Remembering Dorothy Mae Taylor: The First Lady of 1300 Perdido St.
14th June 2011 · 0 Comments
By Michael Radcliff
The Louisiana Weekly
Forty years ago, in the Spring of 1971, a 42-year-old former PTA president, devout Christian and social activist stood proudly, yet trembling, as she took the oath of office on the floor of the House Chamber in Louisiana’s State Capitol. Dorothy Mae Delavallade Taylor, with the encouragement and assistance of her 32-year-old campaign manager, Oretha Castle Haley, became the first African-American woman in Louisiana’s history to be elected to the State House of Representatives.
“When I was elected,” Taylor would later say, “the cries came to me about the many problems confronting my constituents. To be honest, I was somewhat afraid after I won the election because I knew that I would be the only Black woman out of 105 (overwhelmingly male, overwhelmingly white) legislators. So I prayed and prayed… and the answer to my fear came to me in church one Sunday morning when the choir began to sing, ‘If Jesus goes with me I’ll go anywhere.’ It was then that I knew that God had a plan and purpose for my life.”
The youngest of 13 children born to Charles and Mary Delavallade, Dorothy was a product of New Orleans’ segregated public school system. After having attended Southern University in Baton Rouge, she met, and in 1948 married Johnny Taylor.
By the late 1950’s Mrs. Taylor was the mother of five children at a time when schools were still separate but unequal. Her auspicious beginnings came as a result of the blatant discriminatory practices of the New Orleans School Board which as a consequence, aided in transforming this meek and soft spoken wife and mother into a fiery advocate for justice and equality. Elected PTA president of two schools simultaneously, Mrs. Taylor organized a march to the school board and demanded that Black schools be given the same resources, supplies and funding as white schools. The school board eventually acquiesced, resulting in increased funding to Black schools to a level comparable to their white counterparts. This was to become her first victory as a social activist. In 1961, after the city’s public schools were in the early stages of desegregation, Mrs. Taylor then turned her attention to the racist practices of the New Orleans Recreation Department (NORD). Again, she met with similar success and before long the city’s pools and playgrounds were being integrated.
Shortly thereafter, Mrs. Taylor would be hired as the Director of Total Community Action’s Central City Health Clinic. It was during her tenure with TCA that she would meet, and form a lifelong friendship, with then Deputy Director of Charity Hospital, Mrs. Oretha Castle Haley as well as a host of TCA staff and administrators who would soon go on to become a virtual Who’s Who of Black political powerbrokers of New Orleans for the next three decades. TCA’s formula for success worked flawlessly. TCA was churning out Black leaders like Ford Motors was assembling cars. A list of TCA’s gifted alumni included: Future juvenile court judge, state representative (the first African American since Reconstruction), and first African-American mayor of New Orleans Ernest “Dutch” Morial; future state senator (the first African American since Reconstruction), City Council president and the second African-American mayor of New Orleans, Sidney Barthelemy; future City Councilmen James “Jim” Singleton and Johnny Jackson; future State Senator Henry Braden IV; future State Representatives Sherman Copelin, Louis Charbonnet, and Theodore Marchand; future Public Service Commissioner (the first African American) Irma Muse Dixon; future Criminal Court Clerk and State Appellate Court Judge Ed Lombard; future School Board President Carolyn Green-Ford; future Orleans Parish School Board members, Elliot Willard and Rose Loving; and future Assistant Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Terrance Duvernay. Also, as an indirect result of nurturing the careers of these icons – four of the most formidable Political Action Committees in contemporary history had their origins in the leadership of TCA. The most prominent leaders of LIFE (Louisiana Independent Federation of Electors), Ernest Morial; COUP (Community Organization for Urban Politics), Sidney Barthelemy; BOLD (Black Organization for Leadership Development), Jim Singleton; and SOUL (Southern Organization for Unified Leadership), Sherman Copelin and Don Hubbard, were all TCA alumni.
After several years of working to improve greater access to health care for impoverished members of her community, Mrs. Taylor received her first political appointment to the office of Deputy Clerk of the Civil District Court. While this position afforded her some degree of structure and security, she well knew that she was limited in affecting the changes that needed to take place in her community. It was only a matter of time for the urgings of her friend Oretha Haley, and through the support of the TCA machine, she decided to run for office.
