Commission recommends renaming French Quarter street to honor civil rights attorney

(Photo: Courtesy of Infrogmation | CC)
An initial report issued last month by a city commission recommended that the name of a French Quarter Street memorializing a Confederate general and Louisiana governor should instead change its name to honor a late New Orleans civil rights attorney.

Governor Nicholls Street, which runs through the French Quarter from the Mississippi River to Broad Street, should be called Lolis Edward Elie Street, according to a report issued by the New Orleans City Council Street Renaming Commission Nov. 30.

The recommendation is one of 37 made in the report, which was the result of the work of more than four dozen academics and librarians across Louisiana and beyond who were tasked by the commission to develop a list of alternatives that will go before the City Council.

City Council, which ultimately has to approve the list, formed the commission on June 18 to reexamine New Orleans’s streets and other locations with Confederate or white supremacist ties following the George Floyd protests and demands from groups, including Take Em Down Nola.

“Anything that we vote on now is an initial recommendation subject to change at any point, even beyond our final recommendation,” said Karl Connor, commission chair, during a Dec. 16 public meeting. “Voting on it today isn’t anything final, just to be clear.”

The commission’s regularly scheduled meeting, which was held remotely due to COVID-19, lasted more than three hours and included hundreds of public comments that came in response to the commission’s report.

In addition, commission members considered changes to the list, which it will eventually submit to the City Council for an upcoming vote. A video of the Dec. 16 meeting can be viewed here.

Prior to the commission’s report, several local meetings were held throughout the city to solicit name suggestions since last summer.

Elie’s (pronounced E-lie) career spanned more than four decades and his work included defending clients such as Ernest N. “Dutch” Morial, former New Orleans mayor and Louisiana legislator, and the activists arrested in the McCrory lunch counter sit-in protest in 1960. He also negotiated segregation agreements with city merchants.

Elie lived much of his life on Governor Nicholls Street, according to the report. Elie died in 2017 at the age of 89.

The street is currently named after Francis T. Nicholls, a former Confederate brigadier general who lost his arm and foot in Civil War battles. Nicholls became Louisiana’s governor as a result of the Compromise of 1877, which also marked the end of Reconstruction.

Nicholls also owned slaves, according to the report.

The street was formerly Hospital Street until it was changed in 1909 under ordinance 6136 to honor his Civil War service. Nicholls died in 1912 at 77 years old.

During public comment, Scott S. Ellis, an author on French Quarter history, suggested that Governor Nicholls Street should be named after Clay Shaw, a prominent figure in the preservation and renovation of the French Quarter.

Shaw was also prosecuted as a John F. Kennedy assassination conspirator by then Orleans Parish District Attorney Jim Garrison, but was found not guilty on all charges.

“[The] city has never issued an apology of the notorious prosecution by Jim Garrison,” Ellis said.

The commission deferred the renaming of other French Quarter locations, including Jackson Square and Washington Artillery Park, until future meetings.

Washington Artillery Park, which sits in between Decatur Street and the Mississippi River, was added to the list due to a plaque on the monument that commemorates a still active military unit that was put into Confederate service during the Civil War, but also served in both World Wars.

One suggestion included renaming the park after New Orleans Police Detective Marcus McNeil, who was gunned down in 2017.

Connor questioned whether Washington Artillery Park fits within the commission’s directive. The site’s owner wasn’t known until the Dec. 16 meeting, when it was revealed the city owns it.

“There’s an argument to be made that WAP does fall under the terms of the ordinance [and] the argument for Washington Park is less strong,” said Suzanne-Juliette Mobley, a panel researcher. “Frankly, given both of those sites, given the prominence of them, given the opportunity to do a process that is targeting those locations and the users of those locations in a thoughtful process, I would say that they should not come within the bounds of this commission.”