Navigating Space and Race in the French Quarter

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Published  September 2015

AntigravitySeptember2015WEB_Page_16_Image_0002“FREEDOM” IN CHAINS

Maafa comes from the Kiswahili word Kufa, which means “to die.” It can be translated to mean “a disaster” or “a great tragedy.” Too few Americans are familiar with the term “The Maafa,” popularized in the 1990s as an alternative to the “TransAtlantic Slave Trade,” which advocates felt did not encompass the brutality and totality of American slavery.

For the last 15 years, the Ashé Cultural Arts Center has commemorated The Maafa in New Orleans on July 4th by hosting a Maafa Remembrance and Healing Circle at Congo Square, the historical gathering site for enslaved  Africans in New Orleans. The Circle is followed by a march that passes by sites of historical significance for enslaved Africans, stopping at and speaking on monuments and locations that  highlight the area’s history of slavery and anti-Blackness. Visited along the march was The Original Pierre  Maspero’s Cajun Restaurant, formerly  known as the The Original Pierre  Maspero’s Slavery Exchange, from 1814 to 1822.

At another stop outside of the Louisiana Supreme Court, the march  paused at a statue of Edward Douglass White, a descendant of a slave-owning  family and a member of the Crescent City White League. The League was a white supremacist group that attacked the integrated New Orleans Metropolitan Police in 1874. The group held substantial political power and in 1891, the city put up an obelisk monument on Canal Street honoring White League members who died in that attack, known as “The Battle of Liberty Place.” The monument currently stands downtown behind the Westin Hotel.

The march ends every year down by the river, with participants paying tribute to ancestors old and new. In a country that is too eager to whitewash its past in order to deny its racial present, The Maafa Remembrance and Healing Circle and March serves as a solemn reminder that freedom, independence, and equality were words that rang hollow in the mouths of white male colonists who raised one fist to demand freedom and self-determination while using the other to oppress, dehumanize, enslave, and murder the very Black people they forced into this country.

Liryca Neville-Branch and Major Tracy Riley are two local Black women who would be quick to tell you that the French Quarter’s race problems are not just confined to the symbols and statues of its racist past. Their personal experiences highlight troubling and discriminatory racial dynamics currently at play in this historic part of the city.

 

LIRYCA AND THE RECEIPT

Daughter of Cyril Neville (of the Neville Brothers), Liryca Neville-Branch is a 33 year-old New Orleanian who owns a graphic design business with her husband and does marketing work for a timeshare company in the French Quarter. In late May of this year, she and her coworkers decided to have lunch at Huck Finn’s Cafe. It was my first time there,” explained Neville- Branch over the phone. “With the restaurant’s name, I didn’t really think  it was a place for me to eat.” Liryca was called back to work shortly after the group was seated, so she left the restaurant and had her food delivered  by a co-worker at their office. A couple of minutes later, she received a text message from one of her co-workers with the following photo:

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After printing copies, Liryca immediately went back to Huck Finn’s to demand an explanation. While the restaurant later issued a statement claiming the behavior did not reflect the views or practices of the establishment (the statement has since been taken down from their website),  Liryca described an entirely different reaction from the management. “They kept shushing me and [when] my manager gave the [Huck Finn’s] manager the receipt, he acted like he didn’t want to give it back! The waiter  who gave us the receipt came out and told us that it wasn’t meant for us, it was meant for the [Black] people working ‘in the back.’”

Lyrica went into further detail of the situation, explaining, “A Black employee told us during all the commotion, ‘Please don’t let this go, this is the norm for this place. This needs to be brought to light.’” After leaving the restaurant, Liryca and the others shared their experience on Facebook and saw pictures of the receipt post go viral, which Liryca believes was the driving force behind  the restaurant’s eventual statement of apology, not the racist act itself.

 

TRACY AND THE ROUGE HOUSE

Tracy Riley is a retired Major in the United States Army who was raised in Mississippi and came to New Orleans  to attend Dillard University. After receiving her degree in Business  Management and Marketing, Tracy worked in corporate America in Detroit and in New Orleans before deciding to open a supper club and recording studio in the French Quarter.

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Her vision included a place where independent artists without access to studios and equipment—especially those she regularly saw playing in the streets of New Orleans—could have both  a venue to play in, as well as a state-of- the-art facility to produce their music. Tracy said her dream was to create a “‘Motown of the South’ for independent artists, while providing a good quality dining experience for tourists and locals who come to the Quarter, and to support my daughter, who is an artist and filmmaker.” After leasing to own a beautiful red building that formerly  housed Club Voila (on the corner of Decatur and Bienville) in June of 2013, The Rouge House was born.