The opportunity would soon present itself in 1971 when then State Representative Ernest “Dutch” Morial was elected New Orleans’ first Black juvenile court judge. Morial, as required by law, was required to relinquish his position as state representative and as such, a special election was held to fill his unexpired term. Mrs. Taylor’s reputation as a leader, social activist and TCA’s clandestine voter registration drives propelled her into the lead and then on to a decisive victory.
“It was during my tenure at TCA that I first met Dorothy,” former Mayor Sidney Barthelemy explained to The Louisiana Weekly. “At that time I was a peon an administrative assistant, and Dorothy I believe was the director of the Central City Clinic. I worked on her campaign when she first ran for office.”
State Representative Taylor
“I remember that one of Dorothy’s primary issues when she was a state legislator was criminal justice reform,” Barthelemy recalled. “She worked very hard to make sure that all people were treated fairly and humanely, especially those who were imprisoned. She felt that even those incarcerated deserved to be given basic health care and some semblance of a quality of life. After all, if we treat individuals like animals while they’re incarcerated how do you expect them to act when they are released back into the community?”
“My efforts on penal reform,” Mrs. Taylor would later say, “have been partially successful because I have involved the courts, community organizations, the Press, and hundreds of volunteers who are eager to work towards change.”
“She was also one of the most loyal advocates of Charity Hospital,” Barthelemy told The Louisiana Weekly. “It was through her efforts that a lot of things was accomplished. She had the support of then Governor (Edwin) Edwards to improve the quality of services at Charity Hospital and even though Charity had complaints regarding ‘wait times,’ it was no secret that people who were very sick, even those with insurance, knew where to go to get quality treatment. Charity was significant then, and it’s still significant now. I would dare say that if Dorothy was alive today, she would be on the front line fighting to get Charity rebuilt.”
Being a mom, Dorothy Mae Taylor almost instinctually had a general fondness for young people. Her very first battles involved discrimination in the school board and the city recreation department. As the state representative for District 80, she continued to work on issues involving greater access to health care — especially for children; oversight, licensure, and improving the overall conditions of child care facilities, and eliminating discriminatory practices at every level. Speaking to a group of Christian women in 1973 on the “State of Youth,” her comments were as relevant then as they are today.
“Today we find ourselves in the midst of a rapidly changing society…,” Taylor said. “In some of our young people we see a trend towards changing values — the increasing sexual permissiveness inside and outside of marriage; the increasing drug culture among our youth; a lack of responsibility; a failure to commit to goals; violence in the streets and the general lack of respect for elders and authority. We (parents) wonder if we have tried hard enough to instill the proper values in our children. We wonder what has gone wrong and where. Many of us, however, never take the time to critically evaluate these issues and most of us are content to provide “stock” answers such as, ‘They’re just a bunch of crazy hippies or militants’ or even ‘They must all come from deprived homes where the parents just don’t give a damn!’ But as Christians we have committed ourselves to God and our hope and our responses are found in the context of the love He has taught us. It is at this point of loving understanding that we must assume our prayerful stance and in faith we should seek solutions to these problems. You see most of our youth ARE interested in the world around them. Youth has become a great power in our time — politically, economically, and culturally. The majority of our youth are showing us that they can be responsible and handle the greater freedoms which we have allowed them.”
“I first met Mrs. Taylor as an student intern working in her office,” recalled State Rep. Austin Badon, “I was a student at UNO and my instructor approached me about taking a class in which I would simply work as an intern to someone at City Hall and get a grade. Ironically, I was initially scheduled to be an intern to Peggy Wilson, but at the last minute I was reassigned to this woman named Dorothy Mae Taylor. At the time I didn’t know Ms. Wilson or Mrs. Taylor but I accepted the assignment anyway, just to make an easy ‘A.’ She was such a warm and cordial lady,” he continued. “She welcomed me into her office, took me under her wing and treated me just like family. I loved working with her so much that I found myself going to her office on days I wasn’t scheduled to be there. After that Fall semester had ended and I got my grade, I felt this tremendous void in my life – so I decided to create a position in her office for myself. I just started showing up on my own as if nothing had changed, and I just hoped no one would say anything. No one ever did. Then one day — I remember it was on a Wednesday — I was in the office and she probably thought to herself, ‘This poor kid won’t go home so I guess I better find him a job so we can help some other student,’” he confessed, laughing. “And,” he continued, “she called one of her friends, introduced me, and the very next day I was working – it was my first real job and literally it was the start of my career”.
