The Making of Pontchartrain Park in New Orleans – Common Edge
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The Making of Pontchartrain Park in New Orleans – Common Edge

As the story goes, the project that would change New Orleans’ Black middle class in the 1950s started at the dinner table of the home of Edith and Edgar Stern, the richest Jewish family in Crescent City. Actually, it was Edith who was the richest. The daughter of Julius Rosenwald of Sears and Roebuck fame, one of the richest men in America, Edith married Edgar in 1920 and moved from Chicago to New Orleans, bringing her liberal sensitivity and the biggest pot of money this exotic citythat didnt particularly like Jewsever saw.

The Sterns dinner guests were Rosa and Charles Keller. Rosa, 15 years younger than Edith and a similarly aggressive change-maker, had the non-Jewish social credentials that Edith didnt and that this city reveres. Chuck Keller was Jewish, and marrying him exposed Rosa to the blatant anti-semitism and social prejudices that would turn her into a significant agent for change.

They were a formidable foursome. So, when Edgar shared the housing plight of the Sterns cook, Emma Brown, all four were outraged enough to do something about it. Emma had told Edgar that her downtown house was being bulldozed to make way for one of many 1950s civic projects, and she could not find another affordable place to live. In disbelief, Edgar accompanied Emma on her house search and was appalled to discover how right she was. He reported his findings to the Kellers that night, and out of that conversation came the idea to build a nationally significant middle-class Black homeowner community: Pontchartrain Park, the first of its kind in the country.

Pontchartrain Park is a community of more than 100 ranch-style homes located away from downtown but within the city limits and not far from Lake Pontchartrain. Opened in 1955, it was available exclusively to Black middle-class families, many of whom were backed by the G.I. Bill, the first in the country to be financed by the Federal Housing Authority (FHA). Until Pontchartrain Park, the FHA would not back any housing development anywhere that had even one Black resident.

This was the time of massive urban renewal projects transforming cities across the country. Housing projects were replacing single-family homes that had been the only places where Black residents had had a chance to buy a home. Highways were plowed through historic Black neighborhoods. The biggest travesty in New Orleans was highway I-10, which went down Claiborne Avenue, destroying a spectacular stretch of live oak trees along a street filled with local Black businesses, homes, and nightclubs. This was the heart of the local Black economy, the scale of which is difficult to comprehend today. Like many areas home to Black occupants anywhere in the U.S., Claiborne was declared blighted and eligible for federal funds under the Urban Renewal Act of 1949. It was, however, a thriving neighborhood.

Affordable housing for Blacks in New Orleans was disappearing as each downtown urban renewal project evolved: bus terminal, stadium, city hall, highways. The list of inequities is extensive. And, to compound matters, the new public housing complexes always had less density than the neighborhoods being torn down, and the small number of displaced families who were relocated were never placed in a neighborhood comparable to the one bulldozed. Whole communities with supportive social and family networks were dispersed. The enormous loss of Black-owned businesses, housing, social institutions, churches, and more is only now being fully acknowledged. The loss of Black wealth, the disruption of Black families, the seeds of social dysfunctionare all beyond measure. None of this could have escaped the notice of white New Orleanians. After all, both the Sterns and the Kellers were major supporters of thenMayor deLesseps S. Morrison. Edgar Stern, in fact, was head of Morrisons kitchen cabinet. Somehow, however, the human impact of all this so-called progressive activity didnt register until Emma Brown brought it to them.

This residential security map of New Orleans from 1939 shows neighborhood grades used by the Federal Home Loan Bank Board and Home Owners Loan Corporation. (Courtesy of Mapping Inequality, Robert K. Nelson and Edward L. Ayers.)

 

At the same time that New Orleans was erasing many areas of single- and double-family homes, Black soldiers were returning to the South after fighting in World War II, only to be as viciously treated as before they fought for their country. Sometimes they were killed, still wearing the uniform of the U.S. Armed Forces: In New Orleans, Edwin Williams, a 43-year-old Navy man, was beaten to death and stabbed with beer bottles while returning from church with his wife and daughter in the Algiers neighborhood. Williams had the audacity to protest beer being thrown on him and his family by three drunk white men, who then came after him with broken beer bottles. Stories like this were rarely covered in the white newspapers, but the Black-owned Louisiana Weekly reported regularly on the frequent beatings Black soldiers received, plus other mindless killings of Black men. This was happening to some extent around the country.

