Sparks flew in 1954 when Sybil Haydel met Ernest “Dutch” Morial at a friend’s book club. The two flirted by discussing a mutual passion, the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent landmark decision banning segregated public schools, Brown v. Board of Education.
On Thursday evening, Sybil Haydel Morial, now 82, recounted those early days to an overflow crowd at the New Orleans Museum of Art, gathered to hear her read from her new memoir, “Witness to Change.”
But first, Morial considered her surroundings, given her childhood during the Jim Crow era.
“When I was a teenager, I could not set foot in this building or the park,” she said, telling the audience that they could read in Chapter 2 of her book about how she, her sister Jean and their childhood friend, future United Nations Ambassador Andrew Young, were kicked out of City Park in 1947.
Then she read to the audience about her intense, and lengthy, conversation about the Brown decision with Dutch Morial, who had recently become the first black graduate of LSU Law School.
At midnight that night, he said to her, “This discussion is not over. To be continued tomorrow.” Within six weeks, he was floating the idea of marriage.
The new memoir starts with Haydel’s childhood on Miro Street in the 7th Ward and ends in the current day, with Barack Obama as president.
She describes her teenage debut with the Young Men Illinois Club with the unvarnished eye of a political critic: “Maybe I knew, maybe we all knew underneath, that the rituals we took part in, a mimicking of a society from which we were excluded, had become hollow. Surely none of us suspected how the boundaries of that society would soon convulse in this city and throughout the South.”
By the time she met Dutch Morial, Sybil Haydel was in her early 20s and an accomplished activist in her own right. A recent graduate of Boston University, she had landed a job as one of the first black teachers in a prestigious Boston-area school district while she earned her master’s degree at night.
Yet she chafed at the Jim Crow laws that had forced her and her family to see the opera from “nosebleed” seats, didn’t allow them to try on clothes in Canal Street stores and forced her and other black passengers to ride in seats in the baggage car whenever a train crossed the Mason-Dixon line into the South.
So, when Dutch Morial told her — on the day after they’d met — that he’d heard the Tulane University faculty had recommended opening admissions to the school without regard to race, she suggested that she test the change of heart by enrolling in two summer courses at Tulane. “Do it,” he told her.
In the end, she was allowed to attend classes for a few days until a Tulane dean confirmed that she was black and told her the university could not accept her, despite her academic caliber.
After Dutch Morial suggested she walk next door to Loyola University and apply there, she was swiftly told that, despite the Brown decision, Louisiana state law didn’t allow blacks and whites to attend the same school.
“It was perhaps naïve to think that a century’s worth of Jim Crow laws, not to mention centuries of slavery, could be overturned in a moment, or a year,” she writes in her memoir, noting that black students wouldn’t be admitted to a Tulane graduate program for nine more years.
After the two were married, when the Orleans Parish School Board forbade its teachers from belonging to the NAACP or other groups promoting integration, Sybil Morial filed suit against the restrictions and won, with her husband as her lawyer.
Years later, she played the role of first lady through her husband’s two terms as mayor, a time she describes in particular detail around the time of the 1979 Mardi Gras police strike, when a National Guard unit camped in their yard and the police chief asked her for her children’s blood types and school schedules because of threats against her family.
Today, Sybil Morial is seldom described for her own accomplishments.
Most often, she is introduced as the widow of Dutch Morial, the city’s first African-American mayor, or as the mother of one of her five accomplished children, usually former Mayor Marc Morial, who now heads the National Urban League.
Unmentioned is the 1993 “Draft Sybil” effort, when community leaders approached her to run for mayor. As she was mulling the idea, pollster Ed Renwick called and told her that her approval rating was higher than that of any other candidate in a poll he had done.
After she demurred, her son Marc, then a 35-year-old state legislator, entered the race and won. “I knew that this was not my destiny,” she said.
In light of her lifelong accomplishments, the book’s title, describing her as a mere “witness,” seems too humble, someone suggested.
Morial smiled at the idea. “My publisher, too, thought that the title was far too modest,” she said. “But I thought ‘witness’ was appropriate. I was observing everything, beyond my own involvement. But I couldn’t have been a witness without being a participant.”