Christopher Morris: Post-Civil War Deals with the Feds Ensured a New Orleans Society Dominated by Whites





Once again the entire country is confronted with the legacy of Reconstruction.

It is too simple to chalk up the tragedy of New Orleans to the force of nature, or to an unfathomable God. Hurricanes, like earthquakes, tornadoes, eruptions and tsunamis, do come, but who or what sends them is only half the story. Such disasters, whatever their origin, smash into worlds of our making.

In the case of New Orleans, Hurricane Katrina hit a city of intractable poverty, in which the most desperately poor are black. It also hit a city that was largely defenseless precisely because it is black and poor. And because its once powerful white citizenry has largely vanished.

None of this happened by accident. We can trace the tragedy of New Orleans in 2005 to a political deal from 1877, when the federal government agreed to protect whites' lands and businesses from flooding. At the same time, the government was backing off efforts to help former slaves obtain land of their own so they could fend for themselves. The whites in turn used their control over the land to keep a lid on the fortunes of their landless, and thus dependent, black laborers.

In the previous decade, following the Civil War, the white business and political leaders of New Orleans and Louisiana had begged the federal government to take the lead in sealing the city off from the waters that surrounded and all too often inundated it. These same men had just fought a war against the United States government, they liked to tell themselves, to protect states' rights, and they could not wait for the occupying army to pack up and leave. The irony in asking for federal money, expertise and leadership in controlling the Mississippi, and in admitting that the state was not up to the task, was probably not lost on them.

But the war was behind them. What they and the nation needed at that point was to get cotton and sugar plantations up and running, as well as to safeguard their region's largest port. For this, they needed safety from flooding and certain control over their black laborers. In little more than a decade, they managed to get both.

In the bargain that settled the disputed presidential election of 1876 in favor of Republican Rutherford B. Hayes, the U.S. Army withdrew from the South and abandoned former slaves to so-called redeemers - white Southern Democrats determined to defeat, by any means, including violence, the full integration of freed slaves.

But where the federal government simply withdrew from the other Southern states, it agreed to remain active in the Lower Mississippi Valley at the request of landowners unable to rebuild and expand an infrastructure of flood control destroyed during the war. Over the next half-century, a Congress dominated by Southern Democrats matched what Louisiana, dollar for dollar, spent on flood control. Blacks remained the whites' poor employees and largely disappeared from the nation's consciousness.

Blacks reappeared, briefly, during the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927, which made hundreds of thousands of them homeless for months. But when Herbert Hoover, then secretary of commerce, visited the scene and empathized with victims - an act that helped put him into the White House the next year - it was to whites that he made substantive promises. Property-less poor blacks were of little value to ambitious politicians.

In 1928 Hoover successfully urged Congress to approve $325 million for flood control in Louisiana and Mississippi, the first payment on a project expected to cost $1 billion. The next year, Hoover, an engineer, entered the White House and began to build massive levees along the Mississippi River.

Today, Congress would have to spend $110 billion to equal that investment. In recent times, Louisiana's congressional delegation has not been able to get one-tenth that amount.

What happened? When cotton and sugar mattered to the U.S. economy, Louisiana's white leaders were rich and powerful. In 1927, for example, a cabal of powerful businessmen saved New Orleans from certain inundation by dynamiting a levee downriver in Plaquemines Parish, relieving pressure on the city's structures. The next year they cajoled Congress into rebuilding that levee so it could serve as a spillway, or overflow, to protect New Orleans during future floods.....

...New Orleans and Louisiana might have gone a different route more than a century ago. White leaders might have linked the future prosperity of their city and state to the prosperity of former slaves. If they had, black and white might stand today united and prosperous, able to attract outside investors with good public schools and efficient governments with secure and growing tax bases to tackle problems such as flood control.

Louisiana is the center of the nation's petroleum industry. Its fishery is second only to Alaska. The region between New Orleans and Baton Rouge comprises the nation's largest port. But money that passes through Louisiana is not invested there. New Orleans was a wonderful city to visit, but a difficult place to live. A long history of white power and black disfranchisement has a lot to do with that.

Over much of the last century, whites in New Orleans hoped to build a society of inequality and do so with the help of the federal government. Tragically, that is exactly what happened. But they did not see the day when black powerlessness would drag them down, too.

Sure, the white folks of St. Charles Avenue were able to drive their BMWs out of the city as Katrina approached. More whites than blacks will have homes to return to. But the city they knew will be gone, unlikely to return. As industries announce divestment and departure, affluent whites will lose too.

If the city never recovers, it won't be just because of the natural environment. It will be because long ago the whites of New Orleans and whites in Washington made a bargain with the devil of white supremacy, and now they, we, will have lost it all.


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