How Race worked in Storyville

 

            Our first section within our exhibit is race. Race was the greatest determinant factor which determined your positioning within Storyville. Glance at the attached map and you will see how racial boundaries were clearly demarcated within the boundaries of Storyville[1]. Notice, in particular, their relationship to the train station on Basin St. This was also determinant of one’s economic enterprise. The highest-end brothels, or parlor houses, lined the south-facing street of Basin Street. The middle-zone was populated by lower-end parlor houses, where black, white, and quadroon brothels intermingled. At the far end, nearest to the cemetery and the furthest away from the main action of New Orleans is where the lowest-end brothels, known as cribs, were situated and was generally considered the “colored area.” It is important to note that this form of segregation was de facto. One must recall that the landmark Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) case originated in New Orleans. This was a strategic call by the plaintiff’s supporters, as New Orleans was, relatively, most moderate of southern cities when it came to racial legislation[2]. Public opinion, tradition, practicality, and even personal preference were not enough to regulate public relations between Blacks and Whites in absence of rigid racial legislation. However, this would change in an adopted 1917 amendment. This altered the original 1897 statute and established a new, smaller, and separate district for Negro prostitutes in the district of New Orleans (see attached 1897 and 1917 legislation). That generally followed a city-wide trend of entrenching pre-existing, de facto racial boundaries into the city’s statutes[3]. Concubinage, or less “formal alliance between the races”, between the races was expressly prohibited by legislation until 1908 (though fines existed as early as 1894). Nevertheless, White Louisianans views towards racial miscegenation were contemptuous enough to discourage the practice outright.

            The price of a prostitute, the greatest indication of their society-assigned value, varied according, first, to the color of one’s skin[4]. Uniquely, three racial categories existed in Storyville, White, Negro, and Quadroon- a unique New Orleans racial composition formed from generations of racial intermingling. The lighter one’s skin color, generally, the higher they could charge for their services[5]. The unofficial guides to New Orleans, together known as the Blue Books, reinforced this racial structure. As you can see in the attached image, prostitutes were categorized by race, with a W demarking white, N demarking Negro, and Q demarking Quadroon (as will be delved into later, a fourth category J demarked a Jewish prostitute). It furthermore reinforced the racial hierarchy by portending to only represent the Tenderloin 400, a play off the contemporary “400” term coined to refer to the elite of American Society[6]. Importantly, it refused to list the names of those prostitutes who worked in “cribs”, who generally tended to be Negro and, thus, the large portion of women listed in these guides were white even though the Tenderloin was estimated to be 38% Black or Mulatto (quadroon) in 1900. Perhaps as an effect of this slant, by 1910 that number decreased dramatically to 28%[7]. However, houses were only segregated when it came to the character of their customer base. The Brothels, themselves, would often earn certain reputations for kinds of women, such as Lulu White’s Quadroon house, but these, too, would only serve a white clientele. As the musician Jelly Roll Morton recalled in 1938 of Hattie Roger’s sporting house, “She had a whole lot of light colored women in there, best-looking women you ever want to see, strictly for white though.[8]” I

It seems paradoxical that these lighter-skinned colored girls held appeal to White men in an era where racial miscegenation was viewed contemptuously.  Its in this paradox, however, that we find evidence Tilly, Stallybrass, and White’s assertion that within cultural hegemony a high/low binary exists. In certain symbolic domains, such as Storyville, where inversion is clearly tolerated, we best notice the psychological dependence the High has upon the Low and how this causes the High to be caught in a bipolarity of repudiation and desire.[9] In other words, White male dominated culture at once repudiated the black underclass but, in a perverse sense, understood that its identity (and therefore superiority) was dependent upon its existence. Therefore, sexual desire of their “other” manifests itself as a natural, but unacceptable, occurrence. Storyville was a tolerated outlet where White males could exorcise these latent, psychological urges. 

[1] Foster, pg. 395.

