Witness to Change

Witness to Change

by Sybil Morial


Members save with free shipping everyday! 
See details


While exiled from her beloved hometown of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, Sybil Haydel Morial began to document her remarkable life. In this memoir, she focuses on the sweeping changes—desegregation, the end of Jim Crow, the fight for voting rights and political empowerment—that transformed the country during her lifetime. But this is also a personal story, an account of her own evolution as an African-American woman in the midst of tempests. By necessity and choice, Sybil, her late husband, Ernest “Dutch” Morial, and their five children became legal, then political activists. After serving in the Louisiana state legislature as the first African American, her husband became the first black mayor of New Orleans in 1974. In 1994, Sybil’s oldest son, Marc, who is now president of the National Urban League, would also begin two terms as mayor.The daughter of a well-respected physician in New Orleans, Sybil grew up in a middle-class, integrated neighborhood in New Orleans during the 1940s and 50s. After graduating from Boston University, where she met fellow student Martin Luther King Jr., Sybil became the first African American to teach in the Newton, Massachusetts, public-school system.

Upon returning to New Orleans, Sybil participated in some of the first tests for integration attempting to enroll at both Tulane and Loyola. In 1962, she was the lone plaintiff in a successful challenge to a statute prohibiting public-school teachers from being involved in any organization advocating civil rights. She also formed the Louisiana League of Good Government to help African-American citizens register to vote. But her memoir is more than a civil rights chronicle. Through her story, we get a rare glimpse into the lives of the middle-class black society during Jim Crow and the battles with discrimination that they faced. We also see the evolution of their sons and daughters as they claimed their positions as leaders of the civil rights struggle and later became leaders of their communities and nation. As Ambassador Andrew Young, a childhood friend and later Sybil’s prom date, relates in his foreword: “It is doubtful that New Orleans could have produced two mayors with the dynamic, creative, and visionary leadership of 'Dutch' and Marc without a wife and mother of Sybil’s loving strength, intelligence, and moral courage. But the life she lived in the crucible times and her perception of the civil rights movement in New Orleans goes far beyond that.”

SYBIL HAYDEL MORIAL is an educator, activist, and community leader in New Orleans, Louisiana. The wife of the first African American mayor of New Orleans, Ernest N. “Dutch” Morial, Sybil spent her career in the education field, first as a public school teacher and later as an administrator at Xavier University in New Orleans.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780895876553
Publisher: Blair
Publication date: 10/06/2015
Pages: 240
Sales rank: 785,949
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.10(d)

About the Author

SYBIL HAYDEL MORIAL is an educator, activist, and community leader in New Orleans, Louisiana. The wife of the first African American mayor of New Orleans, Ernest N. “Dutch” Morial, Sybil spent her career in the education field, first as a public school teacher and later as an administrator at Xavier University in New Orleans.

Read an Excerpt

Witness to Change

From Jim Crow to Political Empowerment

By Sybil Haydel Morial

John F. Blair, Publisher

Copyright © 2015 Sybil Haydel Morial
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-89587-655-3


My New Orleans

Take the first step in faith. You don't have to see the whole staircase.

Martin Luther King Jr.

I grew up in New Orleans, on Miro Street, in the Seventh Ward near the London Canal. Ours was a real New Orleans neighborhood with a mixture of rich and poor and everything in between. Two grand houses stood in the block — ours and the one next door, owned by another Negro family. Directly across the street were three single-family homes owned by two white families and another Negro family. A group of shotgun houses, one occupied by whites and two by Negroes, stood down the block. My friend Mona Lisa lived in one of them.

In good weather, we gathered outside. My mother's flower beds graced each side of the large porch and were a riot of colors in all seasons — the bright winter pansies turned over to a rainbow of azaleas and petunias in the spring and orange nasturtiums and red zinnias in the summer. On the porch, baskets of religiously watered, lush ferns sat on tripods among gliders and rocking chairs. People taking an evening walk often stopped to glance admiringly at the greenery and bright flowers as they passed.

My parents bought our house when I was four years old. It was a beautiful wood-frame bungalow, white with French Quarter green (forest-green) trim. Like many homes in New Orleans, ours had an interesting history. It was built in the 1920s by Walter L. Cohen, a freeborn man of color. During Reconstruction, President Warren Harding had appointed Cohen as comptroller of customs for the port of New Orleans. The United States Senate initially opposed the appointment, but Cohen's position was later secured by the efforts of Harding's successor, President Calvin Coolidge. In his time, Cohen was something of a pioneer in race relations. When I was a child, his background was lost on me, but later I came to see its significance as part of my history.

