- Sundays in the StreetsThe Long History of Benevolence, Self-Help, and Parades in New Orleans
“Everybody in New Orleans was always organization-minded.”—Jelly Roll Morton
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Even in a nation inclined to “constantly form associations,” as de Tocqueville observed in 1831, residents of New Orleans excelled in organizing lodges, religious groups, literary societies, charitable organizations, sporting clubs, social clubs, and, most of all, benevolent associations, the most popular—and practical—organizations to which New Orleans’ polyglot population flocked. By 1880, these organizations (also referred to as mutual aid societies) had become “an integral part of life in the city for both blacks and whites,” acting as hybrid insurance/ social clubs for their members, providing doctor’s care, sickness and disability pensions, death benefits to survivors, and funeral and burial arrangements for members and their dependents. By the mid-twentieth century, however, they had begun to change their focus, becoming less about insurance and more about socializing. Despite these differences, we can still see the influence of the original benevolent associations in today’s social aid and pleasure clubs, which continue traditions and practices that New Orleanians have enjoyed for more than a century.1
Benevolent associations helped their members through sickness, hard times, and, sometimes, destitution. Since the city offered little in the way of public charity, benevolent associations often were the only means of medical and financial assistance available to the poor and working-class members of the community. Like most of these associations, the New Lusitanos Benevolent Association (1858– ca. 1920) promised “to support and aid all members, when ill and in need of help, to bury those members who are called by the Supreme Maker, to console the parents, and to aid and support their widows and orphans.” Disease and high mortality rates propelled many people into membership and made the societies invaluable in a city with little clean water until the city finally developed methods of purifying and distributing water and modernized its sewerage and drainage systems in the years between 1896 and 1915. Although a water works had been in place since the 1820s when Benjamin Latrobe designed the city’s first system, it remained inadequate to the task of providing potable water to most of the city’s residents throughout the nineteenth century. Referring to the filthy piped water, a German newspaper in 1853 admonished New Orleanians to “drink no water—drink beer!” Many who didn’t take this advice chose instead to drink rainwater stored in open wooden cisterns in their yards, inadvertently contributing to mosquito-borne disease. Raging yellow fever epidemics killed more than 40,000 residents between 1793 and 1905, the last year yellow jack plagued the city. Frequent outbreaks of cholera, typhus, malaria, and smallpox took the lives of many more. As cultural geographer Richard Campanella has characterized it, New Orleans became “the nation’s filthiest, least healthy, and most death-prone major city for much of the nineteenth century.”2
The constant threat of disease provided one of many reasons why newly arrived immigrants to New Orleans looked to benevolent associations to provide [End Page 9] care and comfort. As the second-largest port city in nineteenth-century America, New Orleans saw its population expand and change with a steady stream of new immigrants entering the city and adding new languages, new faces, and new ways of living to this “world in miniature.” From 1803 to 1810, the population of New Orleans grew to twice its previous size as white and black refugees streamed out of Saint-Domingue during the revolution and founding of Haiti. Between 1820 and 1860, approximately 550,000 more immigrants arrived in America through the port of New Orleans to seek opportunities in the New World. By 1850, the mixture of older and newer arrivals—French, Spanish, Africans, English, Germans, Irish, Greeks, Swiss, Portuguese, Italians, Cubans, Filipinos, Mexicans, Croats, Slavs, Chinese, Sicilians, and others—produced the fifth-largest and one of the most ethnically diverse cities in the United States. The cultural complexity of New Orleans compelled one nineteenth-century visitor...