The hidden history of Economy Hall recalls a brotherhood of Black leaders who built a vibrant community.
Fans of the annual New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival may recognize “Economy Hall” as the name of the tent at Jazz Fest’s heart. Always packed with visitors and locals, the Economy Hall tent presents the traditional jazz originated and popularized in the Crescent City by Jelly Roll Morton, “Kid” Ory, “King” Oliver, and Louis Armstrong, among others.
The name honors a vanished structure, once a hub of the city’s Tremé neighborhood, that became a legendary dance hall and premier venue for early jazz bands. This building began life as the well-appointed headquarters of an entity founded in 1836 by 15 free Black men. The Société d’Economie et d’Assistance Mutuelle, a mutual aid society, dedicated itself to uplifting African Americans through commerce, social connections, and pooled resources in a city that had long traded in Black bodies and Black lives.
In Economy Hall, New Orleans native Fatima Shaik chronicles how a private club evolved into a public space and so much more. In the 1950s, as the Société d’Economie was disbanding, her father, a scholar thwarted by segregation and collector of castoff books, came across a hoard of moldering journals stacked for hauling to the city dump. Intrigued, Mohamed Shaik rescued 3,000 pages of handwritten minutes of the proceedings of Society meetings between 1836 and 1935. The trove was among his bequests to his daughter, who has written six works of fiction. She renders the results of her extensive primary source research for Economy Hall with the detail and pacing of a novel.
Economy Hall’s protagonist is Ludger Boguille, a schoolmaster whose parents had immigrated from French-held Saint-Domingue, now Haiti. The elder Boguilles were among thousands of Black Creoles who came to the United States as gens de couleur libre—free people of color. Father François, who had fought in the Haitian revolution, arrived stateside in 1811. In 1815, after joining many other Haitian Revolution veterans weaponized by American forces to defeat the British at the Battle of New Orleans, François was rewarded with land. He became a cabinetmaker specializing in fabricating armoires and other pieces by shaping and bending wood, eventually operating a shop in the French Quarter.François died in 1845. In 1852, his son joined the Société d’Economie et d’Assistance Mutuelle, becoming its longtime secretary.
Shaik writes from Ludger Boguille’s perspective, incorporating his story of personal political awakening amid changing circumstances. He grew up in the 1820s. His father could afford to give his son a private education—a blessing, since Louisiana law forbade youngsters of color from attending public school. Ludger Boguille grew up reading French poetry and literature; adulthood brought him into a social circle of privileged and educated young people who got together to “drink French wine and smoke Cuban cigars.” But as Black creoles—there also were White creoles—Ludger Boguille and friends inhabited an extremely awkward stratum of New Orleans—they could buy and sell property and sign business contracts, but, as with public schools, could not use public facilities.
Americanization in 1836 of the formerly French and Spanish port brought increased racial segregation and social constraints. Free people of color became less free, forced for the first time since New Orleans came into being to designate themselves by “race” on official documents. Louisiana began to enact measures targeting free Black people, born so or not, to limit their numbers; a Black slave obtaining freedom immediately had to leave the state. In response, free people of color founded more than 30 mutual aid societies, of which the Société d’Economie was the most distinguished. As proto-race men, Ludger Boguille and fellow Economistes used their privilege to sponsor lectures and political meetings as well as charity balls and banquets, artfully dodging the authorities by writing minutes of meetings in French and selectively recording certain conversations, official knowledge of which might have exposed them to imprisonment or death.
The Société d’Economie headquarters was built and financed by members, themselves master craftsmen and businessmen. The multistory building, surrounded by private houses, opened its doors on December 20, 1857, at 1422 Ursulines Avenue, between Marais and North Villere streets, near Storyville and the French Quarter. It boasted a large meeting hall for the Economistes, a public ballroom, a ladies’ dressing parlor, and a grand mahogany staircase leading to the 70-foot-long theater’s box seats.
Shaik vividly evokes Boguille’s life of meetings in the hall with scenes beneath gaslit chandeliers, during gala balls, and on neighborhood streets. She uses Boguille’s own holographic minutes and other sources to reanimate the passionate, Romantic-era rhetoric of men urging one another to preserve unity and brotherhood among themselves despite increasing hostility and violence. Shaik has captured the experience of self-sufficient people retaining their dignity as the state inexorably deprives them of agency. That defiance channeled itself into jazz, and in the form’s formative years, Economy Hall hired jazz bands for Society events. By 1919, bandleaders like “Kid” Ory were renting Economy Hall on a regular basis, staging concerts and parties still remembered by older residents of the Tremé, according to Shaik. Under Jim Crow, whites could not enter Black establishments and vice versa, so Economy Hall was a go-to place for Black New Orleanians. Revenue from jazz performances helped keep the Society afloat.
Wrecked by hurricanes, the grand building that housed the Société d’Economie and helped incubate a musical culture was demolished in 1965; its former location is a charter school playground amid a mix of vintage residences, some dilapidated, some gentrified. The original Economy Hall site lacks an official historical marker, so only the Jazz Fest tent stands as a seasonal memorial. However, Fatima Shaik renders Economy Hall once again three-dimensional with this insightful and vibrant account of an often-overlooked community living in a remarkable place during remarkable times of war, slavery, yellow fever, Reconstruction, Jim Crow, and the birth of jazz, using the words and deeds of Ludger Boguille and the other free people of color who through it all persisted and survived. —Leslie Matuko Molson, a singer and musician, lives in New Orleans.
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