Recovered Voices: Black Activism in New Orleans from Reconstruction to the Present Day

For a quarter of a century, The Historic New Orleans Collection has convened an annual symposium to speak to themes of historical interest. In 2021, we paused to listen.

The 25th Williams Research Center Symposium celebrated the voices of Black activists from the era of Reconstruction, as featured in three new THNOC publications. The protagonists of these books—journalists, poets, politicians, educators, and ardent champions of civil rights—have gone too long unheralded. Through their words, recovered from the archives, we explored the origins and legacies of Black activism in New Orleans. The conversation unfolds in English and in French, in classrooms and newsrooms, and in the streets.

Explore this history by viewing recordings of select symposium sessions, reading the symposium books, and exploring videos and other interactive content on this page


The symposium took place the weekend March 5–7, 2021, but select recordings are now available to all through the YouTube playlist embedded below. Click on the button titled "1/11" in the top-right corner of the screen to see the other videos. Information on the schedule of the talks and speakers is avalaible below the video player.

Friday, March 5, 7 p.m.
Welcome: Daniel Hammer, The Historic New Orleans Collection
Keynote address: “Black Civil Rights Activism during Reconstruction: A National View”
Kate Masur, Northwestern University

Saturday, March 6, 10 a.m.
“Hidden in Plain Sight: Afro-Creole Newspapers, Poetry, and Protest”
Clint Bruce, Université Sainte-Anne
Angel Adams Parham, Loyola University New Orleans
Margit Longbrake, The Historic New Orleans Collection

Saturday, March 6, 1 p.m.
“Oscar Dunn and His Radical Vision for Louisiana”
Brian K. Mitchell, University of Arkansas, Little Rock
Nick Weldon, The Historic New Orleans Collection
Barrington Edwards, Massachusetts College of Art and Design

Saturday, March 6, 3 p.m.
“Much More Than Music: Economy Hall and the Struggle for Civil Rights”
Fatima Shaik, Saint Peter’s University (retired)
Caryn Cossé Bell, Midlo Center, University of New Orleans
Libby Neidenbach, The Historic New Orleans Collection

Sunday, March 7, 2 p.m.
“The Movement Continues: How 19th-Century Activism Paved the Way for the Modern Civil Rights Movement” (co-sponsored by the TEP Center)
Mishio Yamanaka, Doshisha University, Japan, moderator
Leona Tate, TEP Center
Lydia Charles, TEP Center
Mary Niall Mitchell, Midlo Center, University of New Orleans

Sunday, March 7, 4 p.m.
Meet the Authors: Q&A Sessions


Caryn Cosse BellCARYN COSSÉ BELL is an associate at the Ethel and Herman L. Midlo Center for New Orleans Studies at the University of New Orleans and professor emeritus of history at the University of Massachusetts Lowell. Her current book, Creole New Orleans in the Revolutionary Atlantic: Une histoire de famille, is nearly complete. She is author of the 1997 prizewinning Revolution, Romanticism, and the Afro-Creole Protest Tradition in Louisiana, 1718–1868 (Louisiana State University Press, 1997) and editor of Rappelez-Vous Concitoyens!: La poésie de Pierre-Aristide Desdunes (Éditions Tintamarre, 2010). She also authored “Haitian Immigration to Louisiana in the 18th and 19th Centuries” for In Motion: The African American Migration Experience, a digital archive and website launched in 2005 by the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture.

Clint BruceCLINT BRUCE is assistant professor at Université Sainte-Anne, in Nova Scotia, where he holds the Canada Research Chair in Acadian and Transnational Studies. His research focuses on the Acadian diaspora and transnational Acadia, on francophone identities in Louisiana, and on the francophone Atlantic world. He holds a doctorate in francophone studies from Brown University, a master’s degree in education from the City University of New York, Lehman College, and two bachelor’s degrees from Centenary College of Louisiana. His work has appeared in Nineteenth-Century French Studies; Francophonies d’Amérique; Minorités linguistiques et société; Histoire engagée; Transatlantica, revue d’études américaines; and Romance Studies, among other publications, and his previous translations include works by T. Mayheart Dardar, Caryn Cossé Bell, and Jean Arceneaux.

Lydia CharlesLYDIA CHARLES is a cultural historian focused on the connections between what was and what could be. In her words, “Biology was my major until I was introduced to the person who would become my mentor. Larry Levine’s scholarship on American culture raised a veil and set me on a path to help make a better world than the one my mother experienced in Jim Crow Louisiana. Beauty, joy, and social justice can prosper when we acknowledge and better understand the responsibilities embedded in our nation’s shared history.”