Our driveway led to a huge backyard and an outbuilding that had a garage and a laundry room on the ground level and two rooms and a full bath upstairs, used by the original owner for servants' quarters. The large room served as a playroom for my older sister, Jean, and me. The smaller room held out-of-season furnishings — rugs, draperies, and slipcovers. Light and airy covers and curtains were brought out for the subtropical summers; in the cool, damp winters, we switched to wool rugs and heavier brocade draperies.

There were no playgrounds for Negroes at that time, so my parents turned our backyard into a neighborhood recreation area. It had a paved area and a large grassy place with swings and a sliding board. The girls jumped rope or made necklaces with the four o'clock blossoms that opened — according to their name — at the hour we returned from school. The boys, including my little brother, C. C., played marbles or cops and robbers. A large pomegranate tree in the corner of the yard provided relief from the Louisiana sun. We liked to pick the ripe red pomegranates and crack them open and eat the kernels under the shade. The taste was sweet and sour, and the juice stained our fingers a deep purple.

My mother abided no nonsense in the yard, and we never knew when she might appear in the back door. She would immediately send home anyone who was misbehaving. If her children were causing the trouble, playtime ended abruptly. At the same time, she was pleasant and made it a habit to feed all the neighborhood kids. In summer, on Mondays, traditional washday, she would cook a big pot of red beans and rice. This good-smelling dish, spiced with bits of sausage, pickled pork, and fresh-picked cayenne peppers, would simmer all morning on the stove, filling the air with an enticing aroma. When it was ready, Mother would stand at the back door and call, "Plates!" That was the signal for us to line up, get a dish from the breakfast-room table, and come into the kitchen to get it filled. We all sat on the lawn and ate the noon meal, swatting the greedy Louisiana insects away.

When Jean and I became teenagers, the outbuilding was moved and connected to the main house so that we could have our own suite: a bedroom, a study, and two closets, with a bathroom and recreation room below. My brothers, C. C. and "Cookie" (Glenn), had a bedroom on the first floor next to the breakfast room. Jean and I were just one year apart, and the space suited us perfectly — at least in principle. We were in some ways like twins. In fact, our mother often dressed us in the same clothes, but in different colors. Both of us were readers — Jean read voraciously — and we both loved music. Jean preferred classical, while I loved operettas and lighter music.

My mother, who adored piano music, thought we should learn to play and made us take lessons for years. Once a week without fail, Jean and I would tromp across the London Avenue Canal bridge to Miss Hutton's house. Miss Hutton had earned a master's degree from Oberlin College, a rarity for a Negro student from the South at that time. Her love of music spilled over into her teaching; she offered anecdotes about the composers whose music we learned — Chopin, Mendelssohn, and Strauss. When she admonished us for not practicing (Jean and I often waited until the day before the lesson), she urged us to imagine a picture of what the music conjured up. Danse Macabre by Saint-Saens was the regular Halloween piece — creaking doors, rattling bones, scampering mice. When we played The Skaters' Waltz by Strauss, we tried to imagine skating on ice, rather a stretch for New Orleans people.

Whatever her method, it worked; her love and celebration of music rubbed off on us. Those years of piano lessons gave me an appreciation and love of music throughout my life, even though, as time would tell, neither Jean nor I had any real talent.

One area in which Jean and I were definitely not twin-like was housekeeping. Like my mother, I was methodical, believing everything had its place — and should be there when I reached for it. Jean, on the other hand, was more of a free spirit and actually quite junky. She resisted making her bed and folding her clothes. Since we shared a room for our entire childhoods, we often fought over the condition of our quarters. At one point, in exasperation, I drew a string across our room to separate us. I can't remember how long that lasted. My mother sometimes intervened in our quarrels and advised us, with an unwavering stare, to "take inventory." By this, she meant that we should examine our own behavior and correct it. And be quiet. Which, facing my mother's grim stare, we usually did.

Jean was five or six inches taller than I, and I looked rather stunted next to her. Oddly, though, she was the one who had problems with walking. Her left leg was deformed from birth. It didn't have the muscle structure of a normal leg, and the foot lacked an arch. So she walked with a slight limp. During her childhood, she had a couple of surgeries — one when she was seven, the other when she was nine. While she was recovering in the hospital, Daddy would always sneak me into her room with paper dolls and crayons so I could play with her. My father, a physician, and mother, a former teacher, were keenly aware of Jean's disability but never treated her differently from the rest of us. She was expected to do chores around our house; things were not made special for her unless it was a necessity. She was never good at sports, but she was a great dancer. The year before my debut, Jean had been chosen queen of the ball. I had watched her practice promenading across the floor, a pretend scepter in her hand.

