Ernest N. "Dutch" Morial, the first African American elected mayor of New Orleans, served two terms in office, from 1978 to 1986.
Ernest Nathan “Dutch” Morial was a civil rights activist and political pioneer whose career included many firsts for an African American in Louisiana; foremost among them was his election as the first black mayor of New Orleans in 1977, a position he held for two terms through 1986. Morial created a political dynasty: his eldest son, Marc, would go on to serve as the city’s mayor from 1994 to 2002, becoming the first African American father-son legacy to lead a major American city.
Born on October 9, 1929, to a working-class French- and English-speaking, Roman Catholic Creole family in New Orleans’s Seventh Ward, Morial learned early the value of education. He also learned of the pervasive racism that defined the early twentieth-century South. His father was Walter Etienne Morial, a cigar maker, and his mother was Leonie V. (Moore) Morial, a seamstress. Walter thought his son resembled the boy on the label for Dutch Boy paints, and thus he nicknamed his child “Dutch.” Ernest graduated from the racially segregated McDonogh 35 Senior High School and Xavier University of Louisiana, where he received a degree in business administration in 1951. He became the first African American to graduate from the Louisiana State University School of Law in 1954 after taking an accelerated course load, including summer classes, to achieve the breakthrough milestone ahead of fellow black classmate Robert Collins. Morial devoted his first two years as a lawyer to working for the US Army intelligence group during and after the Korean War. He then returned to New Orleans, where he practiced law at a private firm.
In 1955 Morial married Sybil Haydel, later to become an accomplished professional in her own right as a dean of Xavier University. The couple had two sons, Marc and Jacques, and three daughters, Julie, Cheri, and Monique.
Morial benefitted from his close affiliation with famed civil rights attorney and Louisiana NAACP leader A. P. Tureaud, Louisiana’s only African American lawyer at the time. Morial rose quickly through the ranks of the NAACP chapter in New Orleans, serving as its president from 1962 to 1965. During this period, he campaigned for racial justice through the use of nonviolent tactics as the civil rights movement gained momentum across the South. From organizing boycotts to spearheading the drive for the integration of a variety of public accommodations in New Orleans—including public schools, parks, recreation programs, taxicabs, the Municipal Auditorium, and the airport—Morial played a key role in bringing racial reform to the city. In the process, he garnered the attention and support of the racially progressive white mayor, Moon Landrieu, who viewed Morial as a protégé. In 1965 President Johnson appointed Morial as the first black assistant US attorney in Louisiana. In 1967 Uptown New Orleans voters elected Morial to the state House of Representatives from the Eighth District, making him the first African American to serve in that body since Reconstruction. In 1970 he went on to become the first African American to serve as a state juvenile court judge, and as a state appeals court judge in 1972.
“He was the last of a very important line of civil rights figures in New Orleans,” Joseph Logsdon, a University of New Orleans history professor, said in The New York Times obituary of Morial. “He was part of a civil rights movement that went all the way back to Reconstruction.”
Morial resigned from the appeals bench in 1977 to run for mayor of New Orleans. He won the race against city councilman Joseph V. Dirosa by a vote of 90,500 to 84,300, with ninety-five percent of the black vote and twenty percent of the white vote. The first African American ever to hold the post, Morial inherited a host of economic woes that stemmed from the Crescent City’s ever-shrinking tax base, a result of white flight from the integration struggle and New Orleans’s economic decline. In his first term, he also faced a strike by both the city’s sanitation workers and police officers. With a long list of requests, striking workers anticipated that the mayor’s office would succumb to their demands as the Mardi Gras season—and its lucrative influx of thousands of tourists—loomed. Rather than capitulate to labor, Morial cancelled the 1979 celebration. Supporters viewed the mayor’s actions as evidence of his strong and commanding leadership, while detractors bemoaned what they considered his intransigence and haughty demeanor.
As mayor, Morial continued the work he had begun early in his career. Building on the base established by Moon Landrieu, he helped expand the number of African Americans into city service, where racial barriers had once prohibited their employment. The proportion of the black workforce on the city payroll increased from forty to fifty-three percent from 1977 to 1985. His efforts also led to an increase in the number of blacks serving in the New Orleans police department. Yet charges of race-based brutality from the still predominantly white police force continued. Adding to his troubles, Morial faced bitter opposition from city council that continued throughout his tenure in office.
Morial promoted what gradually became the city’s largest industry, tourism, while also encouraging businesses to invest in New Orleans. He was reelected in 1982, but ongoing squabbles with the city council limited his agenda. In 1984 he was elected president of the United States Council of Mayors, but that same year he also watched his city suffer an embarrassing fiscal blow as the 1984 Louisiana World Exposition declared bankruptcy, depriving many New Orleans–based companies of payment for services rendered for the ill-fated international fair.
Prohibited by the city charter from seeking a third term, Morial failed to convince voters to rewrite the law, and his campaign for a seat on the city council was also unsuccessful. He retired from office in 1986 upon the inauguration of his mayoral successor, Sidney Barthelemy, one of his archrivals on the city council. Morial returned to private law practice and served on the Democratic National Committee in the late 1980s; there he was enlisted as a senior advisor for the 1988 Democratic national presidential candidate, Massachusetts governor Michael Dukakis.
Morial’s supporters urged him to run for mayor again in 1990, but he died of asthma-related complications on December 24, 1989. His funeral service was held at St. Louis Cathedral, and he was buried with the pageantry of a traditional jazz funeral in St. Louis Cemetery No. 1, the oldest extant burial ground in New Orleans.
New Orleans’s riverfront convention center, repurposed from pavilions constructed for the World’s Fair, was renamed the New Orleans Ernest N. Morial Convention Center in 1992; it eventually would span ten blocks and become the centerpiece of the city’s all-important tourism industry. In 1997 the Louisiana State University School of Medicine dedicated the Ernest N. Morial Asthma, Allergy & Respiratory Disease Center. An elementary school in New Orleans is also named in Morial’s honor.