While working with the Leona Tate Foundation for Change, Charles bundles together her academic training, national museum and state historic site experience, neighborhood economic revitalization background, and heritage tourism skills in service to one project: “I am grateful and honored to help Leona bring her vision for the Tate, Etienne, Prevost Interpretive Center to life.” Charles holds degrees from the University of California, Berkeley and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She splits her time between New Orleans and Jackson, Mississippi.

Barrington EdwardsBARRINGTON S. EDWARDS, an artist and community activist from Boston, earned a BFA in communication design and an MS in art education at the Massachusetts College of Art. Edwards taught visual arts at the Boston Arts Academy for nineteen years. He is a 2019 Massachusetts State Universities Educator Alumni Award winner, a Surdna and an Expressing Boston fellow, a publisher of comics and graphic media, and a freelance artist and consultant. Edwards is a member of the Boston Comics Roundtable, a co-founder of Comics in Color, and is active with the Design Studio for Social Intervention and the Black Speculative Arts Movement. He currently teaches art education at the Massachusetts College of Art and Design. Edwards consistently works to develop his practice as a maker, social interventionist, and teacher.

Daniel HammerDANIEL HAMMER is dedicated to preserving the history and culture of New Orleans for the purpose of enriching the lives of the city’s residents and visitors. He has worked for The Historic New Orleans Collection since 2005, serving in various capacities, including as head of reader services and deputy director, before being named president and CEO in 2019. He holds a bachelor’s degree in German literature from Reed College and a master’s degree in historic preservation from Tulane University School of Architecture.

MARGIT LONGBRAKE, senior editor at The Historic New Orleans Collection and managing editor of the Tennessee Williams Annual Review, worked with author and translator Clint Bruce for nearly a decade on Afro-Creole Poetry in French from Louisiana’s Radical Civil War–Era Newspapers. Before joining THNOC, she spent fourteen years as an editor at the Modern Language Association in New York City, where she acquired and developed pedagogical anthologies and literary translations and served on the committee that generated the eighth edition of the MLA Handbook.

Kate MasurKATE MASUR is associate professor of history at Northwestern University and an expert on the history of race and equality in the nineteenth-century United States. She has published extensively on the Reconstruction era, including authoring An Example for All the Land: Emancipation and the Struggle over Equality in Washington, DC (University of North Carolina Press, 2010) and co-editing, with Gregory P. Downs, The World the Civil War Made (University of North Carolina Press, 2015), a collection of essays charting new directions in scholarship. She and Downs have worked extensively with the National Park Service on several projects related to the history of Reconstruction, including co-writing the National Historic Landmark theme study on the period. In 2018 Oxford University Press published Masur’s new edition of a largely forgotten classic in Lincoln studies and African American history, They Knew Lincoln by John E. Washington. Her latest book is Until Justice Be Done: America’s First Civil Rights Movement, from the Revolution to Reconstruction, forthcoming from W. W. Norton on March 23, 2021.

Brian MitchellBRIAN K. MITCHELL is assistant professor of history at the University of Arkansas, Little Rock, and an associate faculty member at the Anderson Institute on Race and Ethnicity. A New Orleans native, Mitchell relocated to Little Rock as a consequence of Hurricane Katrina and is forever thankful to the state of Arkansas for welcoming him during the chaotic aftermath of the storm. Mitchell received an MA in history, MS in urban studies, and PhD in urban studies with a concentration in public history at the University of New Orleans. Prior to teaching, Mitchell was a senior federal investigator at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, where he won a Federal Investigator of the Year award. The author of numerous papers, book chapters, and books, Mitchell’s research primarily deals with race, violence, and the Elaine Massacre. Nationally recognized for his public history and digital humanities projects, his work has been covered by CNN, Atlas Obscura, the New York Post, the Guardian, National Public Radio, and the Associated Press.

Mary Niall MitchellMARY NIALL MITCHELL is Ethel and Herman L. Midlo Endowed Chair in New Orleans Studies and the Raphael Cassimere Professor History at the University of New Orleans, where she directs the Midlo Center for New Orleans Studies. She is author of Raising Freedom’s Child: Black Children and Visions of the Future After Slavery (New York University Press, 2008) and has published essays online for The Atlantic, Harper’s, the New York Times, the History Channel, and Commonplace, among others. Mitchell is one of five lead historians on Freedom on the Move, a crowd-sourced digital database of fugitive slave advertisements from North American newspapers housed at Cornell University. For several years she has been a member of the Humanities Action Lab consortium at Rutgers University–Newark, working with UNO students and community partners on international social justice and public memory projects. She also served as senior editor for Tripod: New Orleans @ 300, a podcast jointly produced by WWNO, the Midlo Center, and THNOC, and is the editor of New Orleans Historical, a site-based digital tour project available online and via mobile app. Her book manuscript in progress is a study of race, photography, slavery and memory from the 19th century to the digital age. Mitchell has received fellowships and awards from the National Endowment for the Humanities, National Historical Publications and Records Commission, the American Council of Learned Societies, the Massachusetts Historical Society, the American Studies Association, the American Historical Association, the Harry Frank Guggenheim Foundation, and the J. William Fulbright Foundation.

