Today, no one living nearby sees anything special in the unassuming brick double on North Tonti Street, a few blocks down from Willie Mae’s Scotch House.
The structure has been painted a shade of beige that makes it even more nondescript. People on nearby porches and stoops shrug and say that all they know is that two families rent apartments in the house.
But neighbor Carol Grant stuck her head out of the door when asked. “You got me curious,” she said, as she dialed her older brother and handed over the cellphone.
“It was a famous place,” said Joseph Grant, 72. “I always called it civil rights headquarters.”
He had walked past the house the other day, he said, and with the newspapers and television news buzzing about this week’s 50th anniversary of the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, he’d wondered why so few New Orleanians knew about the movement that was nurtured there.
“Why isn’t it better remembered?” he asked.
Fifty years ago, as President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act on July 2, he summarized the meaning of the law that, among other things, forbade segregated public facilities. “Those who are equal before God shall now also be equal in the polling booths, in the classrooms, in the factories and in hotels, restaurants, movie theaters and other places that provide service to the public,” Johnson said.
But for several years before the landmark legislation was signed, a group of New Orleans activists had been doing everything they could to eliminate Jim Crow laws in their hometown and all across the South.
By 1960, rooms in the house at 917 N. Tonti St. echoed at all hours with discussions among local and national artists and activists who often slept at the house and were fed and nurtured by Virgie Castle, a longtime waitress at nearby Dooky Chase’s Restaurant. She was also the mother of activists Doris Jean Castle and her older sister Oretha Castle, a determined leader who headed up a remarkable local chapter of the Congress of Racial Equality, one of the country’s leading civil rights organizations.
“New Orleans had probably the strongest student chapter of CORE in the country,” said historian Ray Arsenault, author of the book “Freedom Riders,” who described New Orleans CORE activists as “amazing.”
By the time the Freedom Rides began in 1961 to try to desegregate interstate buses, New Orleans CORE members had been in and out of jail and were highly versed in nonviolent tactics. “They were battle-scarred veterans,” Arsenault said. “And they were just so determined, so assertive in their belief that they were doing the right thing. They couldn’t be cowed.”
Oretha Castle and her family were also charismatic and welcoming to their civil rights family. So, over the years, beaten Freedom Riders, exhausted picketers in high heels and skirts and voting-rights workers in coveralls could all be found on Tonti Street.
Memories are still vivid for those who spent time there.
“Sometimes we’d leave a CORE meeting at Third and La Salle streets and go to Oretha Castle’s house for hours. Then, because it was late and there were no buses running, we’d all sleep on the floor. All 10 of us, along with Oretha, Doris Jean, their brother, mom and dad and grandmother,” said Matheo “Flukie” Suarez, 76, who was recruited by Oretha Castle and became part of what activists refer to as “the core of CORE,” a few dozen young adults whose work on New Orleans picket lines and on the front lines of the fight for civil rights ended up being pivotal to the national struggle.
First to volunteer
The small, tight-knit group of New Orleans activists who used the house on Tonti Street as their hub were known for their nerve and their insistence on nonviolence even in situations that threatened to be lethal.
They walked with picket signs in front of segregated stores and theaters on Canal Street, tried to integrate the McCrory’s lunch counter in a 1960 case that they won at the U.S. Supreme Court, rode Freedom Ride buses and trains in 1961 and were beaten as they “tested” legally integrated public restrooms and waiting areas in places where other civil rights workers wouldn’t set foot.
“When the movement needed volunteers, our hands went up first,” said CORE member Jerome Smith, 76, whose skull was beaten so badly by an assailant with brass knuckles in McComb, Mississippi, that he still suffers lingering nerve damage.
While doctors in New York treated his injuries, Smith did work for CORE from there and connected to many prominent civil rights advocates in the city, including playwright Lorraine Hansberry, who mentored him; writer James Baldwin, who stayed at the house on Tonti many times; and a long list of show business stars including Harry Belafonte, Ossie Davis, Ruby Dee, Marlon Brando, Frank Sinatra and Lena Horne. As a result, the New Orleans CORE headquarters on Tonti welcomed a number of stars when they made trips to the city.
As it became clear that Mississippi officials would arrest any Freedom Riders entering the state, New Orleans became the launching point for a new part of the campaign that packed Mississippi’s notorious Parchman Prison with activists. Hundreds of young student volunteers from across the country came to New Orleans and stayed in family homes while they learned nonviolent tactics before riding trains and buses into Jackson, Mississippi.
And 50 years ago, during Freedom Summer in Mississippi, New Orleans CORE members headed up complex voting-rights campaigns in some of the most dangerous areas of the state, counties like Canton and Neshoba, where volunteers James Chaney, Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman were killed in June 1964.
