Civil rights activist and labor leader Arthur Joseph Chapital, Sr., was born on September 13, 1901, in New Orleans. Chapital is known for his work as president of the New Orleans NAACP, his leadership in the National Alliance of Postal and Federal Employees and for helping to organize the 1954 McDonogh Day Boycott.
John McDonogh was a wealthy businessman and slave owner in 19th century New Orleans. After his death in 1850, he left a substantial part of his estate to build schools for poor children — “poor white and freed Black” — in New Orleans. As a result, a number of schools were built around New Orleans with the McDonogh name. And each year in New Orleans, public school students would participate in a ceremony honoring McDonogh’s birthday by placing flowers at his statue in Lafayette Square.
The ceremonies, like New Orleans schools at the time, were segregated with white students going first. Black teachers were upset about this tradition and called upon the NAACP.
On May 7, 1954, just 10 days before the U.S. Supreme Court declared “separate but equal” schools unconstitutional in the historic Brown v. Board of Education case, Chapital, along with local educators and civil rights leaders, led a boycott of the annual McDonogh birthday ceremony. Black parents heard radio broadcasts requesting that students be kept home on McDonogh Day.
According to “A House Divided: A History of Civil Rights in Louisiana,” during the 1954 McDonogh Day program, bands from Black schools did not show up and only one Black principal and 34 of the city’s 32,000 Black students attended the ceremony.
The boycott went on for the next two years and would go down in history as one of the city’s first major protests of the civil rights era.
Chapital worked for the U.S. Postal Service for nearly 40 years, serving in leadership roles for the National Alliance of Postal and Federal Employees. He was district president, national vice president and a member of the national executive council for NAPFE.
During his tenure as president of the New Orleans NAACP branch (1952-1962), Chapital increased membership, worked on Black voter registration and led desegregation efforts in the city.
Chapital died on April 23, 1971.
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