Around the same time someone — perhaps Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam — posed in blackface for a medical school yearbook, Louisiana House members were putting on elaborate productions that had white members wearing blackface to portray their black counterparts, and black members painting their faces white as part of the same show.
Members of the Louisiana House of Representatives used to put on "The Opera," staging a self-parody every four years. The 1983 show was recounted by John Maginnis in his 1984 book "The Last Hayride" as a boozy, raucous celebration with a margarita machine.
"The fun of the show is in the casting, as the black representatives are in white face, playing the most conservative reactionary legislators and vice versa," Maginnis writes, describing one bit that featured long-time state Rep. Peppi Bruneau, who now serves on the state Ethics Board, dressed in blackface as the Rev. Avery Alexander, a civil rights leader who was one of the founding members of the Louisiana Legislative Black Caucus after his election to the House in 1975. "(T)he crowd and cast, black and white, cheer the racist humor."
A photograph of Bruneau in blackface as “The Rev,” as Alexander was known, appears in the book, which makes it clear that other white lawmakers also partook but doesn't identify or include photos of them.
Last week, it was discovered that Northam's 1983 medical school yearbook page included a photo of a person dressed in blackface and a person in a Ku Klux Klan robe. Northam, a Democrat, initially said he was in the photo but has since retracted his admission, but said he had once darkened his face to dress as pop icon Michael Jackson. Virginia's Democratic Attorney General Mark Herring has also admitted to costuming in blackface in 1980. Both have apologized as they face calls for their resignation, including from Gov. John Bel Edwards, who said Northam should resign if he appeared in blackface or KKK robes.
Virginia Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam faces calls for his resignation after it was revealed that his yearbook page included a photo of a pers…
As the nation reckons with the racist history of blackface and people in politics who engaged in it, the since-ended Louisiana House "Opera" illustrates how some politicians who embraced it here during the same time period have escaped the same sort of backlash over the years.
Asked this week to reflect back on the event as blackface in politics has sparked a national dialogue, Bruneau said, “people in public life today no longer follow the Shakespearean model — Strive mightily, but eat and drink as friends.”
Any criticism of the “totally integrated” Louisiana House event today would be “much ado about nothing,” he said.
“Read the book. We switched roles,” Bruneau said. “‘The Rev’ told me once that imitation was the sincerest form of flattery.”
Bruneau, a Republican lawyer who left the Legislature in 2007, was appointed to the Ethics Board in 2013 by the state Senate, which unanimously picked him out of seven candidates that the state's private colleges submitted.
Virginia's Gov. Northam drama is a reminder of how problematic things have also been in Louisiana politics through the years. Peep this excerpt + pics from the book The Last Hayride (1984) by the late John Maginnis. #lalege #lagov pic.twitter.com/S7JUz3PkpV— Elizabeth Crisp (@elizabethcrisp) February 4, 2019
Recalling Alexander, who died in 1999 at the age of 88, Bruneau said the New Orleans lawmaker gave “probably one of the best speeches I’ve heard in my life” over right-to-work legislation, even though they were on opposite sides of the issue.
“He had a booming voice and he was very good at using words,” Bruneau said.
He said Alexander also had a wit about him that added levity to the chamber’s proceedings.
“It broke up tensions at a very tense moment, and I always admired him for that,” he said.
"The Last Hayride" continues with more details of how the House treated race at the time:
"When the first black legislators outside New Orleans were elected to the Legislature in 1972, the differences between the races were no laughing matter. Each side kept to itself, a social segregation that reflected real life. Tonight this group can laugh at the raw black and white humor because they have shed some old attitudes during the past decade of working and playing together."
The racist revelry continued to the House floor that year.
"Racial harmony and racial jokes are the rage this last week of the session, climaxing in the final hour of the final night, as black legislators call Peppi Bruneau to the mike (sic) to present him with a white sheet and hood," Maginnis writes. "A touched Peppi appropriately responds, 'I consider this gift from my colleagues as something of an honor. It's been a long time since someone in this uniform could stand at this mike (sic).' ”
The book also contains a photo of Bruneau being presented the robe by several black lawmakers who appear to be laughing. A search of Advocate and other newspaper archives did not produce any contemporary reports of the scene.
The book's tale of "The Opera" ends with Bruneau's closing words to the audience: "If you were insulted by tonight's performance, it was intentional. If you weren't, go do something in the next four years."
Rep. Ralph Miller, of Norco, then-Gov. Dave Treen and former House Speaker and Senate President John J. Hainkel, who were all white, are recounted as having a "good time" at the event. All have since died.
Most of the black members identified in the book are since deceased. Former state Rep. Louis Charbonett III, who is identified as being there, couldn't immediately be reached by The Advocate for comment.
The book also details “straight-laced” former state Rep. Woody Jenkins, a teetotaler from Baton Rouge, as being in attendance (though not in blackface and actually the subject of mocking by a black legislator whose face was painted white).
Jenkins said this week that he didn’t recall specifics of “The Opera.”
“It didn’t mean a big deal to me,” he said.
A 15-page chapter devoted to "A Night at the Opera" notes the event was sponsored by a group of 31 different lobbyists and lobbying groups, ranging from the powerful Louisiana Association of Business and Industry to the AFL-CIO and the Mobile Housing Association. (And if you haven't read the book, it's truly an illuminating portrait of Louisiana politics, anchored by Edwin Edwards' 1983 political comeback after taking a term-limited break from the Governor's Mansion.)
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Around the same time someone — perhaps Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam — posed in blackface for a medical school yearbook, Louisiana House members…