[2] Reed, Germaine. “Race Legislation in Louisiana, 1864-1920.” The Journal of the Louisiana Historical Association 6.4 (Autumn, 1965): pp. 390

 

[3] ibid, pp.391-2

[4] Foster, 389

[5] ibid, 389

[6] Arcenaux, Pamela. “Guidebooks to Sin: The Blue Books of Storyville.” The Journal of the Louisiana Historical Association 28.4 (Autumn, 1987): pg. 399

[7] Foster, pg. 390

[8] Rose, Al. Storyville, New Orleans: Being an Authentic, Illustrated Account of the Notorious, Red-Light District. The University of Alabama Press, Tuscaloosa and London. 1974: pg. 115

[9] See, Tilly, Charles, Peter Stallybrass, and Allon White. "The Politics and Poetics of Transgression." The American Historical Review 93.4 (1988): Print.

 

 
Storyville Map with area demarked by race boundaries

Overall, a black prostitute working in Storyville could expect to earn significantly less than their White counterparts. The average take of a prostitute was about $70 per a week, but many working in cribs , such as Carrie, could only charge 25-50 cents per customer, and thus couldn’t expect to come close to the $100 a night minimum charged at the higher-end brothels[10] . Take, for instance, Carrie, a black prostitute who had been working in the district since 1901 and was interviewed by Al Rose in 1961. “Good weeks I could take fo’ty dollahs. Big money dem days[11]” she tells us, no doubt unaware how little that paled in comparison to the rakes taken in by parlor houses on their good weeks. 

Carrie’s testimony also reveals something about the perverse nature of race relations within customer-clientele relations. She tells us the majority of her customers, on Robertson St, “wuz nigguhs”,  but occasionally “White boys” would come in for the more perverted acts she was willing to perform to turn a trick. In particular, she remembers one time on the fourth of july, when a group of young white boys came in to visit her. We will let the graphic nature speak for itself but we ask you not to pass moral judgment on Carrie’s action but rather consider how she was forced to live her life:

            “Dey taken off all ma clo’es an dey tie ma han’s an’ feet t’ d’ light pole. Den one of ‘em stick a big salute (firecracker) up my cunt an’ anothan one up ma ass n he light both a dem!” Shit! I done some halla’in! A fuckin’ police, he standin’ right deah an’ he laughin!, (Thank god, it turned out to be a joke and the firecrackers didn’t go off) Den dey tells me to blow ‘em all an day says dey ain’t gon’ gimme a cent an’ dey tells me lucky dey din’ blow up ma cunt. So you know! I done what dey said, man! I din; caiah about no money. I jus’ wann see ‘em get d’ fuck outto ma crib. So I shet up and sucked ‘em all off.”

 

Colored and White men were also similarly positioned in the hierarchy, though their jobs differed tremendously from their female counterparts. White men, by and large, employed in the District, were saloon owners, pimps, and the deed holders for parlor-houses. Colored men, on the other hand, occupied either menial jobs as cleaners and doormen or, in a capacity that would provide Storyville its most lasting reputation, as house musicians (more on this soon). White men could gain prominence in their employment. By far and the large, the most successful of whom was “Mayor” Tom Anderson (see picture attached) who owned four separate saloons and parlayed his economic success into a position on the state legislature. This was despite virtually universal public knowledge of his sordid business as the district’s “Super-Pimp”[12]. Contrasted with Anderson’s success story are the stories of black musicians. A few, such as Jelly Roll Morton, were able to parlay their musical talents into a pretty decent salary of $20 a night. Nevertheless, its important to remember who was paying these salaries, white madams or title-holders, and where the best gigs were located; as Jelly Roll recounts, “all the highest class land-landladies had me for “the professor” (a term referring to a house musician)… Their houses were all in the same block on Basin Street, stpne mansions with from three to seven parlors and from fifteen to twenty-five women all cladin evening gowns and diamonds galore… the girls charged high and made from twenty dollars to a hundred dollars a night [13].” We can see from Jelly Roll’s description how colored men, even the most talented of them, both knew where they stood in the social order and had limited economic mobility. Nevertheless, their contributions to the creation of Jazz would be, by far, the most lasting imprint of the Storyville District on the cultural landscape of America.

 



 

[10] ibid, pg. 392

[11] Rose, pp. 159-160

 

[12] Rose, pg. 44

[13] ibid, pp. 114-115

Page from one Blue Book (date unknown)

Listed by Color, Name and Address 

Photo of "Mayor" Tom Anderson

Mayor Thomas Anderson. The most powerful man in Storyville

Race
How Race worked in Storyville