After Reconstruction collapsed in 1877, Creole
activists fought the restoration of white rule. In 1890 Rodolphe L. Desdunes,
a Creole New Orleanian of Haitian descent, joined with other prominent rights
advocates to challenge state-imposed segregation. Their legal battle culminated
in the 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson Supreme Court decision. Though the nation's
highest tribunal upheld the "separate but equal" doctrine, the decision included
a powerful dissent that would be used to rescue the Fourteenth and Fifteenth
Amendments in later Supreme Court decisions. The descendants of Haitian immigrants
would play key roles in civil rights campaigns of the twentieth century.
Haitians exerted an enormous influence
on eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Louisiana. Their sustained resistance
to Saint Domingue's regime of bondage forced repeated changes in French, Spanish,
and American immigration policies as frightened white officials attempted
to isolate Louisiana from the spread of black revolt.
The massive 1809 influx of Haitian
refugees ensured the survival of a wealth of West African cultural transmissions,
as well as a Latin European racial order that enhanced the social and economic
mobility of both free and enslaved blacks. In early-nineteenth-century New Orleans,
the immigrants and their descendants infused the city's music, cuisine, religious
life, speech patterns, and architecture with their own cultural traditions.
Reminders of their Creole influence abound in the French Quarter, the Faubourg
Marigny, the Faubourg Tremé, and other city neighborhoods.
The refugee population also reinforced
a brand of revolutionary republicanism that impacted American race relations
for decades. With an unflagging commitment to the democratic ideals of the
revolutionary era, Haitian immigrants and their descendants appeared at the
head of virtually every New Orleans civil rights campaign. Their leadership
role in the struggle for racial justice offers dramatic evidence of the scope
of their influence on Louisiana's history. From Colonel Joseph Savary's militant
republicanism to Rodolphe Desdunes's unrelenting attacks on state-enforced
segregation, Haitian émigrés and their descendants demanded that the nation
fulfill the promise of its founding principles.
In his 1911 book Our People and
Our History, Rodolphe Desdunes described Armand Lanusse's anthology, Les
Cenelles, as a "triumph of the human spirit over the forces of obscurantism
in Louisiana that denied the education and intellectual advancement of the
colored masses." African Americans in Louisiana triumphed over these forces
in their distinguished history of military service, their embrace of artistic
and scholarly pursuits, their campaign for humanitarian reforms, and their
Civil War vision of a reconstructed nation of racial equality. Their Haitian
heritage was central to those victories.