DeLesseps "Chep" Morrison was best known for his opposition to the powerful Long family in Louisiana.
DeLesseps Story “Chep” Morrison was mayor of New Orleans for four terms spanning sixteen years, from 1946 to 1961, a period when the city reached its peak population, 627,525, as recorded by the 1960 census. As mayor, Morrison rapidly won a reputation as an effective and progressive administrator for modernizing city services and the Port of New Orleans, promoting urban renewal, building a network of overpasses on congested streets and the construction of Interstate 10, and establishing a recreation department. The national press took notice and for a time New Orleans was regarded as a progressive Sun Belt metropolis, but Morrison’s meek attitude regarding integration earned him detractors who blamed the city’s later economic stagnation on the lack of progress in race relations. He was one of Louisiana’s leading opponents of the Long family and was frequently subjected to ridicule from Governor Earl Long, who derisively called him “Dela-soups.” Morrison was twice elected to the legislature but was unsuccessful in three bids for the governorship.
Morrison was born in New Roads on January 18, 1912. His father, Jacob Haight Morrison IV, was district attorney for Pointe Coupee Parish, and his mother, Anita Oliver, descended from an old and prominent New Orleans family. He was named after deLesseps Story, a respected New Orleans judge to whom he was related on his mother’s side; the family was also related to Ferdinand de Lesseps, the French count who developed the Suez Canal, and to New Orleans Alderman Sidney Story, namesake of Storyville. Morrison graduated from Louisiana State University in 1932 and earned a law degree there in 1934. He became an attorney with the National Recovery Administration, a New Deal agency. Thereafter he practiced in New Orleans in partnership with his brother Jacob H. Morrison and future congressman T. Hale Boggs. He became involved in anti-Long reform politics, co-founding the People’s League of New Orleans to push for investigations into corruption. In 1940 Morrison was elected to the Louisiana House of Representatives and served as floor leader in alliance with the new governor, Sam H. Jones.
A year later Morrison was called to the US Army as first lieutenant in the Transportation Corps. He rose to the rank of colonel by the end of World War II, having received commendations for his logistical support of the D-Day invasion. In 1944 he was elected to the legislature, although he was still serving in Europe. He returned home as a dashing figure in uniform and was eventually promoted to major general in the Army Reserves. Handsome and ambitious, Morrison was eager to resume his role as a well-connected opponent to the Long machine. He was among the first of a generation of returning soldiers from World War II to leap into politics.
Although few predicted his 1946 victory over New Orleans mayor Robert Maestri, Morrison campaigned for the office with the support of veterans, women, blacks, business leaders, and the city’s major newspaper, the Times-Picayune. He promised to clean up the corruption of Maestri and the Long faction of Democratic power brokers. Hundreds of women voters paraded down Canal Street on the eve of the election, pushing brooms to illustrate Morrison’s vow to sweep the dirt out of city politics. Shortly after assuming office, Morrison formed his own political machine, the Crescent City Democratic Association, which dominated city politics and dispensed patronage during his years in city hall. Despite his reputation as a reformer, he was often accused of being lax in suppressing gambling, prostitution, police corruption, and other vice.
Morrison cultivated trade relations with Latin America and often traveled to the region as the guest of dictators there, including Argentina’s Juan Peron and the Dominican Republic’s Rafael Trujillo. He proved to be a wily politician as well as a political reformer. As the 1950 election approached, Gov. Earl Long worked to defeat Morrison and tried to persuade Maestri to run again for mayor. Realizing the weakness of Long’s support in New Orleans, Maestri declined. Long finally persuaded Louisiana Tax Commissioner Charles A. Zatarain to run, but he was defeated easily by Morrison in the primary. Afterward, Long and Morrison struck a deal. Morrison would not actively oppose Russell Long’s reelection to the United States Senate in exchange for the restoration of home rule in New Orleans because city government had become largely dominated by state authorities in the Long machine. As part of the deal, Morrison publicly endorsed Malcolm Lafargue for Senate while privately urging his followers to vote for Long.
Although reelected mayor in 1954 and 1958, Morrison never realized his dream of becoming governor, losing to Earl Long in 1956, Jimmie Davis in 1960, and John McKeithen in 1964. For all his early success in New Orleans, Morrison was never able to generate widespread popularity in smaller municipalities and rural areas in the state, where many voters found his haughty, sophisticated demeanor off-putting. As a Roman Catholic from southern Louisiana, Morrison faced prejudice and distrust from the state’s largely Protestant north. Morrison’s cultivation of black leaders in New Orleans, construction of housing and recreational facilities in black neighborhoods, and policy of hiring blacks for the city’s police and fire departments hurt him statewide in his 1956 race for governor against Long. As federal judges began to implement the 1954 US Supreme Court anti-segregation ruling in Brown v. Board of Education, the issue of race became even more rancorous. Although Morrison tried to position himself as a defender of the South’s customary racial separation, bragging in 1959 that he had been sued by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) for his policies as mayor, ardent segregationists backed Davis in the 1960 gubernatorial election. Two years after leaving city hall, Morrison joined a large field of Democratic candidates in the 1963 campaign for governor. Following a familiar pattern, his campaign never gained traction beyond greater New Orleans and Catholic southern Louisiana, stymied again by his muddled record and his stuffy persona, which alienated rural and small-town voters. Morrison was the leading vote-getter in the large, geographically diverse field of candidates in the Democratic primary and headed into the runoff against McKeithen, a little-known Public Service Commission member from the small northern Louisiana town of Columbia. McKeithen was a former legislator who had been a floor leader for Gov. Earl Long; his campaign was managed by the late governor’s widow, Blanche Long. McKeithen appropriated Davis’s tactic from the 1960 campaign of characterizing Morrison as “the NAACP candidate,” and Long’s tried-and-true disparagements of Morrison as a city slicker disconnected him from most Louisianans and the issues they faced. In the January 11, 1964, runoff McKeithen bettered Morrison by more than 40,000 votes.
Forced to step aside as mayor in 1961 by the term limits outlined in the city’s restored home rule charter, he sought national office from the Kennedy administration. With a powerful ally in Congress, US Rep. T. Hale Boggs, and a record of experience in Latin America, Morrison served as ambassador to the Organization of American States from 1961 to 1963. He died in a plane crash near Ciudad Victoria, Mexico, on May 22, 1964. Thousands of New Orleanians came to view Morrison when he lay in state in Gallier Hall.
Although Morrison rapidly lost political influence after stepping down as mayor, his legacy in New Orleans remains significant even today. The municipal government continues to operate under the city charter he implemented in 1954, and many of the public works and monuments erected during his administration, including the Union Passenger Terminal, City Hall, the Civic Center complex, the widening of Basin Street, and statues honoring Benito Juarez and Simon Bolivar, remain part of the city’s landscape. In 1966 a memorial to Morrison, designed by Lin Emery, was installed in the Civic Center that he had spearheaded as mayor.