To imagine New Orleans as a booming metropolis, it’s simpler to travel backward in time — past Jim Crow, past Reconstruction. Even further still, before General P.G.T. Beauregard ordered his Confederate soldiers to fire the first shot of the Civil War. Arrive at the beginning of the 19th century, in 1803.

The United States has just purchased Louisiana from Napoleonic France. The Port of New Orleans, with its roughly 8,000 residents, will be incorporated as a municipality two years later. A history of French and Spanish colonization, along with the transatlantic slave trade, has produced a cosmopolitan city. The year 1809 will see some 10,000 refugees from Haiti (formerly Saint Domingue) arrive by way of Cuba, doubling the city’s population and furthering its ethnic heterogeneity. By 1820, New Orleans will be the South’s largest city, with an influx of settlers growing the population to just over 46,000 by the end of the decade. By 1840 the city’s population will swell to 102,000, making it the nation’s third-most populous city — and its wealthiest.

For New Orleans journalist Daniel Brook, within this period of history lie the seeds of another, often overlooked story.

Daniel Brook book cover

In “The Accident of Color: A Story of Race in Reconstruction” (W.W. Norton & Company, June 18, $28), Brook surveys the “misfit metropolises” of New Orleans and Charleston, South Carolina throughout the 1800s, tracing the development of America’s “binary racial system.” Prior to the Civil War, Brook tells of a three-part system of race — with free, biracial people sharing some of the same rights and privileges of citizenship as their white peers.

“In the period between annexation and the Civil War, roughly three-quarters of the lots in the Treme and Marigny neighborhoods were owned at some point by a free person of color,” Brook writes, noting, “Decades after annexation, New Orleans was essentially two cities, side by side but culturally distinct, using different languages and abiding by different racial codes.”

In the polychromatic city of New Orleans, interracial mixing was common. Categories often became indistinct. As the city Americanized, however, its racial categories hardened — black and white — turning multicultural New Orleans into “an ordinary American city in which race trumped class every time.”

Brook — the son of a mother from Brooklyn, New York and a father from Birmingham, Alabama — visited the Deep South often as a child, and says the South “wasn’t a foreign country to me like it is to some people in the North.” Raised on Long Island, New York, and educated at Yale University, he’s an award-winning journalist and the author of two previous books. After serving as a writer-in-residence at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, Brook moved to New Orleans in 2011 and began researching school desegregation. Most of the results pertained to the 1960s, but he found one article concerning the 1870s.

“I was a pretty interested civilian when it came to the history of these things, and I had no idea the schools were desegregated here during Reconstruction,” Brook says, so he looked for a book about the topic: “And there was no book. … I decided I was going to write about this because I wanted to research it.”

The Historic New Orleans Collection (THNOC), the Louisiana Division of the New Orleans Public Library, and the Earl K. Long Library at the University of New Orleans were among his local research hubs. Brook also completed research as a fellow at Tulane University’s New Orleans Center for the Gulf South.

In Brook’s telling, as Anglo-American racism and its attendant myths of racial purity spread throughout the early to mid-1800s, white supremacy engulfed the South. In 1857, the U.S. Supreme Court’s Dred Scott decision effectively eliminated any remaining rights of free people of color.

In 1860, South Carolina became the first state to secede from the Union. Louisiana followed suit, and the Civil War commenced shortly thereafter, ending in 1865. “The Accident of Color” delves into what Brook calls the “remarkable and largely unknown civil rights progress seen in New Orleans and Charleston after the Civil War.” It also explores a brand of anti-racist activism “rooted in a critique of the American system of race.”

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Writer Daniel Brook in the French Quarter.

“The whole activist toolbox that we know from the ’60s and also from more contemporary activism — sit-ins, civil disobedience, protests, petitions, test cases through the courts — all of these things are deployed [during Reconstruction] as well,” Brook says.

During the fight to desegregate New Orleans’ streetcars in 1867, Joseph Guillaume, a black man, boarded a whites-only car. According to some accounts, when ordered to leave by the conductor, Guillaume seized the reins and drove the car down the street himself. The following day, a meeting of freedmen on Congo Square developed into a protest, with some 500 free people of color working collectively and peacefully to occupy whites-only cars passing on Rampart Street.   

In Union-occupied New Orleans, attempts to desegregate schools date back as far as 1862, resulting in the Union administration opening the South’s first separate public schools for “children of color.” In 1865, Robert Mills Lusher — an eponym for a public charter school in present-day New Orleans and a man who wrote that the purpose of public schools was to “vindicate the honor and supremacy of the Caucasian race” — was elected state Superintendent of Education.

Robert Isabelle, a mixed-race state legislator and a pioneer of New Orleans integration, pursued a civil rights case through the courts after his child and two other African-American boys were denied admittance to one of New Orleans’ public schools. The integrationists won, and in 1870 New Orleans public schools were ordered to open to all regardless of race or color.

The Ku Klux Klan, which originated in Tennessee in 1865, inspired regional offshoots of white supremacist groups. In the backwoods of Louisiana, the White League formed in 1874; the Crescent City White League was established in the same year. The Battle of Liberty Place took place that September, with the White League occupying New Orleans for three days and overthrowing the government in order to place their favored gubernatorial candidate in power, a moment in history cited by historians as the end of Reconstruction policies in Louisiana.

But as Brook writes, “White men in black robes on the Supreme Court would do more to turn back civil rights than the white men in white robes of the Ku Klux Klan.”

While 1875 saw the passing of the Enforcement Act — a response to civil rights violations against African-Americans — the Supreme Court struck it down in 1883. America would not see another federal civil rights law pass until 1957.

The turn of the 19th century into the 20th would be marked by the revocation of rights for people of color. In Louisiana, interracial marriage was outlawed in 1894. New Orleans’ streetcars were resegregated in 1903, and would remain that way for more than half a century. The police force, formerly integrated, became all-white by 1910. The New Orleans Public Library was founded in 1897, but it would be nearly two decades before a branch was opened for people of color.

Across the country, Jim Crow laws took hold, eradicating much of the Reconstruction Era’s racial progress. Plessy v. Ferguson, a landmark case that upheld racial segregation laws on the basis that public facilities were "separate but equal," would serve as a harsh demonstration of the country’s bullheaded racial concepts. For Brook, the Plessy argument was not so much about the unfair treatment of different races, but the impossibility of categorizing race in a way that is “anything other than arbitrary or capricious.”

“The firm racial binary Americans accept to this day is a result of Jim Crow, not a cause of it,” Brook writes, citing a famous quote of James Baldwin: “As long as you think you're white, there is no hope for you. As long as you think you're white, I'm going to be forced to think I'm black.”

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Brook says the turn of the 19th century into the 20th century was marked by revocation of rights for people of color: "White men in black robes on the Supreme Court would do more to turn back civil rights than the white men in white robes of the Ku Klux Klan."

Thinking along these lines, Brook asserts, “It’s crucially important that we’re critical about the racial categories we’ve inherited in a racist society. I’m not saying I have any answers to our racial predicament… But if there’s any hope, we at least have to acknowledge we’ve made this terrible mistake.”

Reflecting on the revocation of African-Americans’ civil rights following Reconstruction, Brook implies it’s possible there could be a time in the country’s future where people look back and note a strange historical period where same-sex couples were allowed to marry, or an aberration in America’s timeline where women had a right to abortion.

“In a period like we’re living through now,” Brook says, “it does make you fearful of what’s possible.”

— The launch of Daniel Brook’s “The Accident of Color: A Story of Race in Reconstruction” will be at Antenna Gallery (3718 St. Claude Ave.) at 7 p.m., Tuesday, June 18.