Economy Hall: The Hidden History of a Free Black Brotherhood
by Fatima Shaik
Publication Date: Mar 15, 2021
List Price: $34.95
Format: Hardcover, 544 pages
Imprint: University of Virginia Press
Publisher: University of Virginia Press
Parent Company: University of Virginia
One hundred years of elaborate handwritten journals recovered from the trash reveal early Black activism in a new book, Economy Hall: The Hidden History of a Free Black Brotherhood by Fatima Shaik.
Rescued from the back of a pickup truck by Shaik’s father in the 1950s, the twenty-four detailed ledgers, languished in the closet of her family’s historic Seventh Ward home for fifty years. Shaik, a journalist and now former Assistant Professor at St. Peter’s University, set out to find context for the ledgers dated 1836-1935. She scoured journal articles and books, real estate purchases, notarial acts and census records at private and public archives.
The result is a history of Black men and their lives in the Société d’Economie et d’Assistance Mutuelle, a benevolent organization. They were the elite of a thriving free community in New Orleans prior to the Civil War. Statistics show that for the first four decades of the nineteenth century, almost half of the city’s Black people were free. This compares to 14% nationwide prior to 1865.
The Economie’s mission was “to help one another and teach one another while holding out a protective hand to suffering humanity,” Shaik says. “I came to realize that the Economie journals were among the few surviving primary sources written by the community activists themselves,” adds Shaik.
Economy Hall: The Hidden History of a Free Black Brotherhood is framed by the story of Ludger Boguille, the Society’s longtime Secretary. Images in the book display his beautiful script “as elegant as a satin-stitched monogram on a linen handkerchief,” writes Shaik. A son of Haitian immigrants, Boguille blossomed from an introspective poet and 1840s schoolteacher to an advocate for Equal Rights. He narrates his escape from a bloody massacre in 1866, speaks at the first Colored Convention joining the formerly enslaved and the Black moneyed-class, and becomes the grand marshall of a citywide Emancipation celebration in New Orleans’ iconic Congo Square.
Some Economists were Creoles, a generation of non-Indigenous children born in colonial Louisiana. Economy members also commuted to France, Italy, Haiti, and Mexico. “All were successful and civic-minded. They created a private library and supported one another financially and emotionally beginning in 1836. Later, Economistes fought to preserve the Union, marched for suffrage, joined the government during the heady days of Reconstruction, and waged bloody battles against the fake news of the late 19th century that set the Civil Rights struggle back for decades. The records expand the narrative of Blacks as active participants in the major social and political events of the United States and offer additional information about their terms of engagement.”
Their 1857 president, Pierre Casanave, articulated their resolve: “May our behaviors always strike down our oppressors, so that, in each of us, our miserable enemies may discover the proof that we understand that man was born to live with his equals.”
The members built a meeting hall in 1857, Salle d’Economie, later called Economy Hall in English. The New Orleans Tribune, wrote in 1867 that Economy Hall was “where the oppressed and the friends of liberty first met in council in Louisiana” and compared the location to Faneuil Hall in Boston, which hosted civic meetings to promote the ideals of American freedom.
Members also filled the Economy Hall with music—orchestra performances, charity balls, and, later, dance parties with Kid Ory and Louis Armstrong. The Carnegie Hall of jazz, Economy Hall stood until 1965. Now, a tent at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival bears its name and draws almost a half-million annual visitors.
The hall was sold to a church in 1945 and was demolished after hurricane damage in 1965. The ledgers show the way that Black men in the distant past organized to support Black lives, a history that was erased and largely forgotten.
“The Economie journals communicated power, ambition, loyalty, and optimism,” Shaik concludes. “And yet, their stories had advanced and receded from American society and international attention with the winds of commerce and social awareness.”
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