These same soldiers who had served in the European theater had enjoyed rights and privileges in Europe denied them in the U.S., let alone in New Orleans. Theyd had a taste of a better life, and they wanted change in their hometown. Their passive acceptance began to diminish and their courage increased. Blacks throughout the South agitated for fair employment and better public facilities. They protested police brutality. They were emboldened and demanded more from their local governments.

An example: For decades, Black New Orleanians struggled to get the city to create parks for Black citizens. In the rare case that they succeededmost didnt last long because of white objectionsthe city provided only the space, and the Black population had to raise money for equipment. They went further to create not only their own park but to embrace a model of self-support and collective efforts that had, prior to World War I, led to Black banks, hospitals, towns, and a communitys first Black school, library, and YMCA. Dozens of those long-forgotten Black communities and towns around the country are being rediscovered today, many of which were bulldozed for everything from new highways to shopping centers.

In this vein, in 1949, Dr. Taylor Segue, a dentist, wrote a letter to Mayor Morrison pointing out that Black golfers had no place to play. He requested the meager privilege of playing on the citys public golf course in City Park one day a week. Ironically, the citys segregated course was designed by a celebrated Black designer, Joseph M. Bartholomew, who had created the suburban Metairie Country Club and City Park courses. Segues grandson, Taylor Segue, told me in a phone conversation that his grandfather was probably writing on behalf of the Crescent City Golf Association of Black golfers.

Segue was born in either 1899 or 1900, his grandson reports, so was probably too young for the first World War I and too old for the second. He graduated from Howard University dental school in 1922. Bartholomew was his brother-in-law. Segues 1949 letter would help change New Orleans for the Black middle class in a monumental way. Not only would a Black golf course with additional amenities be created in an upscale section of the city, but built around it would be Pontchartrain Park Homes, the first suburban housing community in the country built expressly for Black homeowners within the city limits and backed by the FHA.

None of what was unfolding in postwar New Orleans could have escaped the awareness of the Sterns and the Kellers, all of whom were involved in various against-the-norm efforts on behalf of Black citizens. But what made this different was Ediths fortune, which could effect real change. By the 1950s, both Sterns had changed the educational landscape of the city: Edith founded a new nursery school and high school based on progressive educational principles set forth by John Dewey, introducing Dewey principles to the South; Edgar led a mixed-race committee in the founding of Dillard University and a new Black hospital. Edith had also worked to clean up voter registration and made it possible for Blacks to enroll. Rosa had led the integration of the public library system, been a leader in the Urban League, and worked with Edgar on the Goodrich Hospital. And while Ediths philanthropy was often quietly behind the scenes, Edgar was clearly out front but always with Ediths fortune behind him. And for this new housing idea, he had the Kellers as willing partners.

And so it was that Edgar was in a position of influence with the mayor when the new development idea emerged. Yet it would take until 1955 for this breakthrough development to begin construction. All manner of roadblocks stood in the way. It was a particular lobbying effort in Washington on the part of Edgars D.C. lawyers that overcame financial rules preventing new housing for Black families. Jacques Morial, son of the citys first Black mayor, asks: How else would this have happened?

The New Orleans States Item reported in August 1951: The 184-acre Pontchartrain Park bought by the city for $173,963, to be used as a recreation ground for Negroes, has been cleared, Mayor Chep Morrison said today, but the city has no money to make any further improvements on the property. Again, the decades-long pattern when the city occasionally purchased a property for a Black park, the Black community was left to purchase all the equipment. But in this case, a sequence of appalling events preceded the parks creation.

There were many hurdles. Probably none were as daunting as just getting Morrison on board. He found ways to show concern for Blacks when prodded by his high-pressure campaign supporters like the Sterns and the Kellers; his private feelings were another matter.