Libby NeidenbachLIBBY NEIDENBACH is the visitor services trainer at The Historic New Orleans Collection. After graduating from Tulane University, she earned a PhD in American Studies from the College of William and Mary. Her dissertation recovers the life of a free woman of color, Marie Justine Sirnir Couvent, and traces the history of the school founded on Couvent’s property, which served as a foundational institution for Creole of color activists during Reconstruction. Neidenbach’s research has been published in Transatlantica, The Journal of Urban History, 64 Parishes, and the essay collection Crossings and Encounters: Race, Gender, and Sexuality in the Atlantic World (University of South Carolina Press, 2020). Before joining THNOC, she worked as a public historian for the National Park Service in Richmond, Virginia, and New Orleans. Libby leads trainings for front-line staff and volunteers and assists with interpretive program development. This summer she co-curated THNOC’s virtual exhibition “Yet She is Advancing”: New Orleans Women and the Right to Vote, 1878–1970.

Angel Adams ParhamANGEL ADAMS PARHAM is the Rev. Joseph H. Fichter, SJ, Distinguished Professor of Social Science and Associate Professor of Sociology at Loyola University New Orleans.  Much of her work is in the area of comparative and historical sociology of race. She is the author of American Routes: Racial Palimpsests and the Transformation of Race (Oxford University Press, 2017), which examines changes in race and racialization in New Orleans under the French, Spanish, and Anglo-American administrations. The book was co-winner of the Social Science History Association’s Allan Sharlin Memorial Book Award (2018) and co-winner of the American Sociological Association’s Barrington Moore Book Award in comparative and historical sociology (2018). 

Fatima ShaikFATIMA SHAIK was born in the historic Seventh Ward of New Orleans and bred on the oral histories told by her Creole family and neighbors. A former assistant professor at Saint Peter’s University (New Jersey), she worked for more than a decade as a reporter and editor for daily news outlets. Her articles have appeared in the New York Times, The Root, and In These Times. Shaik is a trustee of PEN America and former board member of The Writers Room in New York City. She is the author of six books of fiction. Economy Hall is her first nonfiction work.

Leona TateLEONA TATE is a civil rights pioneer and co-founder of the TEP Center in New Orleans’s Lower Ninth Ward.

On November 14, 1960, six years after separate black and white schools were ruled unconstitutional in the US Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education ruling, four six-year-old girls in New Orleans became the first African Americans to integrate white-only public elementary schools in the Deep South. On that day Tate, Gail Etienne, and Tessie Prevost enrolled in McDonogh No. 19 School at 5909 St. Claude Avenue. A fourth girl, Ruby Bridges, began classes at William Frantz School at 3811 North Galvez Street.

The integration of New Orleans public elementary schools became a focal point in the American civil rights movement, focusing worldwide attention on the city, its schools, and the courage of the “New Orleans Four” and their families.

In 2009 Tate established the Leona Tate Foundation for Change to help purchase McDonogh 19, the school she helped to integrate. Today, she and her partners, Alembic Community Development, are readying the historic landmark building to reopen in Spring 2021 as the Tate, Etienne, and Prevost (TEP) Center, a mixed-use development dedicated to the history of New Orleans public school desegregation, civil rights, and Black life.

Her mission for the TEP Center is to create a safe space and community anchor where the public can learn, support, and train for anti-racism activism and social restorative justice.

Nick WeldonNICK WELDON is associate editor at The Historic New Orleans Collection, where he edited the exhibition catalog Enigmatic Stream: Industrial Landscapes of the Lower Mississippi River by Richard Sexton (2019) and was exhibition editor for Crescent City Sport: Stories of Courage and Change and Art of the City: Postmodern to Post-Katrina, presented by The Helis Foundation. Originally from Indiana, he is a graduate of Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism. He was previously senior editor and later writer at large for Runner’s World, and has written about topics ranging from black bears to basketball to barbecue for Backpacker, Vice, SB Nation, New Orleans magazine, Garden and Gun, Paper Monuments, Sports Illustrated, and ESPN.com.

Mishio YamanakaMISHIO YAMANAKA is an assistant professor at the International Institute of American Studies at Doshisha University, Kyoto, Japan. She earned her doctorate in history at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 2018. Her broad research interests are Southern history, transnational history, and digital and public history. Her publications include “African American Women and Desegregated Streetcars: Gender and Race Relations in Postbellum New Orleans” in the Nanzan Review of American Studies (2018) and “Amerika-shi Kenkyū to Dejitaru Hisutorī” [American History and Digital History] in Rikkyo American Studies (2018). She is currently writing a book manuscript based on her dissertation, “‘Separation Is Not Equality’: The Desegregation Movement of Creoles of Color in New Orleans, 1862–1900.” She is also developing a project that explores the history of Japanese immigrants in the Gulf South region.



