The word levee comes from the French verb lever, “to raise”, and was first used in New Orleans shortly after its foundation. As humanity’s battle with water continues, millions depend on them. Nowhere is this truer than the New Orleans region, where battling nature is second nature. Unfortunately, Louisiana levees in 1927 faced an atypical enemy; humanity.
After the United States took control of New Orleans via the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, thousands of Americans migrated there to seek better opportunities. Many of them moved into the emerging American sector of New Orleans as they did not mesh well with the already existing Creoles. The Creoles looked at them as barbaric, but noticed that those from Kentucky were the most boisterous. Creoles nicknamed them “Kaintock”, and the term eventually referred to all incoming Americans. The resentment was mutual. The Americans looked at the Creoles as snobbish and unwelcoming, and nicknamed them “crapaud”, meaning frog in French. The bitter contrast between the two led to an agreement to build a canal on a major thoroughfare dividing them. The canal was never built, but the street remained as Canal Street. The median in the middle was dubbed the “neutral ground”, and to this day the medians in the New Orleans area are called “neutral grounds”.
The American Gilded Age provided economic opportunities and living wages substantially higher than Europe. The rise of industrialization meant a demand for cheap labor. New Orleans, by far the most populated southern city, was ripe with economic opportunities from hungry factories and emptying plantations. Since busy trade routes already existed from Sicily to New Orleans, Italian migration was convenient. Italians poured into the city. Increase in labor competition outraged impoverished whites and the increase in Catholicization in an already Catholic dominated city incensed white Protestants, who had been migrating into New Orleans since the Louisiana Purchase. Italians were also known for their labor organization, inevitably upsetting those who control the means of production. Italophobia was rampant in 19th century New Orleans.
Race violence was all too common throughout American history. As I studied the history of my own parish, St. Bernard, I started to unravel a brutal massacre absent from almost any historical narrative. Congressional inquiries into the massacre paint an atrocity. At the time it was dubbed the St. Bernard Riot, but it really has no official name. What’s in a name, anyway? The term riot was provided by whites, whether in the newspapers or remaining government records. That term does not give it justice, and implies mass chaos must’ve ensued. It has been recognized and used by the very few who mention it, but I choose to label it by a much more appropriate term: The St. Bernard Massacre of 1868. It was not chaotic, but a deliberate, systematic slaughter of humans who were just liberated from their chains circa six years prior à la the Emancipation Proclamation. In order to understand the violence, we must understand the circumstances associated with it.