On Saturdays, Jean and I would get up and dress, then have our usual breakfast of grits, eggs, and smoked bacon. During the morning, we usually worked at our regular chores, cleaning our room and bathroom and ironing our clothes. But on days when our mother had a party, we were assigned special tasks. The duties were specific, depending on whether the event was a formal dinner, a tea, or her bridge-club meeting. If she was planning a reception, for instance, she would call us into the dining room and ask us to set up, pointing out the linens for the table, the serving dishes, and the stemware. We knew what to do; she trained us well.

In the hot afternoons — there was no air conditioning then — we would rest in dark rooms out of the heat, then get up to take a refreshing bath. As the sun diminished, we would emerge, ready to entertain ourselves if we had no more chores.

Because there were few places for Negroes to go out to dinner, my parents often hosted parties at home. Sometimes, my mother ordered flowers or a special dessert, and we would wait for the delivery. The providers of these treats were usually Negro vendors we knew well. The flowers, for instance, came from Haydel's Flower Shoppe, which was owned by my father's cousin. When a centerpiece arrived, we knew exactly where to put the spray on the table.

Like everyone else, our food was rationed during World War II. Still, we paid careful attention to dinners for special guests. Our Sunday family dinners were special also. My mother, like other Negro wives, "made groceries" — as New Orleanians referred to shopping — early mornings on North Claiborne Avenue at the St. Bernard Market. She might prepare a veal roast or a baked chicken with macaroni and cheese, the old-fashioned kind with eggs in the mixture. We always had lots of vegetables — green beans, cabbage, corn, and peas. During the war, some produce — squash, tomatoes, and eggplants — came from my father's victory garden. His handiwork also provided celery, hot peppers, sweet peppers, onions, and herbs — the standard Creole seasonings that flavored everything from gumbo to étouffée.

North Claiborne Avenue was the main street of Negro-owned businesses. A median flanked by huge live-oak trees formed a beautiful canopy. The avenue always teemed with activity. It was home to physicians' and dentists' offices, about five insurance companies, funeral parlors, a business school, and a variety of small shops, including retail stores. As a child, I remember being enchanted in one of those shops as I watched a Negro man purchase feathers and beads for his costume. He was one of the famed Mardi Gras Indians. The feathers and beads, along with cords of brilliant colors, would make up the giant headpieces — sometimes extending four or five feet above the head — that the "Indians" wore as they paraded around on Mardi Gras and St. Joseph's Day. Some of the tribes, such as the Wild Tchoupitoulas, were named after real Indian nations. There was sporting competition among the tribes as they paraded. Each tribe had a "Big Chief," who traveled around with a "Scout" and a "Spy Boy"— whose role was to warn the chief of an enemy tribe nearby. These antics came out of traditional stories; many escaped slaves in Louisiana were taken in by nearby Indian tribes.

All along North Claiborne were purveyors of Louisiana specialties. Levada's was the best oyster shop in town. Shoppers could purchase fresh raw oysters or delicious oyster loaves — what we would now call "po-boys"— packed high with rich fried oysters. Mother bought her fresh meat from a Negro butcher in the St. Bernard Market. It was set up much like the market in the French Quarter, its stalls selling meat, fresh vegetables, spices, dry goods, and all sorts of other food items. The market's aroma was an intoxicating melding of Creole and Cajun foods.

Sometimes when my parents were entertaining, we were allowed to go to the movies, escorted by an older relative. Several neighborhood children would join us on the walk to the Circle Theater, which was nearby. Both Negroes and whites could see movies there; we sat upstairs in the balcony, while white people sat downstairs. There was not much traffic on the cross streets, but crossing St. Bernard Avenue was a challenge for a parade of children. As we passed the "white entrance," we saw our white neighborhood friends standing in line. We waved shyly to them. We walked around the corner to the "colored entrance" to pay for our tickets. Once, my brother C. C., who was only six at the time, was given the privilege of buying the tickets. He walked up proudly to the window, reached up on his tiptoes to see the cashier, and put the money down, proclaiming loudly, "One aduck and six children!" Jean and I giggled wildly. As we passed through the "colored lobby," each child received a token toy — a Saturday-night treat to encourage attendance. We usually arrived early so we could all sit in one row.

