Allan Katz and Danae Columbus: Former first lady Sybil Morial releases new memoir tonight

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Allan Katz and Danae Columbus

Sybil Haydel Morial would have led a very privileged life growing up in New Orleans in the 1940’s and 1950’s had it not been for the South’s all-encompassing Jim Crow laws. Her father, Dr. Clarence C. Haydel, was a well-respected surgeon in the community; her mother, Eudora, was an accomplished housewife who loved to cook, garden and entertain in the family’s well-appointed home. Sybil was surrounded by many loving aunts, uncles and cousins as well as her older sister Jean who suffered an untimely death. She attended the best Catholic schools, spent the summers in the country, traveled to Europe and had a memorable debut. As a teenager, Sybil enjoyed the company of family friend Ambassador Andrew Young who wrote the foreword to the memoir before his death.

But the harsh realities of segregation and how it impacted her life every day defined Sybil. It also drove her to become a teacher, civil right activist, arts patron, husband to New Orleans’ first African-American mayor — Dutch Morial — and mother to our third, Marc Morial. Sybil’s new book, Witness To Change, is a compelling, easy-to-read story about Sybil and Dutch — told from Sybil’s perspective.

Sybil’s selection of the New Orleans Museum of Art to host the book’s release has a certain irony and is indicative of the times she grew up in. As a teenager, Sybil and her friends were not allowed in City Park. They could not visit the Delgado Museum or ride in the front of the bus. They could not eat in most restaurants, sleep in most hotels, or attend certain schools and churches with whites. Often the Haydels had to wait in line at department stores until all the white customers were served. Even when Sybil rode the train to college in Boston, she was forced to sit in the baggage car and eat behind a screen.

Once she physically crossed the Mason-Dixon line, Sybil understood that not all African-Americans lived under those conditions. When she met the young, ambitious Dutch Morial, Sybil was struck by his “verve and sassiness.” She had previously gotten to know Dr. Martin Luther King. Dutch, Dr. King, and other inspired Sybil that change was possible and set her life on a path of political empowerment. Together Sybil and Dutch broke many barriers as they changed the course of New Orleans history.

Tonight’s event will be hosted by many people who have played an important role in the Morial family legacy including Norman and Blanche Francis, Alden and Rhesa McDonald and Mayor Mitch and Cheryl Landrieu. Joining them will be several of Sybil’s children, along with Leah Chase, Diana Bajoie, Marlin Gusman, David Marcello, Ira Middleberg, Tony Mumphrey, Flo Schornstein, and Michael Bagneris.

Earlier this week Sybil told us she wrote this memoir for her grandchildren. Like many New Orleanians, Sybil lost her precious family papers and photos in Hurricane Katrina. She quickly realized the need to create a permanent document for future generations.

The lines between the races have always been very blurred in New Orleans. “Centuries of mixed breeding during the French and Spanish occupations had softened the edges of the brutal exploitation of slavery,” wrote Ambassador Young. “There was a tolerance, a personal mutual laissez faire among people, and a constant blending of cultures. This cultural mix included a strong Jewish community that was just awakening to Hitler’s horrors in Europe, a consciousness that created a genuine sensitivity among Jews that opened them to a silent partnership with others who know oppression,” Young continued.

The Haydel lineage came through a German immigrant Ambroise Heidel who arrived in Louisiana in 1721, purchased the original land grant and established an indigo plantation. Sometime between 1820 and 1835, a Senegalese-born slave named Anna was bought to work for the plantation’s then mistress, Azeline Haydel. She soon bore a son, Victor Haydel, known by his family as Pepere, whose father was Antoine Haydel, Azeline’s brother-in-law.

The Habitation Haydel, as it was originally called, later became the Whitney Plantation, now lovingly restored by John and Donna Cummings. The Cummings invested many millions to create a realistic picture of African-American life on the River Road during slavery. They hired Senegalese historian Dr. Ibrahime Seck as an advisor. The plantation, including an extensive slave registry, is a must-visit for anyone truly interested in Louisiana often-forgotten history during that period. Witness To Change is available at the Garden District Book Shop, Octavia Books and the Community Book Center.


John Bel Edwards is on a roll in New Orleans. Inspired by surging poll numbers, Edwards has become a much more confident speaker whose message is resonating with like-minded voters, black and white. Tonight Edwards and the other three gubernatorial candidates will appear on a WDSU live debate. Though all candidates are trying to separate themselves from Governor Jindal, Edwards could also present the strongest contrast to Senator David Vitter.

Tuesday evening Edwards addressed health care issues at Dillard University where he committed to expanded health care services for the working poor. He delivered that same message Monday night when he spoke to an appreciative crowd of more than 100 at Justice & Beyond, the diverse grassroots coalition of religious, civic, labor, youth, and education leaders which meets weekly at Christian Unity Baptist Church. Among those present were ministers from several denominations as well as representatives of the League of Women Voters, the Sierra Club, UNTO, Jefferson Parish teachers, the AFL-CIO, Jewish social justice advocates and advocates for education reform. Also on hand were several candidates running for statewide office including Chris Tyson (Secretary of State) and Geri Broussard-Baloney (Attorney General) as well as State Rep Joe Bouie who gave Edwards a strong introduction for his efforts to return control of schools no longer failing to the Orleans Parish School Board.

Edwards agreed to create a government that “looks like the people” of Louisiana. He favors raising the minimum wage, reducing incarceration numbers and equalizing pay for women to help “women who lead single family households.” While Edwards said he comes from a law enforcement family, he supports alternatives to incarceration so that offenders can continue to work and take care of their children. He also spoke in favor of increased mental health services for those incarcerated. All the campaigns are now in full throttle with the election in just three weeks away.

Allan Katz spent 25 years as a political reporter and columnist at The Times-Picayune, and is now editor of the Kenner Star and host of several television programs, including the Louisiana Newsmaker on Cox Cable. Danae Columbus is executive producer of Louisiana Newsmaker, and has had a 30-year career in public relations, including stints at City Hall and the Dock Board. They both currently work for the Orleans Parish School Board. Among the recent candidates who have been represented by their public relations firm are City council members Stacy Head and Jared Brossett, Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne, former Sheriff Charles Foti and former Councilwoman Cynthia Hedge-Morrell.

One thought on “Allan Katz and Danae Columbus: Former first lady Sybil Morial releases new memoir tonight

  1. “Centuries of mixed breeding during the French and Spanish occupations
    had softened the edges of the brutal exploitation of slavery,” wrote
    Ambassador Young. — Rather impossible as the African slave was introduced into Louisiana less than 100 years before the end of the colonial period. And unless Ambassador Young was writing as a native American it is rather hard to see the French and Spanish as occupiers.

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