Well, almost. In late July of 2013, Tracy held a meet-and-greet at the Rouge House for French Quarter restaurants and businesses. She wanted to explain the concept of the space, but was instead met with hostility and disbelief that it would not be a nightclub like the previous establishment. “The businesses who are a part of the French Quarter Business Association wrote  a letter to the Louisiana Alcohol and Tobacco Control (ATC) Commissioner [Troy Hebert] saying they believed I intended to operate it as a nightclub,”  Tracy reported.

Although Tracy went through the city and quickly got the proper licenses, permits, and paperwork to open up The Rouge House, her application for a state liquor license in August of 2013 was red-flagged before she had even applied. “They voted amongst themselves that The Rouge House wasn’t going to get a permit, and within  three hours of getting the French Quarter Business Association’s letter, Troy Hebert served me with a denial for a liquor permit,” Tracy said. She claims that from very early on she didn’t just suspect, but knew that racism was one of the primary factors in The Rouge House’s problems.

“Very early on, people—even white people—would tell me, ‘There’s talk in the Quarter that you are not one of them,’” Tracy said. “They don’t want a Black person owning your type of business in the Quarter. They used that specific language… because I was Black.” Tracy reported that as many as eight cameras appeared facing The Rouge House soon after she moved. Tracy also noted the presence of white people who would “blatantly come inside The Rouge House, take pictures, and leave” or others who would “post up on the street, making phone calls and taking photos of the establishment from the street.”

On one such occasion, Rouge House security went out and asked the white person taking photos if they could help them, to which the white person  allegedly responded, “Get out of here nigger, we don’t want you here!”

The Rouge House held a series of “soft openings” where the establishment was open from Thursday to Sunday (within the rights of their occupational license). Tracy describes them as soft openings because a grand opening “just didn’t make sense without a liquor license.” In another interview published on Think504.com, Tracy admits that “During the first permit application period, alcohol was served based on information provided by a paid business consultant; we did not knowingly or intentionally break the law. I am a rules person. We are here to follow the rules.”

In January 2014, The Rouge House received their second denial for a liquor license, despite all operations having ceased at the establishment. In that  same month, Tracy was evicted from her property in the French Quarter for lack of payment, which she directly  attributes to her repeated denials for a liquor license. That month, Tracy decided she had had enough and took her eviction and liquor permit denial to the courts.

 

TAKING ACTION

From these two very different experiences with racism in the French Quarter, a series of actions that came to be known as “Freedom Summer” were born. Freedom Summer included a Black Unity Rally during Essence  Festival Weekend, organized by Liryca Neville-Branch and others in the group. Liryca wanted to raise awareness of her experience at Huck Finn’s and to call on out-of-town Black people who attend Essence to support local Black-owned  businesses, while Tracy wanted to raise awareness of the blatant economic  racism in the Quarter.

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“During Essence  there is over 270 million dollars spent in New Orleans,” Liryca explained. “There are only four Black-owned businesses in the French Quarter, out of over 3,000; less than one percent… The French Quarter is racist. They want your money, but they don’t really want you.” In some ways, it doesn’t even appear they want our money. For a festival weekend, there  are an awful lot of establishments in the Quarter that close during Essence, one of the few times it happens to be full of Black people.

Liryca, Tracy, and others in the Freedom Summer group led a march every morning during Essence Festival from the Bienville statue on Decatur to the Convention Center. Afternoons were spent handing out two fliers outside of Huck Finn’s. One flier had a copy of the receipt Liryca and her co-workers received, along with an explanation of the incident. The second handout had an (incomplete) list of local Black-owned  businesses that could be patronized, instead of those in the French Quarter.

According to Liryca, on the first day of their public action outside of Huck Finn’s, they were mildly taunted by the restaurant’s employees, who smugly said that people would still come and eat (which they did). Although, when I went to help pass out fliers on the 4th of July, the campaign seemed to be working. The restaurant was all but empty and almost every group of folks who walked by from the Essence crowd either grabbed fliers and thanked us for the information (some plegding to only support B.O.B.s while in town), or stopped to engage us in conversation about Liryca’s experience and the general experience of the French Quarter for Black people living in New Orleans.