After having served in the State Legislature for nearly a decade, Mrs. Taylor was chosen by then Governor Edwin Edwards to become Secretary of the Department of Urban and Community Affairs, making her again the first African-American female to head a state department. While this position was a significant career move for her, the back and forth to Baton Rouge soon took its toll on her family life. She wanted to return home but she still felt that her purpose was not yet complete and that she could still be of service to the city she so loved.
“Our country,” she would later say, “is faced with many ills that require short- and long-term treatment. Some of us have already committed ourselves to becoming involved… with a good conscience as our only sure reward… let us go forth and lead the land we love and let history be the final judge of our deeds.”
The following year she decided to run for the position of City Council president. Once again she would be easily elected and once again she would chalk up another first.
Over the course of the 15 years since Mrs. Taylor was first elected state representative, the political and racial make-up of New Orleans politics had undergone a radical change. The city had seen the election of its first and now second African-American mayors and Blacks were now a majority on the City Council. Her tenure as council president would run concurrently with that of her former friend and TCA alum, Sidney Barthelemy.
“When I was elected mayor, Dorothy and I got along well,” Barthelemy told The Louisiana Weekly. “While we didn’t always agree, she was always very supportive of my administration. We worked together to get a lot of things accomplished.”
“Like all politicians, there were days that they (she and the mayor) agreed and were on one accord, and then there were days that they didn’t,” added Jay Banks, a former senior aide to Mrs. Taylor. “They genuinely liked each other and had a mutual respect for one another; but no two people are going to agree on everything.”
“The history needs to be written as it was” Jay Banks told The Louisiana Weekly. “She was not afraid to stand up for something that she thought was right. Now whether you agreed with her or not was not relevant to her – if she felt that it was right she would fight for it and she was not easily swayed by political correctness. If it was something that she thought needed to be done, and if she needed to step on someone’s toes to get it done, then their foot would be well stepped on. She genuinely had the public’s interest at heart. She had a certain tenacity about her in that if she felt someone needed help and she was in a position to help, she’d go out of her way to do all that she could to help that individual.
“I remember when she instituted a program that I hated,” Banks recounted. “It was called ‘One on One.’ Every week we would go to various neighborhoods throughout the city and set up shop in a church, library, or a community center and she would have one-on-one meetings with anyone and everyone to discuss whatever problems they were having. She was having neighborhood forums long before it became en vogue. My problem was that I would have to be there with her and after working an eight- to 10-hour day, I just wanted to go home and chill,” he smiled, “but we would gather our stuff, go out into the neighborhoods and listen to citizen complaints. On a rare occasion, (a good night for me), no one would show up; but most nights 30, 40, and sometimes 50 people would show up and we’d be there sometimes as late as 10 o’clock at night…”
Dorothy Mae Taylor was also a leading proponent and advocate for women, especially African-American women seeking public office. “I can say that there was not a single African-American woman that ran for office during that time that Dorothy Mae Taylor did not have a hand in…,” Banks told The Louisiana Weekly. “I remember she dispatched me to go to work Paulette Irons campaign when she first ran for office; she then dispatched me to work Irma Dixon’s campaign when she first ran for office. When women — especially African-American women — were seeking elective offices, on more than a few occasions I would have to take a leave of absence from my job and work those campaigns – and I did everything from cutting signs to knocking on doors.”
“I don’t have a crystal ball,” added Mr. Badon, “but I can tell you that if it wasn’t for Dorothy Mae Taylor, me and a lot of other people would not be in the positions that we’re in today.”
“What a lot of people didn’t know about Mrs. Taylor was that she was a diehard football fan and she had a tremendous sense of humor,” Badon continued. “I remember we were working late one night, everyone was just sitting around exhausted and out of nowhere Mrs. Taylor comes into the office doing the ‘Ickey Shuffle.’ It was a dance made famous by the Cincinnati Bengals running back Ickey Woods… but she did it better than Ickey himself. When I think back now, some of my fondest memories in life were the times I spent working in Mrs. Taylor’s office. Even today when I have meetings at City Hall, I find myself sometimes walking over to the area in which her office used to be located – just to reminisce. She was just a delightful lady who cared about her city and its people.”
