|A New Orleans Native Returns »|
As we pass the tenth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, Sybil Haydel Morial is finally back in her house in New Orleans. She was evacuated to Baton Rouge along with several of her children, and would have come back years ago if a workman repairing the house she shared with New Orleans? first black mayor (her late husband, Dutch) had not set it on fire, necessitating another rebuilding. Like so many people of color in New Orleans, she has found returning a challenge.
The time away, however, gave Mrs. Morial an opportunity to reflect on the extraordinary arch of her life from childhood in the Jim Crow South to visits to the White House with three presidents and the events in between that made the latter possible. The results are a memoir, Witness to Change, which will be published on October 6 by John F. Blair in Winston-Salem.
The strength of the book, I think, is that the reader quickly identifies with the pain of the blind racial prejudice that kept New Orleans and most of the South in its thrall for a hundred years after the Civil War. We learn how it felt to be excluded from the best beach and playground, to ride to school at the back of a city bus, not to be allowed to try on clothing in a department store, and to sit upstairs at the same movie theater where your white friends sat below.
Even as a respected physician, Sybil?s father was helpless to protect his family and even to secure a hotel room for them when they traveled to Detroit to a medical meeting. We learn of the informal network of educated and prosperous black families who cared for each other when public accommodations were unavailable. Her mother, a teacher, ran an informal summer program for black and white children in their spacious yard, but when school started, they went their separate ways.
As a child, Sybil encountered a young Julian Bond, as a teen she went to the prom with Andrew Young and as a student at Boston University she listened to the sermons of a young Martin Luther King, Jr. She was in Boston when news of Brown v. Board of Education signaled the eventual end of segregated education and promised a brighter future for African Americans.
While back in New Orleans for summer vacation, Sybil encountered a young law student with large ambitions and an eagerness to include her in bringing about change. Catching his spirit, she attempted, unsuccessfully, to enter both Tulane and Loyola Universities. She went back to Boston to attend graduate school, and became the first African-American teacher hired by the Newton, Massachusetts, Public Schools. She might have had a successful career there, free of many of the South?s constraints, but instead she married Ernest "Dutch" Morial and they returned to New Orleans.
Her memoir recounts the heady days when both of them strove to make their mark in a rapidly changing city. While he practiced law and headed the NAACP before running for the legislature, she became a mother, taught school, organized friends to help African Americans register to vote, and eventually ran his political campaigns. The Morial family had five children by the time he ran for mayor. The oldest son, Marc, would eventually become mayor himself and head the Urban League. His siblings have distinguished themselves as well.
This life was not without its dangers?the threatening telephone calls around the time Medgar Evers was killed in Mississippi; the stalking of the oldest daughter, Julie, at college, and more threats requiring the National Guard to occupy their home's grounds when Dutch refused to bow to a police strike at Mardi Gras?among them.
Eventually, Sybil established herself at Xavier University. When she realized that students there knew little about the civil rights movement in their hometown, she made a documentary about those events and persuaded the actor James Earl Jones to narrate. She also teamed with another faculty member to create a simulated slave ship for the 1984 Louisiana World Exposition.
What makes the memoir so much more compelling than this summary is Sybil Morial?s recall of detail, her refusal to be diminished by events beyond her control and her joy in the world around her.
When I spoke with her recently, her house had been filled with children and grandchildren to commemorate the Katrina anniversary, and she was planning for a book party at the New Orleans Art Museum from whose grounds she and her sister and Andrew Young had once been banished with a racial epithet while riding their bicycles.
The book can be preordered from Amazon. It?s well worth your time, and it makes a great gift both for people who lived through this era and those who know nothing about it.