In 1901 Louis was born in New Orleans, Louisiana, a city that authorized segregation through Jim Crow laws, supported the racial caste system, and frankly, white supremacy. An interesting and pivotal time for the the African American community due to the substantial legal gains made in the abolition of slavery and equality, e.g. the Emancipation Proclamation (1863), that freed enslaved African Americans in rebel states, the Thirteenth Amendment (1865), that emancipated all U.S. slaves wherever they were, the Fourteenth Amendment (1868), that granted all citizens equal protection of the laws, and the Fifteenth Amendment (1870), that granted African American men the right to vote. The struggle preceding this victory for former enslaved blacks came at no easy task. Which created a sense of worth in the African American community, igniting the community to challenge the white man using their newly found freedom.
As you could imagine, this freedom agitated white southerners which resulted in their fight to reestablish complete domination over African-Americans in attempts to maintain the psychological captivity through the mentality of slavery. Enslaved African Americans, contrary to white supremacists, weren’t truly prepared for freedom in Louisiana following the Civil War, as the terms of African American freedom had not been distinctly determined and resulted in blacks becoming free but owning nothing—no land, shelter, or even clothing. This ultimately forced African Americans to negotiate with their previous white owners for means of survival; returning their newly found freedom to that of the oppressor. In her book, The New Jim Crow, author Michelle Alexander suggests that this was a form of the constitutional racial caste system rooted in the United States.
In the late nineteenth century, many white Louisianans attempted to reverse the gains African Americans had made during Reconstruction. The implementation of Jim Crow—or racial segregation laws—institutionalized white supremacy and black inferiority throughout the South. The term Jim Crow originated in minstrel shows, the popular vaudeville-type traveling stage plays that circulated the South in the mid-nineteenth century. Jim Crow was a stock character, a stereo typically lazy and shiftless black buffoon, designed to elicit laughs with his avoidance of work and dancing ability. By 1880, however, “Jim Crow” came to signify a model of race relations in which African Americans and whites operated in separate social planes.
Being a black man in America, historically and realistically is no easy task, singularly in historically segregated cities and states, such as New Orleans. Louis’ first encounter with Jim Crow was at five years old; on his first street car ride. Louis was moving from his grandmother’s home to his mother’s home, with assistance from his mother’s strict, elderly friend. Having never ridden a street car before, Louis unsuspectingly boarded the street car. Completely oblivious to the FOR COLORED PASSENGERS ONLY sign that rested in the back of the bus, Louis sat in the front row of the street car. Louis was prompted by his mother’s friend to “sit where he belonged” but misconstrued it as a joke and remained on the front row. Before he knew it, his mother’s friend jerked him up and seated him next to her in the colored seating area. At five years old, Louis noticed the severity of segregation in New Orleans. While he wasn’t in the best position to understand or seek change at such a young age, the older he got the more knowledgeable he became on issues of segregation and the oppression of blacks.