Deacon Melvin Jones
I first met Deacon Jones through his book stall in the open-air French Market. He's since moved to a nearby storefront on Decatur near the statue of Joan d'Arc. It is unusual to find new books in an outdoor market. Even more unusual was the selection he offered: books about the Creole and Black American experience that I had never seen in chain bookstores.
Being a Yankee, I was unschooled in the complex racial makeup and history of New Orleans, where Native Americans mixed with mostly French Europeans and Congolese Africans creating a society of mixed-race ("Creole") free people of color. This melting pot was further augmented by an influx of free Haitians after the slave revolt there.
Before the U.S. Civil War, you had a situation in New Orleans where free Blacks owned mixed-race slaves. This was somewhat confusing to the Americans who bought Louisiana, and were used to British-based dividing lines between the races rather than the more generous French attitude that provided a place at the table for all offspring. The Americans instituted the "Code Noir" here, stripping free blacks and Creoles of their rights to vote, hold property, educate their children in French, and imposing other indignities that no free person should be subjected to. This code has existed more or less ever since.
In New Orleans, the Creoles were forced to take their culture and their businesses underground. They sold their assets in the Vieux Carre to the Italians, who the Americans despised, and the Italians kept the Creoles as silent partners. At the dawn of the 20th century, the population of the "French Quarter" was 95 percent Sicilian. The roots of corruption in New Orleans are in the Code Noir, which forced people to operate outside the official channels where they were prohibited from trading as free people.
As late as 1959, City Park in New Orleans -- the fourth largest urban park in America -- did not allow "people of color" to use park facilities. This is a park whose maintenance was paid for with tax dollars collected from those same "people of color." This is a park where prison inmates -- predominantly African-American males -- were and still are used to groom the four golf courses and dozens of tennis courts. As far as I know, there is still no basketball court in City Park, nor is there a single swimming pool in the park, though we live in a city where the average summer temperature is over 85 degrees. Doesn't that strike you as odd?
Anyway, back to our story. After many years of many New Orleanians -- white, black, Creole, you name it -- struggling to get these stupid laws off the books, something that approaches equal standing before the law, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, was passed. The city officially integrated, and thus began white flight.
If the government was going to have to build as many basketball courts as tennis courts, well, they'd just starve the public coffers, put the money into private schools, private churches, private clubs, and/or move to a more racially homogenous taxing district. New Orleans was left bankrupt to deal with its problems without its former leaders or their assets. So who did New Orleanians pick to lead them? The Creoles. The former "aristocracy of the colored class," many of whom had gone underground to survive, and who brought their underground ways of getting things done to City Hall.
Deacon Melvin Jones walked through much of the history of this struggle in a personal way few can appreciate. He was stripped of his ministry by the Catholic Church because of his political activities on behalf of civil rights in New Orleans. Only recently were those credentials restored.
Deacon Melvin Jones is a humble man. Getting his story out of him was quite difficult. We recorded this interview in 2007 at the Tennessee Williams Literary Festival in the lobby of the Bourbon Orleans Hotel -- the kind of grand locale where people of color were at one time not welcome. We also interviewed the pastor of Our Lady Star of the Sea, Father Tony Ricard, the same day.
Deacon Jones' church in the St. Roch neighborhood was devastated by Katrina but is still packed every Sunday with hundreds of the most beautiful people of all color and a full gospel choir that will shake you to your timbers! We released Father Tony Ricard's interviews some time ago. This incredible clip of Deacon Melvin Jones was never released because I was too busy to write a proper introduction. My apologies to the Deacon and his family.
So today, on Martin Luther King Jr. Day in 2009, on the eve of the inauguration of the first African-American U.S. President, AuthorViews is proud to present a true hero in the fight for human dignity, Deacon Melvin Jones! Please visit his web site, visit his store, and ask for his blessing. It works wonders!
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