On October 10, 1987, New Orleans civil rights activist Oretha Castle Haley died. 

Haley was a central figure in the New Orleans Civil Rights Movement. She participated in boycotts, demonstrations, protests and sit-ins that helped lead to the desegregation of public facilities in New Orleans.

A native of Oakland, Tennessee, Haley was born on July 22, 1939. Her family moved to New Orleans when she was 7-years-old. Haley attended Joseph S. Clark High School and became active in the Civil Rights Movement as a student at Southern University at New Orleans. 

Haley participated in the 1960 Dryades Street Boycott organized by the Consumer League of Greater New Orleans. The protest was in response to business merchants’ refusal to hire Black employees. The economic boycott has been described by the Amistad Research Center at Tulane University as the “first direct action of its kind in New Orleans.”

Inspired by the Dryades boycott, Haley helped establish the New Orleans chapter of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), serving as the group’s president from 1961-1964. The group of young people, including Xavier student Rudy Lombard, would conduct sit-ins at lunch counters on Canal Street. Haley and three other CORE members were arrested during a sit-in at the McCrory’s lunch counter on Canal Street and charged with “conspiracy to commit criminal mischief.” The students, who were known as the CORE Four, appealed their conviction all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court in the 1963 case Lombard vs. Louisiana. Their convictions were reversed by the court.

Shannon Frystak, author of “Our Minds on Freedom: Women and the Struggle for Black Equality in Louisiana, 1924-1967,” wrote about Haley’s civil rights work for 64 Parishes magazine in a 2011 article. After the sit-ins, Haley worked to register Black voters in rural communities in northern Louisiana and on anti-poverty programs in New Orleans. She also helped integrate the New Orleans’ public parks system.

Haley also worked to desegregate Charity Hospital, where she would later serve as an administrator, and co-founded the New Orleans Sickle Cell Anemia Foundation.

Haley died from ovarian cancer on October 10, 1987. She was married to civil rights attorney Richard Haley and had four sons. In 1989, the city of New Orleans renamed Dryades Street, where Haley had participated in boycotts and sit-ins, to Oretha Castle Haley Boulevard. The thoroughfare is located in a culturally expansive neighborhood in Central City that features restaurants, the New Orleans Jazz Market and the Ashe’ Cultural Arts Center.  

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Shannon Stecker is a creative writer, a marketing director, and a lover of stories. She has spent the past 15 years of her career in a creative space – as a print and broadcast journalist, a freelance...