The years before and during World War II were great ones for the movies. All of us kids liked going to "the show." Along with the feature, we saw cartoons and comedies including Looney Tunes and The Three Stooges. But if the movies featured black actors, it could sometimes be uncomfortable for us. Most of the time, black actors played subservient roles or buffoons — the Uncle Tom scratching his gray head and looking confused, the oversized mammy who chased her foe with a cast-iron frying pan. One black comedian, Lincoln Perry, became a model for later comics including Charlie Chaplin. Even he, though, reinforced the stereotype by playing "the laziest man in the world." Such roles were often the only parts offered to Negroes during those times.

Whenever a Negro character was the object of ridicule, the laughter from the white audience downstairs grew louder. Some Negroes in the balcony laughed, too, but it always made me tense. I found myself looking down and moving uncomfortably in my seat. Still, the movies were one social experience that both races shared. The day after the movie, the neighborhood kids, Negro and white, would get together to talk about what we had seen.

Members of black society had to make many accommodations. Since hotels were open only to whites, Negro entertainers and other professional people were housed with New Orleans families who had large homes with guest rooms, as we did. My father belonged to the National Medical Association (Negro Physicians), the National Insurance Association, and several service fraternities including the Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity. My parents, along with other middle-class blacks, out of necessity created our own cocoon of interaction for professional and social activities and at the same time limited the rejection and humiliation we experienced in our Southern cities. These social and professional networks exposed our people to new experiences in accepting venues across the nation and enabled lifelong friendships.

Both my parents also participated in service to the community. Even with my father's demanding medical schedule, he was an active board member of the New Orleans Urban League. He provided gratis medical examinations to all of the Catholic Negro schoolchildren each year, supported black entrepreneurs, and lent financial support to causes he believed in. He was a founding member of the first black savings and loan association, which provided money to Negroes to purchase homes and for business ventures. Such loans were not available from white-owned savings and loans or banks.

My mother, too, was active in our community. She led the Parent-Teacher Organization at our elementary school and took part in auxiliary organizations of the medical association and the Flint Goodridge Hospital for Negroes, the only hospital where Negro physicians could provide care for their patients and perform surgery.

By example, they taught us to respect others and to be of service while we forged our futures in a sometimes hostile world.

We had many visitors to our home, some of them famous. My parents once hosted a dinner for Dr. Charles Drew, the physician who discovered how to separate plasma from whole blood. While whole blood could not be stored for any length of time, plasma could. When World War II began, Drew was put in charge of the United States military's blood supply. However, when orders came down that plasma from Negroes be kept separate from that of whites, Drew was incensed. He insisted there was no scientific basis for such a separation and stepped down from his position.

Just as my parents opened their house to weary travelers, we sometimes stayed with other families. Once, on our way to Chicago, we stopped for the night in Nashville and stayed at the home of a professor at Fisk University, Dr. Horace Mann Bond. His brother Max Bond was a professor at Dillard University and a friend of my father's. We had breakfast with Dr. Bond's family and met a very young — not yet one — Julian Bond. That unassuming toddler became a major figure in the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s.

Professional groups and fraternities held Negro society together. My father drove all over the country to attend conventions of organizations in which he was a member. Sometimes, my mother traveled with him; occasionally, the whole family went along. Because we could not eat in most restaurants or stay in hotels, my mother would prepare a kind of traveling picnic. We always started out with enough food to last most of the day. If we ran out, we would stop at a grocery store and buy additional fruit, cold cuts, and bread. We'd park off the highway for lunch and give my father a rest from driving. A long trip required more elaborate planning. Where would we be able to buy groceries or stop for the night? Where would we be able to bathe or use the bathroom? This was well before interstate highways, and sometimes the journey took longer than we expected.


Excerpted from Witness to Change by Sybil Haydel Morial. Copyright © 2015 Sybil Haydel Morial. Excerpted by permission of John F. Blair, Publisher.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


Foreword by Andrew Young,
Prologue: White Gloves,
1 My New Orleans,
2 Separate, Not Equal,
3 Riding with Jim Crow,
4 Storm,
5 North,
6 Meeting of Minds,
7 Love and War,
8 The South Quakes,
9 Negotiation New Orleans-Style,
10 Cultural Deprivation,
11 Into the Trenches,
12 A Voice in the Night,
13 Betsy, Then Jean,
14 The Gamble,
15 The Invitation,
16 Into Africa,
17 Where We Began,
18 Race for Mayor,
19 New Orleans in Color,
20 I've Known Rivers,
21 A House Divided,
22 Silence in the House,
23 Hell and High Water,
24 A President Who Looks Like Us,
Epilogue: Flood and Fire,

Customer Reviews