This is an excerpt from “Economy Hall: The Hidden History of a Free Black Brotherhood,” by New Orleans author and Verite contributing writer Fatima Shaik. The book tells the history of the Société d’Economie et d’Assistance Mutuellea, a benevolent association and social club founded in New Orleans in 1836 by French-speaking freemen of African descent. It was the Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities 2022 Book of the Year and recently received a 2022 American Book Award from the Before Columbus Foundation. A paperback edition will be coming in November from The Historic New Orleans Collection. 

On the night of March 26, 1858, secretary Ludger Boguille sat at his writing table near the flickering gaslight on the wall of Economy Hall and carefully noted the names of each man who came through the door of the large meeting room. There were the founders — the tender-hearted Joseph Jean Pierre Lanna and the loquacious Charles Martinez. The wealthy clothier François Lacroix was in attendance. The former soldiers who had fought in the Battle of New Orleans sat with the boisterous François Porée. Joseph Daniel Warburg was a new member. A marble cutter, he was the younger brother of the well-known sculptor Eugène Warburg. The Jamaican-born architect Nelson Fouché arrived and exchanged greetings with the men around him—shoemakers, carpenters, cigar rollers, and tailors. 

During the initiation of another Economie brother that evening, President Casanave, instead of following the usual procedure of reading the rules and regulations to the candidate, began by asking him an existential question. It was not just for the candidate. Casanave wanted to inspire all of the men: 

“Have you ever asked yourself, sometimes in your thoughts, what we need to do to get you out of this state of abjection and sickness that outrages nature as well as reason? Without a doubt, you have asked yourself this question more than once. And you have answered each time. We really must quiet all the emotions in our hearts that might make us forget our dignity. We need to understand once and for all that speaking materially, we are men as intellectually gifted as those who believe themselves to be our superiors, with all the faculties that characterize the perfect creature.” 

Casanave above all was qualified to speak about the equality of men. Besides being an intellectual, he was a mortician. He had seen the naked bodies of eminent citizens, undifferentiated in death. Their last wastes mottled their bodies. Bruises rose where they had tumbled to the ground. He stitched their cuts and patched each corpse with theatrical makeup to return it to a semblance of its previous glory. Sometimes he gave his clients an appearance of dignity that they had never possessed. He polished their skins with strong soap, stuffed the rotting cavities of their bodies, and wrapped them in silk clothes and elegant cravats. The mourners would see in his handiwork the true nature of the departed—strength where Casanave plumped a chest, kindness where he arranged a smile, and devotion where he folded the hands gently in prayer. It was all artifice. Casanave lived without illusions. He knew that all men were born innocent, lived constantly making mistakes, and then died, unprepared. He buried white men and black men, their children, wives, and mistresses. He made no distinctions of color or class, and he expected that the Creator did the same. “Man is free,” Casanave once told an initiate. “The Creator gave him liberty.” 

Boguille had walked carefully to the Economie’s hall that night. He carried his body loosely and not especially erect so that he could move through the streets inconspicuously. He stepped confidently, but not arrogantly enough to attract stares. He must have lectured his young male students in the same way that all American parents have lectured their dark-skinned children for centuries—to temper their wide, rangy gaits so their arms would not swing out too powerfully from their sides, to move slowly and self-consciously. They needed to be aware of the hazards in their surroundings. Boguille was no exception. 

Casanave pointed out the illogic of racism to the Economistes, saying, “This African blood that runs in our veins! There it is, our only Crime! … Brothers who have been oppressed unjustly, let us preach to our compatriots that they must follow the path to fraternity and come out of the isolation that our oppressors applaud, for they would like to see us forever disunited, tearing each other apart and having only hatred in our hearts for each other.” He encouraged the new member to work together with his Economie brothers for justice: “Let us all be imbued with the noble feelings that shape all civilized people; let us be vigilant to the cries of our miserable ones.” 

Boguille scribbled quickly to capture Casanave’s words. “By our union, our concord, and our sympathy, let us be convinced that our oppressors will be confounded. May their persecution not make us lose our balance. As the rocks beaten by the waves of the ocean, let us remain steadfast with courage and dignity so that ignorance does not intimidate us. . . . Who can harm us if we enfold ourselves in the arms of Fraternity? Let us have patriotism, and like the Girondins, we will cause our executioners one day to weep from shame and rage.” All the members knew the Girondin heroes from the French Revolution. They had stood with the French people against the monarchy while maintaining the structure of civil government. This was the position that Casanave wanted for the Economie and its members. They should lead in the issues concerning free people of color and the enslaved. 

On that night, like all others, the members left the hall and walked into the heart of a dark city. In New Orleans at that time, 18,068 people were held in slavery, more than in any other place in the state.

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Fatima Shaik is the author of seven books including "Economy Hall: The Hidden History of a Free Black Brotherhood," the Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities 2022 Book of the Year. She is a native of...