana was also rebuilt by immigrants, many of whom were “illegal aliens” or “undocumented workers.”

According to a study conducted by researchers at the University of California Berkeley and Tulane, “14,000 Latino laborers arrived within the first few months after the storm,” an estimate disputed as far lower than the the actual number. Indeed, the Hispanic population of the New Orleans metropolitan area rose by 57% between the 2000 and 2010 Census counts, an increase of more than 33,000 people.

The influx of the Hispanic, Spanish-speaking immigrants, the majority of whom arrived from Mexico and Honduras (though some came as far away as Brazil and Peru), rattled several local and state officials, most memorably the city’s mayor, C. Ray Nagin, who once wondered aloud at a town hall, “How do I ensure New Orleans is not overrun by Mexican workers?”

Nagin’s prejudicial nativism may have carried some popular appeal at the time; after all, despite his well-documented incompetence and failures at the time, he still managed to coast to a reelection victory against his Democratic challenger, Mitch Landrieu.

But it also obscures a fundamental truth about the city’s and the region’s recovery: The extraordinary contributions, often at anemic wages, of those same Mexican workers are largely responsible for the city’s rebuilding.

Hispanic immigrants at an ESL class in New Orleans in 2007 (Credit: Southern Poverty Law Center)

In 1980, the elder President Bush, George H.W., then known as being the former director of the Central Intelligence Agency, was asked about immigration policy during a presidential primary debate with then-Governor of California Ronald Reagan.

“I’d like to see something done about the illegal alien problem,” H.W. Bush said, “that would be so sensitive and so understanding about labor needs and human needs that the problem wouldn’t come up. But today, if those people are here, I would reluctantly say ‘I think they would get whatever it is that their society is giving to their neighbors.’ But the problem has to be solved… as we have made illegal some kinds of labor.”

Bush continued, “We’re doing two things: We’re creating a whole society of really honorable, decent, family-loving people that are in violation of the law, and secondly, we’re exacerbating relations with Mexico. The answer to your question is much more fundamental than whether they attend Houston schools. I don’t want to see a whole (lot of) six and eight year old kids being made totally uneducated and outside of the law.”

In retrospect, Poppy Bush’s words, however sensible and however much they may appeal to society’s larger moral and ethical aspirations, now seem completely naive.

38 years later, America is being led by a president who has made a ban against Muslim immigrants the centerpiece of his foreign policy agenda and the fear of Hispanic immigrants the centerpiece of his domestic policy agenda.

Today, we’re not talking about the need to educate immigrant children who arrive alongside their undocumented parents; instead, we are focused on the legal ways in which we can separate those children or, alternately, hold them indefinitely in detention facilities with their parents.

A protestor at a Keep Families Together march in New Orleans shows off her parasol. (For those unfamiliar, the reference is to the Mardi Gras tradition of placing a small plastic baby inside of a king cake).

Without question, America needs comprehensive immigration reform, and we need to ensure equity and fairness in the immigration process. But more importantly, our policies must be guided by empathy and basic human dignity and, as George H.W. Bush observed in 1980 and as we in Louisiana know first-hand, immigrants are rarely motivated by the desire to expand a violent criminal enterprise. In fact, it’s quite the opposite; the vast majority are fleeing violence; the vast majority are merely hoping for the same promise that Americans and Louisianians have offered to millions of others: A chance to work, a chance to contribute, and a chance to thrive peacefully in the land of opportunity.

When you drive across the border into Louisiana, whether you’re arriving from Texas, Mississippi, or Arkansas, you’ll be greeted by the same welcome sign, a portion of which is prominently emblazoned in French: Bienvenue en Louisiane.

But, although it may seem provocative at first, if we are to be fair and honest about our past, our present, and our future, those signs deserve another greeting:

Bienvenido a Louisiana.

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