All THNOC publications are available for purchase at The Shop at The Collection, located at 520 Royal Street in the French Quarter or online at hnoc.org/shop. Interested in donating THNOC books to public schools or libraries? Visit hnoc.org/donatebooks.


Afro-Creole PoetryAfro-Creole Poetry in French from Louisiana’s Radical Civil War–Era Newspapers: A Bilingual Edition
translated and introduced by Clint Bruce, with a foreword by Angel Adams Parham
hardcover • 384 pages • 7.5 x 11 in.

“A rare book whose impact will only increase over time”—Gwendolyn Midlo Hall, author of Africans in Colonial Louisiana

Collected and translated in full for the first time, seventy-nine original works by over a dozen activist authors resurrect powerful voices from the foundational era of the civil rights struggle—which began not in the mid-twentieth century but the mid-nineteenth, in New Orleans, in French. Two Afro-Creole newspapers take center stage: L’Union and La Tribune de la Nouvelle-Orléans, founded during the Civil War by New Orleans’s influential community of free people of color. The original French poems appear alongside Clint Bruce’s sensitive English translations. A comprehensive and accessible introduction, biographies of the poets, and thorough annotations immerse readers in Civil War and Reconstruction-era Louisiana.



Economy HallEconomy Hall: The Hidden History of a Free Black Brotherhood
by Fatima Shaik
hardcover • 528 pages • 6.5 x 9.5 in.

“Shaik blows the dust off the ancient records of an African American society, revealing a forgotten past.”—Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

In the face of oppression, members of the Société d’Economie et d’Assistance Mutuelle built a community and held it together through the eras of slavery, the Civil War, Reconstruction, and Jim Crow terrorism. The story begins when the author's father rescues a century's worth of journals, handwritten in French, from a trash hauler's pickup truck. From the journals' pages emerges a gripping story of an epic fight for civil rights. Economy Hall follows Ludger Boguille, his family, and his friends through landmark events—from the Haitian Revolution to the birth of jazz—that shaped New Orleans and the United States.



Cover of Monumental: Oscar Dunn and his Radical Fight in Reconstruction Louisiana

Monumental: Oscar Dunn and His Radical Fight in Reconstruction Louisiana
by Brian K. Mitchell, Barrington S. Edwards, and Nick Weldon
softcover • 256 pages • 7 x 10 in.

“An exemplary graphic work built on a foundation of impressive scholarship”—Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

A graphic history informed by newly discovered primary sources, Monumental resurrects, in vivid detail, Louisiana and New Orleans after the Civil War—and presents an iconic American life that never should have been forgotten. Born into slavery, Oscar James Dunn became America’s first Black lieutenant governor and acting governor. A champion of universal suffrage, civil rights, and integrated public schools, Dunn fought for radical change during the early years of Reconstruction in Louisiana. Contextual essays, a map, timeline, and endnotes add layers of depth to the narrative. Monumental is a story of determination, scandal, betrayal—and how one man’s principled fight for equality and justice may have cost him everything.



To complement the program, we published new videos, interviews, and stories on our First Draft blog. These resources highlight life during Reconstruction in New Orleans following the common thread of Black activism.    


April 6, 2021
By Margit Longbrake, senior editor

In a series of new videos, New Orleans poets craft 21st-century responses to 19th-century poems.

March 4, 2021
By Libby Neidenbach, interpretive training coordinator

By appealing to the highest court in the land, the men behind Plessy v. Ferguson sought to halt the rolling back of major civil rights gains Black people achieved during Reconstruction. Their defeat in 1896 marked the end of an era of radical Black activism in New Orleans that began with the Civil War.

March 2, 2021
By Kendric Perkins, education specialist

The streetcar protest of 1867 is one of the few cases in which African Americans during Reconstruction successfully voiced their dissatisfaction to government officials in the South.

February 24, 2021
By Eric Seiferth, curator/historian

After the Civil War, benevolent associations flourished in New Orleans's Black community, and so did their impact on life in the city.

February 18, 2021
By: Jessica Dorman, director of publications

Three new books from THNOC give different viewpoints of the infamous Mechanics' Institute massacre.




Student Writing Contest

For its second annual writing contest, The Historic New Orleans Collection asked students in grades 6 through college to create an original piece of writing that responded to a prompt from Afro-Creole Poetry in French from Louisiana's Radical Civil War-Era Newspapers. See the winners here.