Mardi Gras Madness
In 1992 Dorothy Mae Taylor authored an ordinance insisting that all Mardi Gras krewes stop discriminating and institute an open admission policy for anyone seeking to join their organizations, if they chose to use city services to hold their parades. The reaction to this ordinance was swift and downright vicious. Old-line krewes threatened to end Mardi Gras by refusing to parade if this ordinance was enforced. Mrs. Taylor held public hearings that forced the club members to answer questions they didn’t even ask in private. Nearly all of the old- line krewes were found to be “all-male and all-white”; they not only excluded Blacks but also women, gays, Jews and Italians.
Embarrassed and humiliated, the krewes of Momus, Comus, and Proteus decided to follow up on their threats and issued a press release stating that they would no longer parade on the streets of New Orleans. Soon articles were being written assailing Mrs. Taylor as a racist and berated her on posters and T-shirts as “The Grinch who Stole Mardi Gras.” Racial tensions in the city reached a fevered pitch. Even so, some 15 years after the ordinance was unanimously passed by the City Council and nearly six years after Mrs. Taylor had passed away, certain segments of the community were still angry as evidenced in an interview given to NPR in 2006 by the city’s daily newspaper columnist James Gill, “I think you cannot deny that she is remembered among white people here as the vixen who tried to destroy Mardi Gras, and who to some extent succeeded.”
“I think Dorothy was just trying to protect everyone’s rights under the law,” insisted Sidney Barthelemy. “Her intent was never to destroy Mardi Gras — she simply wanted to make sure a certain class of people didn’t discriminate against others…. and that was indeed a noble cause.”
“What Mrs. Taylor was simply saying is that if you benefit from public funding that you have to be accessible to the public… and the enemies to the openness of that theory spun it into something that they figured the public could relate to – so they spun it into an attack on Mardi Gras,” Jay Banks told The Louisiana Weekly. “Mrs. Taylor knew that many lucrative business deals were being made in those private clubs that most people didn’t have access to, and more times than not, it related to business deals that involved tax dollars.
Those businessmen were benefiting, but if you or I were in the same business, we didn’t have the opportunity to sit at their table and have that discussion. That is how the whole thing started.”
“We would write letters to the Picayune about the discrimination ordinance but none of them were ever published,” Banks told The Louisiana Weekly. “But those rants espousing hatred and viciousness always got published and it became apparent to me who the Picayune had aligned itself with – they never had any intention of showing the real issue behind the story and it is unfortunate that to many whites, this was her lasting legacy. But when it came time to stand up for what she believed in, Mrs. Taylor didn’t mind getting hit upside the head – if she thought it was the right thing to do.
“In hindsight it turned out to be a good thing…,” Banks added. “It helped make Mardi Gras into something bigger and better than it ever was… Consider this: When Momus, Comus, and Proteus cancelled their parades, they said that they were going to move their parades to other parishes, namely Jefferson. It’s been nearly 20 years now and although Proteus has taken a step into the 21st century and returned to the parade schedule, I’m still waiting for the others to show up elsewhere… It was all a smokescreen — they used the ordinance as a scapegoat to walk away from parading when they could no longer afford to parade anyway; and the ones that struck around are bigger and culturally friendly; and as a result Mardi Gras is better than it ever was… I believe her legacy will be long remembered if folks will just understand that she saw a wrong and simply tried to make it right. She will be remembered for the light that she was in.”
“I have attempted to fulfill one of my lifelong dreams,” said Mrs. Taylor as she spoke to a group of Christian women on the importance of empowering others. “The songwriter says it best in the title of a familiar tune – ‘If I Could help Somebody as I Pass this Way then my Living would not have been in Vain.’ I have tried to use whatever political power that I have— imbrued with my religious training — to help change the life of someone who has fallen along the way. As Christian women, we should use all of our spiritual influence to help save a dying world.”
Term-limited out, Dorothy Mae Taylor retired from the council in 1994. She remained active in her church, Mount Zion Methodist Church, until her death on August 18, 2000.
“She gave so much of herself,” affirmed Austin Badon, “to the betterment of those less fortunate — those without a voice; and it’s a shame that for all that she did she has virtually been forgotten or vilified because she dared to speak out against injustice and discrimination.”
This article originally published in the June 13, 2011 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.