One of the loveliest streets in the French Quarter and Tremé neighborhoods is about to get a name change. Find out why and learn about the New Orleans legends whose names have been put forward as replacements.
- by Frank Perez
- photographs by Ellis Anderson
The New Orleans City Council Street Renaming Commission recently issued a report that identified 37 streets bearing the names of Confederate generals, politicians and other sympathizers of “the Lost Cause.” Of the 37 streets listed, only one, Gov. Nicholls, runs through the French Quarter, beginning at the French Market and terminating at North Broad.
The 172-page report was compiled by a panel of over 40 scholars, historians, and citizens. Each street identified for renaming contains a brief historical sketch of the person the street is currently named for and is followed by suggestions for renaming. A brief summary of the person’s life and legacy follows each suggestion. Here's the PDF of the full report.
Ultimately, any official name changes will be decided by the City Council.
Gov. Nicholls Street was originally called Arsenal Street before it became Hospital Street. After 180 years, Hospital Street was renamed Gov. Nicholls street in 1909 to honor former two-term Governor Francis T. Nicholls for “valorous conduct in the Civil War.” (City Ordinance 6136).
According to the report, after “enlisting in the Louisiana Infantry in 1861 after directly offering his service to Jefferson Davis, Nicholls and his brother induced others to fight for the Confederacy and against the United States around Assumption and Ascension Parishes. Nicholls was ultimately promoted to brigadier general before being transferred to direct the Volunteer and Conscript Bureau of the Confederacy due to injury.”
The report also details that as governor, Nicholls advanced a white supremacist agenda by supporting legislation that disenfranchised Black people, including language in the 1879 state constitution. He also signed into law a bill segregating railway cars — a law that established the “separate but equal” doctrine. This law was later challenged by civil rights advocate Homer Plessy and eventually resulted in the landmark U.S. Supreme Court case, Plessy versus Ferguson (1896), which Plessy lost. The Plessy ruling was eventually overturned in Brown versus Board of Education (1954).
Nicholls also served as Chief Justice of the Louisiana Supreme Court from 1892 to 1911. During his tenure, Nicholls effectively blocked “any and all cases that would have ameliorated the state’s increasing infringements on the 14th and 15th amendments.”
The commission has proposed three possible candidates to rename Gov. Nicholls Street: Lolis Elie Sr., Sylvester Francis, and Fr. Jerome Ledoux.
The senior Elie was a prominent attorney in the civil rights movement in Louisiana. After serving in the Army, Elie attended Howard and Dillard Universities. At Dillard, he founded a chapter of the NAACP before attending Loyola Law School shortly after it was desegregated. Later, Elie was a key negotiator in the struggle to desegregate New Orleans businesses. Elie lived much of his life on Governor Nicholls Street. His son, Lolis Eric Elie, is an award-winning writer, author and filmmaker who was the story editor for the HBO series “Treme.”
An interview with Lolis Elie, Sr. is available here.
Francis was the founder of the Backstreet Cultural Museum. According to the report, “The Backstreet, the two-room Treme museum that Francis founded in 1999 gave an inside look at the city’s Black culture through resplendent Black-masking Indian suits, brightly colored social-aid-and-pleasure-club outfits and photos of musicians at work.
“Those who rang the front doorbell typically had to wait a few minutes, as Francis climbed down from a ladder or put a paint brush aside as he moved toward the door. He served as the museum’s curator, historian, handyman, and events planner. His knowledge of the culture was encyclopedic. Musicians would stop by just to learn more about the culture that they’d inherited.”
Learn more about Francis and the museum here.
Ledoux was an educator at Xavier University and the pastor of St. Augustine Church. According to the report, “Father LeDoux was an advocate for racial equality and fostered St. Augustine Church as a cultural hub for Black New Orleans, a role the church has played since its 1842 founding. Father LeDoux scheduled Black Panthers to speak in his classes at Xavier University. LeDoux continually fought against racism in his community and celebrated the impact that different African cultures had on shaping New Orleans and the Creole culture.”
In addition, there is an online petition circulating urging that the street be renamed after recording engineer and record producer, Cosimo Matassa. Matassa ran his family's French Quarter grocery business while recording greats like Fats Domino, Ray Charles and Lee Dorsey. His second recording studio was located on Governor Nicholls Street.
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Frank Perez serves as President of the LGBT+ Archives Project of Louisiana and has authored four books on New Orleans history and teaches part-time at Loyola University. He is also a licensed tour-guide. He and his partner live in the French Quarter. You may contact him through his website, www.FrenchQuarterFrank.com.
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