New Orleans has always been a laboratory for the American experiment,” says program director Stephen Ives, “and the astonishing mingling of peoples there has created the most original urban culture in this country.” From the very beginning, New Orleans has been, as an observer once called it, “a world in miniature.” French-speaking Catholics and English-speaking Protestants, slaves and free people of color, Africans and people of mixed race, Albanians, Swedes, Germans, Irish and Italians — by the middle of the 19th century, all of them called New Orleans home. Some 100,000 people were crowded together on the narrow ribbon of high ground that shadows the Mississippi. “Rich, poor, white, non-white, people all live on top of each other. It’s not a matter of choice, it’s necessity,” says historian Ari Kelman in the film. “That leads to a really unusual cultural mixing in New Orleans.” Out of that mixing, Ives notes, “came not only a distinctive style of architecture and a vibrant cuisine, but also the eclectic musical foundations that gave rise to jazz — one of America’s greatest cultural contributions to the world.”
New Orleans’ stunning cultural complexity would also spawn some of the most contentious and explosive struggles in the nation’s history. In the aftermath of the Civil War, New Orleans was at once the most integrated city in the country and the site of some of the most vicious white supremacist violence. Later, the city fostered the struggle against segregation that eventually culminated in the infamous 1896 Supreme Court decision Plessy v. Ferguson, which declared “separate but equal” constitutional and ushered in six decades of racial segregation in the United States. The overturning of that decision in 1954, and the court-ordered integration of public schools across the country a year later, likewise signaled national trends, fueling a mass exodus of New Orleans’ white population into the newly completed suburbs and sparking the downward spiral into urban blight that was tragically revealed by Katrina.
But even in the midst of conflict, the city has embraced creativity, the marriage of cultures and a diversity of opinions — and has served as home and inspiration for some of America’s most famous creative forces, from Tennessee Williams to Louis Armstrong. “Without New Orleans, our American culture would look and feel much different,” says AMERICAN EXPERIENCE executive producer Mark Samels.
The Foundation for Excellence in Louisiana Public Broadcasting helped with the funding of this documentary.
Original Air Date: February 12, 2007.