New Orleans Black History: Celebrating Chocolate City New Orleans

As we enter the first day of February honoring Black History in the shortest month out of the year. As a Black New Orleanian, I decided to celebrate the lives of those who contributed to not only the black history of New Orleans but the history of New Orleans. And with that said, I will kick off the month celebrating “Chocolate City New Orleans,” as stated by former Mayor Ray Nagin. Some found his speech racist, insensitive and controversial, but it was true. Before the flood of gentrifiers, post-Hurricane Katrina took over New Orleans had been home to predominately African Americans.

As the city continues to rebuild, the “delicious chocolate drink” that Nagin described in his speech has been pulled off the shelves along with other New Orleans delicacies. New Orleans has always been a big ole pot of the tastiest Gumbo in the world. We are a flavorful blend of African, French, Spanish, and Native Indian with other races’ sprinkles. Yes, we are a city made up of transplants who contributed to the cultures and traditions of New Orleans, but unlike the past influences, those who have moved into the city came here to change who we are. Everything from our cuisine to our genuine hospitable nature has undergone changes. The soulful presence that walks the streets is disappearing, and the heartbeat of New Orleans is fading away. One day we will wake up to what is slated to be “New New Orleans” with no hint of the authenticity of what New Orleans used to be.

I’m here. I see Black Native New Orleanians moving out to be replaced by wealthy culture confused transplants who fell in love with New Orleans in the Quarter. I walk past the homes of those who haven’t returned home since Katrina because they can not afford to. So, while I have the chance, I will pay homage to my “Chocolate City” and the generations of nuts who continue to fight to call New Orleans home.

From the 1960s to the 1990s, Washington D.C. was well known as the nation’s preeminent “Chocolate City.” The District became the first majority-black major city in the U.S. in 1957, and the black percentage of the population rocketed to over 70% within little over a decade.

Yet the term ‘chocolate city’ denoted far more than a simple black majority. As the poet Kenneth Carroll has argued, District African Americans used the term to represent the intersection of a black majority, that community’s prolific production of black art and culture, and the city’s rising prospects for black self-determination in the 1960s through the mid-1990s. The force that brought these three developments together – and made the District the first large city to elevate a former black power activist to the mayor’s office: Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee veteran Marion Barry – was the black power movement. Though several historians have written captivating monographs that cover certain aspects of the black power movement in D.C., no one has penned an overview of the movement in the city. As a result, our understanding of the depth, complexity, and intersections of black activism in the nation’s capital is severely limited. Drawing from his current project, the Washington, D.C. Black Power Map, an interactive web-based map of the Black Power Movement in in the District, George Derek Musgrove will present an overview of the movement in the city, emphasizing the principal activists and organizations that drove black protest during the period.

Ray Nagin: ‘This city will be chocolate at the end of the day.’, aftermath of Hurricane Katrina – 2006

17 January 2006, City Hall, New Orleans, USA

These were off the cuff remarks at a MLK day event at City Hall. Nagin was later forced to apologize for ‘Chocolate City’ remark. He denied he was only interested in the African-American population, explaining “How do you make chocolate? You take dark chocolate, and you mix it with white milk and it becomes a delicious drink. That’s the chocolate I’m talking about.’

I greet you all in the spirit of peace this morning. I greet you all in the spirit of love this morning, and more importantly, I greet you all in the spirit of unity. Because if we’re unified, there’s nothing we cannot do.

Now, I’m supposed to give some remarks this morning and talk about the great Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. You know when I woke up early this morning, and I was reflecting upon what I could say that could be meaningful for this grand occasion. And then I decided to talk directly to Dr. King.

Now you might think that’s one Katrina post-stress disorder. But I was talking to him and I just wanted to know what would he think if he looked down today at this celebration. What would he think about Katrina? What would he think about all the people who were stuck in the Superdome and Convention Center and we couldn’t get the state and the federal government to come do something about it? And he said, “I wouldn’t like that.”

And then I went on to ask him, I said, “Mr. King, when they were marching across the Mississippi River bridge, some of the folks that were stuck in the Convention Center, that were tired of waiting for food and tired of waiting on buses to come rescue them, what would he say as they marched across that bridge? And they were met at the parish line with attack dogs and machine guns firing shots over their heads?” He said, “I wouldn’t like that either.”

Then I asked him to analyze the state of black America and black New Orleans today and to give me a critique of black leadership today. And I asked him what does he think about black leaders always or most of the time tearing each other down publicly for the delight of many? And he said, “I really don’t like that either.”

And then finally, I said, “Dr. King, everybody in New Orleans is dispersed. Over 44 different states. We’re debating whether we should open this or close that. We’re debating whether property rights should trump everything or not. We’re debating how should we rebuild one of the greatest cultural cities the world has ever seen. And yet still yesterday we have a second-line and everybody comes together from around this and that and they have a good time for the most part, and then knuckleheads pull out some guns and start firing into the crowd and they injure three people.” He said, “I definitely wouldn’t like that.”

And then I asked him, I said, “What is it going to take for us to move and live your dream and make it a reality?” He said, “I don’t think we need to pay attention anymore as much about the other folk and racists on the other side.” He said the thing we need to focus on as a community, black folks I’m talking to, is ourselves.

What are we doing? Why is black-on-black crime such an issue? Why do our young men hate each other so much that they look their brother in the face and they will take a gun and kill him in cold blood? He said we as a people need to fix ourselves first. He said the lack of love is killing us. And it’s time, ladies and gentlemen.

Dr. King, if he was here today, he would be talking to us about this problem, about the problem we have among ourselves. And as we think about rebuilding New Orleans, surely God is mad at America, he’s sending hurricane after hurricane after hurricane and it’s destroying and putting stress on this country. Surely he’s not approving of us being in Iraq under false pretense. But surely he’s upset at black America, also. We’re not taking care of ourselves. We’re not taking care of our women. And we’re not taking care of our children when you have a community where 70 percent of its children are being born to one parent.

We ask black people: it’s time. It’s time for us to come together. It’s time for us to rebuild a New Orleans, the one that should be a chocolate New Orleans. And I don’t care what people are saying Uptown or wherever they are. This city will be chocolate at the end of the day.

This city will be a majority African-American city. It’s the way God wants it to be. You can’t have New Orleans no other way; it wouldn’t be New Orleans. So before I get into too much more trouble, I’m just going to tell you in my closing conversation with Dr. King, he said, “I never worried about the good people — or the bad people I should say — who were doing all the violence during civil rights time.” He said, “I worried about the good folks that didn’t say anything or didn’t do anything when they knew what they had to do.”

It’s time for all of us good folk to stand up and say “We’re tired of the violence. We’re tired of black folks killing each other. And when we come together for a secondline, we’re not going to tolerate any violence.” Martin Luther King would’ve wanted it that way, and we should. God bless all.



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