The Choctaw Club, a Democratic political organization, began after the end of the Civil War, during Reconstruction. Until 1877, the city of New Orleans was still under federal rule, and Orleanians were anxious to run their city themselves.
Local voters (at that time, all men) could join the Republican Party (comprised of Northern supporters and including numerous black members) or they could be Democrats. The 1874 armed conflict (centering on a statue of Henry Clay on Canal Street and later called the Battle of Liberty Place) was symptomatic of the toxic situation. When the Democrats resumed power, Louisiana and other former Confederate states ushered in the era of Jim Crow with disenfranchisement of black voters until the Civil Rights period.
The Democrats in 1873 created the citywide Crescent Democratic organization, later to be known as the Choctaw Club.
In what The Picayune of December 30, 1896, referred to as “a hot pow-wow,” the Choctaw Club was officially founded along the lines of “the famous Tammany” Hall of New York, “even to the length of choosing an Indian name.” The gathering managed to approve the group’s charter, including the requirement that a clubhouse be provided.
By April 4, 1897, The Picayune could report that the Choctaw Club would soon have a home where members “could meet socially as well as politically,” at number 4 Carondelet Street, an address formerly occupied by both the Boston Club and the Pickwick Club.
The Choctaw Club would also once occupy the third floor at 1025 Canal St. – a building located close enough to the Hard Rock Hotel site that its demolition has been requested by the owner of that ill-fated project.
The Choctaw Club best remembered by Orleanians was on the corner of St. Charles and Poydras, at 518 St. Charles.
Gasper Schiro, the last elected New Orleans Register of Conveyances, well remembers that clubhouse, “it was really a nice building – it had gold framed mirrors on the walls, and pictures of former mayors. They had a big portrait of Choctaw Chief Pushamataha behind the main podium where the chairman conducted meetings
“I started going there when I was still in high school – I knew Assessor Jim Comiskey who was the head of the Choctaw Club. I knew the 7th ward leader, Joseph Cangiamilla. I lived in the 7th ward and they let me come to meetings.”
The Choctaw Club, like Tammany Hall in New York, was organized by wards, with ward leaders consolidating local voters, and with patronage and jobs dispensed from the resulting elected officials with power over employment. All Choctaw Club members were expected to work for the club’s aims.
As Schiro explained, “I would help at election time, distribute ballots.”
“After I graduated from Loyola Law School in 1959, I became an active member. In 1974 I ran for the Democratic State Central Committee and won.”
Schiro’s path to elected office had an unusual beginning. “When I married Mel (the former Romelia Boyer) on my wedding day in 1969, Assessor Comiskey came up to me and said ‘Anybody who can fill up St. Anthony’s Church on a Wednesday afternoon ought to run for something.’”
“I ran against Ernie Hessler, who was Register of Conveyances. (Hessler was an Earl Long supporter – the Choctaw Club wasn’t.) Schiro defeated Hessler in 1977 and then served from 1978 to 2008 – 30 years—until the office was combined under the Clerk of Court’s office.
The Choctaw Club’s reign was in effect during Martin Behrman’s time as mayor, from 1904 to 1920, and then from 1925 to 1926, when he died in office. Robert Maestri, mayor from 1936 to 1946 was a Choctaw Club member but was also a supporter of Governor Huey Long (a Choctaw foe.) When Maestri was defeated by deLesseps Morrison in 1946, the Choctaw Club may still have existed, but members eventually went with Morrison’s Crescent City Democratic Association (CCDA) or the Regular Democratic Organization (RDO.) Both of those names had been associated with the Choctaw Club in the past.
The Choctaw Club building on St. Charles at Poydras was a victim of the widening of Poydras Street in the 1960s. The Regular Democratic Organization still exists, and supports a ticket for every election. Gasper Schiro is still an active member of the group.