Civil rights lawyer Lolis Elie said that, at 30, he was much older than most CORE members, but he respected them. “I was inspired by these students,” he said. “They kinda strengthened me, braced my back. I felt like, if they were willing to take the risk, I was going to defend them.”
Despite their dedication and heroism, New Orleans CORE activists “never really got their due,” Arsenault said.
Doratha “Dodie” Smith-Simmons, 71, described by Elie as Oretha Castle’s “first lieutenant,” notes that she and her colleagues were not connected to middle-class establishments like newspapers and television networks: “New Orleans CORE people were from low-income, working-class families. We saw something that had to be done, did it and went on to something else.”
Jerome Smith remembers riding a bus in New Orleans when he was about 10 years old and deciding to remove the “race screen,” a movable sign separating the black and white seating areas, from the back of his seat. Any white passengers could move the sign back, giving themselves seats but forcing all black passengers behind it.
Some of the passengers became agitated, and then an African-American woman stepped up and said she would deal with him. She pulled Smith off the bus as it turned onto St. Bernard Avenue and took him behind a building. There, crying and hugging him, she told him, “Never stop.”
Several years later, as police were leading him to the paddy wagon after a sit-in at Woolworth’s, an older Italian lady came up to him, made the sign of the cross and gave him her prayer beads.
“Gestures like these raised our spirits,” he said.
Sometimes the support was life-saving. On test rides through Mississippi in 1961, CORE member Betty Daniels Roseman was assigned to stay on the Greyhound bus while CORE members Frank Nelson, Pat Smith and Alice Thompson “tested” the restrooms at the bus station in Poplarville. But when Roseman, then 21, saw a group of white men put the trio into a pickup truck, she ran to a phone booth across the street to call Oretha Castle.
While she was on the phone, the bus pulled out. She was left hiding in the booth, where she heard a group of men run by, looking for her. Roseman got the attention of an older gas-station attendant, who drove his truck up to the booth, allowing her to crawl in. At first he said he’d drive her to the highway, but he drove her all the way to New Orleans. “All the while, I could hear him praying, saying, ‘Lord, I have eight children; I can’t put her out on the highway. Tell me what to do.’ ”
Don Hubbard believes a young white hitchhiker saved his life. In 1964, he said, Smith had arranged, through Lena Horne, for CORE to get a light-blue 1963 Ford Fairline station wagon in New York. It was Hubbard’s job to drive it to Mississippi, even though Mississippi sheriffs were likely to stop a black man driving a nice new car, especially one with temporary New York plates. His cargo made him even more of a target: boxes of CORE posters, brochures, buttons and T-shirts carrying CORE’s slogans, “Vote Baby Vote” and “Freedom Now.”
Just after he entered Mississippi, Hubbard found himself exhausted but knew he couldn’t risk pulling over to sleep. Then he saw the hitchhiker, in an Air Force uniform. “He was thumbing a ride to the Keesler Air Force Base in Biloxi,” said Hubbard, who pulled over and told the hitchhiker he could take the wheel. He did, and Hubbard lay down on the backseat until they arrived in Jackson. Hubbard then drove the rest of the way to Canton, where he handed the keys to James Chaney, who was driving the wagon later that year when he was killed.
In McComb, when Smith was badly beaten and others were also hurt, black residents gave them rides away from the angry mob at the bus station to the “colored” part of town, where a doctor treated them, especially Smith, who was bleeding badly. “I kept thinking throughout the years that I never did thank him,” said Smith-Simmons, who was 18 at the time and thought she’d never see 19.
Three years ago, at a Freedom Riders reunion, fellow CORE member Dave Dennis introduced her to Dr. James Anderson. They all cried and Smith-Simmons thanked him again and again. “He patched us up and we went back to New Orleans. But he had to stay in McComb,” she said.
“In general, across the South, people opened their doors and churches opened their doors for us,” Dennis said. “We’d pass through and move on. But after they made their stand, they had to live there. They were the real heroes of the movement.”
On Wednesday, to commemorate Johnson’s signing of the Civil Rights Act, Smith will bring children from his cultural preservation group, Tambourine and Fan, to the steps of the Louisiana Supreme Court building in the French Quarter at noon.
Smith-Simmons has a particular fondness for that building because the local office of the U.S. Department of Justice was there in the mid-1960s. At the time, a lawyer told her he couldn’t believe the Justice Department had an office in a building that still had segregated bathrooms and water fountains.
Smith-Simmons volunteered to be the plaintiff in a lawsuit that desegregated the building. “They took the signs down,” she said. “So we can drink nice, cool water out of the used-to-be-whites-only water fountain.”