Councilmen Paul Burke, Walter Duffourc and James Fitzmorris joined Mayor deLesseps Chep Morrison and Rev. A.L. Davis at a pile-driving ceremony for Pontchartrain Park. Image courtesy of Louisiana Division/City Archives, New Orleans Public Library.

 

Dr. Segues letter had elicited a shockingly crass reaction from Morrison. On March 23, 1949, W. Ray Scheuering, a top aide to Morrison, forwarded Segues letter to the mayor requesting a Negro golf course in the city.

The mayors aide inquired in a memo if the mayor had any idea of how to respond. Scheuering wrote: Since the proposed Negro recreation area in the vicinity of the Industrial Canal and the lakefront seems very remote, I am wondering if we have any other possible site in mind. If not, I will try to let them down easy with ‘no money’ reply. [1]

Interestingly, the mayor replies in two ways. First, there is a small OK below the no money reply suggestion. Then there was this extended answer in long hand below, also in the mayors handwriting:

 

There is an excellent piece of city property which is currently used as a public dump that could be made into a nice 9-hole course. It was one time, long ago in the days of the WPA made into an Algiers Park but has since fallen into neglect, until now it is an eyesore. It has water hazards, roadways, arched overpasses of concrete, etc., everything necessary to make it an ideal course for the jiggerboos Here are my reasons for recommending same: 1. It lies in a corner of Orleans Parish over in Algiers [across the river]. 2. It is a mile away from the (illegible)Country Club(white) which has a 9 hole course. The westside club is a private affair and is not so exclusive as to cause a big howl from the gentry because of colored encroachments. 3. The Algiers Park is in a colored/poor (which section of Algiers along B(illegible) highway). 4. As a public golf course it would cause the jiggs to cross the river the same as the Algiers whites have to cross to the City Park and Audobon Park courses 5. Work of cleaning the place could beginsay in December for obvious (illegible) Federal funds could be obtained.

 

This memo is unmentioned in the only biography of Morrison, by Edward F. Haas. Instead, Haas writes: In the spring of 1949, determined protests from Black citizens who objected strenuously to the absence of a large municipal park and golf course for their own use caused Mayor Morrison to call a special meeting of his general advisory committee to discuss the matter. Edgar Stern Sr. was the committee chairman. At a June 9, 1949, meeting of the all-white committee including representatives of Audubon and city parks, the New Orleans Recreation Department (NORD), and the planning commissionagreed that a sizable park for Blacks should be established where there will be a minimum of neighborhood friction. [2]

There was actually no place where minimum friction existed; it was only a matter of degree of how strong it was. The New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, for example, wrote a strong letter opposing the development on behalf of the citys 40 Baptist churches. A representative of organizations in the nearby Greater Gentilly Civic Improvement Association threatened to bomb the negro residence proposed. [3] Clearly, in the 1950s, the new, young white homeowners in Gentilly Woods were horrified at the thought of 5,000 Black residents at their doorstep, who would be driving through their neighborhood to get to and from home. Eventually, a compromise was struck that limited the number of access roads to two and created a ditch to separate the two communities. That ditch is officially called the Dwyer Canal, but it really is just a ditch separating the backyards of the two communities, one white and one Black.

At some point, and it is not clear how, the idea emerges of connecting the park and golf course to the suburban home development that Edgar is proposing. Various documents in the Katrina-damaged Morrison files of the Louisiana Collection at Tulane University had been viewed years ago by Jacques Morial. Those papers revealed, says Morial, the above-mentioned memo and Edgars encouragement of Morrison to ease his fundamentally segregationist views without embracing integration. For example, Morial reports, Edgar alerted the mayor to the vigorous Black protests in Miami that had led to the full integration of that citys parks. Morial had read and copied the memo from Stern to Morrison years ago. It is in the library file now, missing or damaged since Katrina. Stern warns that this is what will happen in New Orleans if a Black golf course and park is not created. [4]

Between 1947 and the opening of Pontchartrain Park Homes in 1955 and the park in 1956, governmental machinations were complicated and, occasionally, delicate. As well as he could, Mayor Morrison kept things out of the public eye for fear of more white backlash than was already occurring.

