There was a time when there were two longshoremen’s unions in New Orleans; one for blacks and one for whites. The two merged in 1980, but during its heyday the black member union, ILA Local 1419, was a powerful political and cultural force. Its president, Clarence “Chink” Henry, was an important leader in the black community. When he died in 1974, a local legislator proposed a bill that would change the name of Tchoupitoulas Street, whose path parallels many wharf sites, to Clarence “Chink” Henry Avenue.
No disrespect was intended toward Mr. Henry or his memory, but there was an outcry against losing the colorful and historic name of “Tchoupitoulas.” I am not sure at what point the opposition reached the tipping point, but it might have been when even the Neville Brothers, who were raised in the neighborhood, came out against the change. To their credit, they saw beyond race and appreciated the cultural significance. “Tchoupitoulas” draws its name from the city’s early Choctaw heritage. To this day the link between blacks and the tribes is reflected in the Mardi Gras Indians, many of whom, in the early days, were longshoremen.
Last week there was a tiff among New Orleans City Council members over an ordinance to change the name of four blocks of Carondelet Street and 11 blocks of La Salle Street to Robert C. Blakes Sr. Drive and Rev. John Raphael Jr. Way, respectively.
Part of the arguing had to do with procedure and protocol. Another argument, worth considering, was an alternative plan to make the changes “honorary” so that the original names are maintained but the newly recognized names are still included in street signage. Blakes, according to the New Orleans Advocate, was also known as Prophet Blakes. He founded New Home Ministries at 1616 Carondelet St. “He advocated for blight and crime reduction and ran a weekly ministry that fed the homeless. He also oversaw programs that offered afterschool tutoring and computer literacy classes.
“Raphael was pastor of New Hope Baptist Church at 1809 La Salle. A one time police officer, he pushed to stop violence in Central City and was the force behind the 'Thou Shalt Not Kill' signs dotting the neighborhood.”
Both of these men seem worthy of having something named after them, but it’s one of history’s cruelties that those who lived and died early got the names: Carondelet was a Spanish governor during the 1790s; La Salle, a French explorer, named a swath of the territory in the new world in honor of Louis XIV.
As is true of all street names, they’re remembered for their geography and not for the namesake’s history. And that’s why folks in City Hall need to step carefully in the minefield of name changes. It isn’t just about race, but about people’s individual history, remembering the street that they grew up on or places that were part of their life. The situation is like when a school name no longer exists – the memories seem a little more shallow.
Those who did get the early place names include the Duke of Orleans, the LeMoyne brothers (Iberville and Bienville), Napoleon and more. They entered the political stage at the right time for posterity’s sake.
There is a Nobel Prize waiting for the person who can figure out how to honor folks of the present and the future without wiping out cultural links to the past. Meanwhile we can begin by knowing the law, which says that no public place can be named after a person until five year after their death. The two whose names were proposed died two years ago.
My suggestion is that the city should plant an oak tree for every great person worthy of recognition and hope that one day we have a forest.
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BOOK ANNOUNCEMENT: Errol’s Laborde’s new book, “Mardi Gras: Chronicles of the New Orleans Carnival” (Pelican Publishing Company, 2013), has been released. It is now available at local bookstores and at book web sites.
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