On Wednesday evening (August 31), etiquette expert Carolyn Shelton held a book signing for Sybil Morial at Poseidon Restaurant on Saint Charles Avenue. Morial’s book, “Witness to Change”, discusses topics like education, the Civil Rights movement, and the Morial family’s political involvement. Morial is the wife of the late Ernest Dutch Morial, New Orleans’ first African-American mayor and the mother of former New Orleans mayor Marc Morial.
In her book, Morial discusses many topics including Jim Crow laws in New Orleans in the late 1940s. At the reading, she recounted one of her interactions:
“My mother loved the opera. The performances were held at the New Orleans Municipal auditorium and Jean, my sister who is a year older than I, accompanied her to several operas – Carmen stands out – although we were required to sit in the ‘colors section’ way up in the crow’s nest, from which the characters on the stage appeared minuscule.”
“What I remembered most about those outings is not the beautiful music and the costumes but the many steps – 103 – we had to climb to the colored section; Jean and I counted them every time.”
Race was a constant motif throughout her book. Morial read a selection on her experience with higher education. Morial graduated from Boston University’s school of education in 1952. She went on to pursue law school and encountered many legally-based racial barriers.
She attempted to attend Tulane University, but her race barred her. She recounted what the dean told her:
” ‘Your transcript has arrived, Miss Haydel. Please complete this registration form.’ I looked down at the paper. One of the items to be filled in was race. As I wrote ‘Negro’ in the blank, I wondered why he hadn’t asked me to fill in the restoration form the first day. I returned the form.”
“As he perused it, the dean began a monologue: ‘Miss Haydel, your academic record is impressive, and you are the caliber of student Tulane is interested in. Unfortunately, we cannot accept you because Tulane does not admit negroes.’ “
At that time only white males were allowed to attend Tulane University. White women had to attend Newcomb College.
Morial recounted an experience with race where she feared for the health and safety of her family. She received a series of violent, threatening phone calls. These calls were coming after Dutch was elected the president of the local chapter of the NAACP. She recalled one specifically in 1962.
“The children were playing the car port and I was preparing dinner when the phone rang. I picked it up and I said ‘Hello’. As soon as I heard the voice, I knew something was wrong. It was ugly and raspy. ‘When’s that n****r coming?’ a male voice said. ‘Put him on the phone so I can tell him what I think of him.’ I hung up immediately.”
When she signed copies, she wrote “I am pleased to share my family story and a bit of New Orleans and African American history.”