When Pontchartrain Park opened in 1957, Morrison believed he satisfied all parties, boasting that he had preserved segregation by providing truly separate but equal facilities. The park around which the homes were built developed slowly, including sports facilities, baseball fields, picnic areas, lagoons, and more. Joseph Bartholomew was engaged to design the golf course, the first one in the city he would design that he could also enjoy as a player. In honor of Edgar Stern, he did not charge the city for the design work. Morrison was very craftily using public funds, but in sums of $200,000 from different city accounts so that financing did not have to go through bonds or other means that would require public disclosure. Historically, the city did not pay for Black park equipment.

The idea for a huge park for Black people with a golf course, all built on the other side of the Dwyer Canal from Gentilly Woods, was clearly forced on Mayor Morrison, considering his memo proposing a former dump in Algiers as a Black park. At some point, what seems to be Edgars idea of an adjacent suburban subdivision for Black homeowners became part of the mix.

In the 1950s, the two- or three-bedroom ranch-style house with a backyard was going up in suburbia all over the country. With either a garage or carport, the ranch was the answer to the increasingly car-bound society. It was also a status symbol, a signal that the occupying family had arrived in the middle class.

As actor Wendell Pierce, who grew up here, noted in his book, The Wind in the Reeds: A Storm, A Play, and the City That Would Not Be Broken: Thats the thing about Pontchartrain Park. Its utterly ordinary, 1950s-style, cookie-cutter Americana appearance veiled what was in fact an extraordinary accomplishment for black Americans: middle-class normalcy. Pierce adds: Heres the key to understanding Pontchartrain Park, the secret of its success. It was a place in which nearly everybody owned their house, and each house had in it both a mother and a father. Our dads never had to talk about the responsibilities fathers had to kids, they demonstrated them by example. Our moms did not have to carry the burden of raising children by themselves. They did it with their husbands. That was the norm in Pontchartrain Park: single family homes, each family headed by a mom and a dad, and everybodys mom and dad obliged to support the other in their common mission of raising up the next generation.

Loyalty to ones neighborhood is common around the country, but the loyalty and pride among those who grew up in Pontchartrain Park is unusually fierce. Gwen Thompkins, an editor and former NPR correspondent who specializes in writing about New Orleans musicians, grew up in The Park, as it is affectionately called. I remember complaining in the 1980s that nothing ever happened here, she recalled in conversation, but there was a lot going on that I didnt see. Nearly every kid I knew went to college; the worst student in my class ended up becoming a jazz musician. One resident, Ernest Morial, went on to become the first Black mayor of New Orleans.

What made the community unique to Terence Blanchard, trumpeter, bandleader, composer, and much more, was that everybody was involved with everybody elses kids lives, he told Thompkins on her WWNO Public Radio program Music Inside Out a few years ago. The future of the kids was what everyone cared about. What marked the community, Blanchard said, was that every family was trying to do better for their kids.

Pontchartrain Park is such an incredible success, its hard to keep in perspective how difficult it was to achieve. Clearly the period between 1949 and 1955 was still a time of staunch segregation, one with separate but equal standards. Both Edgar and Edith were clearly political animals, and they had staked their reputations and financial support on Morrison and his anti-corruption agenda. But here Edgar exhibited a commitment that seems above and beyond the normal. The two projects, the park and the housing, were both immensely challenging, but in different ways. It made New Orleans historyand national history, too.

Unless otherwise noted, all images are courtesy of the Preservation Resource Center of New Orleans.

NOTES:

  1. Memo to deLesseps S. Morrison from W. Ray Scheuering, 3/23/49, Manuscript Department, Tulane University Library. Copy of this letter made years ago by Jacques Morial but now apparently in the files that have been lost or damaged by water during Katrina and mildewed. They are off limits to the public.
  2. Haas, Edward F., DeLesseps S. Morrison and the image of reform, (Jan 1974), LSU Press, p. 74.
  3. NOPL Morrison file, memo from W. Ray Scheuering to Mayor Morrison, 2/28/50.
  4. Memo to Morrison from Stern. Morrison file, La Collection, Tulane.