Reconstruction after the Civil War promised black citizens of the United States equal rights under the law and opportunities unheard of during the slavery era. A group of powerful white New Orleans' residents would fight the changes and win.
The Pickwick Club Forms
In 1857 the Mistick Krewe of Comus became the first parading organization of Mardi Gras. Its members, including many elite professionals of the city, also decided to start a gentlemen's club named the Pickwick Club, in honor of the Charles Dickens novel. Several Pickwick members were elected to the Louisiana state convention that voted to secede from the Union on January 26, 1861. About two weeks later, members would ride in the Mardi Gras parade wearing blackface and carrying an effigy of Abraham Lincoln.
Twenty-thousand men in New Orleans enlisted in the Confederacy at the onset of the Civil War. Among them were many Pickwick members, including club president Adley Gladden, who was mortally wounded, and club secretary William McBeth, who was killed, both at the battle of Shiloh on April 6, 1862. New Orleans would surrender to Union forces in 1862, leading to an occupation bitterly resented by the city's white residents. The state legislature later passed a resolution that proclaimed: "This is a Government of white people, made and to be perpetrated for the exclusive benefit of the white race." Pickwick members would show that they agreed.
After the war ended Harry Hays, who had been a Confederate general, became the new president of the Pickwick Club. Postwar tensions in New Orleans exploded on July 30, 1866, when a white mob attacked participants attending a convention on black suffrage, killing 40 people. Meanwhile, a new session of Congress in March 1867 passed laws known as Radical Reconstruction. The measures divided the South into military districts and required states to adopt new constitutions and ratify the Fourteenth Amendment, which granted citizenship to black people. The next year in April, Louisiana approved a constitution that granted voting rights to black males and integrated schools and public accommodations. In response, Pickwick members joined other residents to form the Crescent City White League, a volunteer militia that promised to reverse "the most absurd inversion of the relations of race."
Mirroring the activities of the Ku Klux Klan, the White League would take part in attacks against Republicans and blacks throughout the state. The bloodiest occurred in Colfax on April 13, 1873, when the group killed approximately 100 members of the state's nearly all-black militia. About half of those killed had already surrendered. Then on September 13, 1874, in New Orleans, White League members gathered on Canal Street and urged the crowd to oust Governor William Pitt Kellogg. With Pickwickian William Behan in charge, the White League clashed with city police, leaving 11 dead and 60 wounded, and took over the city. Federal troops soon restored Kellogg to his office. But continued resistance caused federal troops to withdraw and, when Reconstruction policies ended in 1877, so did the chance for equal rights in New Orleans.
White League Celebrated
Residents of New Orleans commemorated the White League insurrection of 1874, erecting a monument to the battle on its 17th anniversary. A former U.S. senator praised the league for fighting the "usurping government and [sweeping] them from the field as the chaff is driven before the wind." Later, in response to increased violence against black people and laws mandating segregation, a group of "Creoles of color" appealed for equal rights to the U.S. Supreme Court in the 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson case. They lost, with Justice Edward Douglas White, a member of the New Orleans Pickwick Club and the Crescent City White League, ruling against them.
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