Freedom Summer included mobilizing  around Liryca’s experience and was slated to end on July 31 at Tracy’s appeal hearing. Leading up to The Rouge House court date, Tracy and the Freedom Summer group mobilized to raise awareness and attention on her case, including a heavy social media campaign and offering interviews with interested parties. One such interview was requested by Martin Jongu’e, a radio host affiliated with over 17 radio stations, whose show, “Help4Men Radio” airs on SirusXM.

After agreeing to cover Tracy’s story, a very peculiar  thing happened that seemed to support Tracy’s claims of a sinister, high- reaching, race-based block happening behind the scenes. In a phone call with Jongu’e, he described to me what happened after he started promoting his show with Tracy. “I’m not sure exactly who, because the number was not published, but someone from New Orleans called and offered $25,000 for me to not run the show. Then someone else called me a few days later and offered to buy my entire radio slot on SirusXM for up to $50,000; not to put up a new show, but just so mine would not air. That same week, calls were also made attempting to get sponsors to pull out from my show. I’d never seen anything like it before.”

Despite these attempts, the show aired. Tracy and others continued to raise awareness of the case until her July 31st court date, which Tracy says was packed full of Rouge House supporters: “a sea of red,” as she describes it. Unfortunately for Tracy, despite all the community support her case received, her legal case lingers on. The State continues to push for her case to be reviewed as it stands today, while she maintains that it should be considered how it stood at the time of her application. On July 31st, the Judge presiding over her case sided with the State and granted their request to consider her eviction as evidence in her permit denial, despite the fact that  she was evicted after she received her denial. Tracy is currently in the process  of filing an appeal to have the Judge’s ruling reviewed.

 

WHAT’S RACE GOT TO DO WITH IT?

Tracy Riley’s experiences attempting to open The Rouge House have left her convinced that not only does the French Quarter operate in a closed, racist economic system, but that this racism  extends beyond the Quarter to the ATC itself, whose agents she claims regularly  harassed her business and continuously denied her a liquor license.

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A recent series of damning reports about the ATC have emerged that are marred both by racism and lackluster job performance. In 2014, an audit  released on the ATC revealed that the agency was incredibly inconsistent in inspections and follow-ups. According to the audit, New Orleans and north Louisiana had the highest number of uninspected businesses selling alcohol, and it was revealed that the ATC didn’t conduct inspections on 24% of alcohol- selling businesses, and failed to revisit 54% of businesses that had violations  from October 2012 to June 2013.

These numbers are indicative of the racism Tracy has faced, leaving her to ask, “How do you inspect me over 20 times in less than a year, but the state  doesn’t have the resources to conduct one inspection every year for each outlet?” In addition to the audit last year, WWLTV released an article this past August about ATC commissioner Troy Hebert and his “right hand guy” Brette Tingle. Both men accuse one another of racism within their work at the ATC, among other violations. One blatant example includes a text conversation between a former ATC employee and Tingle, where the unnamed employee  writes “I hate fucking niggers!!!” to which Tingle responds “Me too!!… Scourge of the earth!!!”

Tingle’s defense claims that Hebert was attempting to retaliate against Tingle for what his lawyer Art Smith describes as “participating in an EEOC [Equal Employment Opportunity Commission] proceeding and standing up for his former [B]lack co- employees.” In 2014, Tingle testified  against Hebert after three Black ATC employees—Charles Gilmore, Daimian  McDowell, and Larry Hingle—filed a racial discrimination case against the ATC commissioner. In addition to their  own claims of discrimination, the suit also cites that five Black supervisors were present in the Enforcement Division when Hebert took office in November 2010. Today, none remain.

This recent race-based spat between Hebert and Tingle, the racial discrimination case against Hebert, and Tracy’s repeated denial have left her with no doubt that racism is the dark cloud hanging in The Rouge House’s otherwise sunny skies. “I knew it was nothing other than race when we were called ‘the N word,’ and then when we were denied again without any official justification,” she said. “I was not being treated as a regular citizen  who goes and makes an application for state permission to conduct business.  Between the ATC efforts to get the appeal dismissed, the thousands spent  in taxpayer money to represent Hebert and the efforts to keep the story off [the air], they clearly have something to hide.” Despite all of these roadblocks,  Tracy is optimistic that she will get justice in her case and shows no signs of slowing down or stopping her efforts to open The Rouge House. As she’s been known to say, “a soldier never quits.”

 

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