Segregation in Palmer Park

Though designated for public use, Palmer Park was segregated until the 1970s. The park’s namesake, Benjamin Palmer, was a staunch defender of slavery and leading segregationist, set a tone of antagonism towards the black community early on. The ordinance that changed the park’s name from Hamilton Square to Palmer Park, written in 1902 by the city council, praised Palmer and noted the name change was a “testimonial of esteem to the memory” of Palmer. Edgar A. Perilloux, the historian for the Carrollton Men’s Business Association and author of the 1945 Carrollton Centennial booklet, defended the white supremacist history of the park. In reference to a popular idea about the park’s origins, he wrote: “Despite the fact that the official records prove the contrary, many people of the Carrollton section, including many who should know better, cling tenuously to the story handed down from one another, that Palmer Park was donated by some old negro.” His research demonstrated that the property originally belonged to a white landowner.

Events held in the park throughout the Jim Crow era further demonstrated racial prejudice. During a 1924 speech in Palmer Park, Shreveport Mayor Lee E. Thomas, challenging Senator Randsell for his seat, drew loud applause when he accused the senator of signing a letter supporting a black man for a federal job; the mayor’s allegation sought to condemn the senator’s egalitarian gesture. Similar racist reactions followed an incident in 1934. Residents and civic organizations complained about an unlicensed shoeshine stand, “Sam’s Shine Parlor,” in the park. The stand, originally chained to a tree in the park, aimed to entice people waiting nearby for the bus to Kenner. The park removed black vendor’s chair. The community continued to permit white vendors, like a man who sold hot tamales, in the park without complaint.

Until late the early 1960s, the city enforced segregation in many public parks. The Supreme Court had struck down segregation in public parks in 1955, but it was not until 1958, with the threat of federal intervention, that City Park’s facilities desegregated. The New Orleans Recreation Department (NORD), despite recognition in 1949 by Life Magazine as “the most progressive [recreation department] in the U.S.,” did not desegregate its parks until it was ordered to do so by a judicial ruling in 1963. The judicial panel in that case, Barthe v. City of New Orleans, noted that NORD had built separate spaces for blacks after it was created in 1946; however, only 19 such spaces were provided for the black community and over 100 for the white community. The review also commented that the parks were “by no means equal.” They argued the segregation was unconstitutional and ordered an immediate desegregation of all city parks. The city appealed, but The Supreme Court affirmed the ruling in a 6-3 decision in 1964. Desegregation of parks, decried by white supremacists as one of the factors contributing to “white flight” from the city to the suburbs, leading to the loss of significant financial support to NORD.

However, segregation remained at Palmer Park well after this Supreme Court ruling because it did not belong to the city. In 1972, a proposal to incorporate Palmer Park into NORD would in effect integrate the park. Neighborhood residents opposed the measure and placed an advertisement in the Times-Picayune. The creators of the ad, identified as “Concerned Citizens of Carrollton,” argued the park would become a “public disgrace,” similar to Samuel Square, another park that had been integrated after a takeover by NORD. They warned that property values would plummet, adding, “No wonder 90,000 former residents of Orleans Parish have migrated to neighboring parishes,” referencing the white flight from New Orleans. The takeover by NORD was defeated in 1972, although the park did officially become part of the city system in 1977. Similar tones appear in letters to the Times-Picayune after integration complaining of children from outside of the neighborhood playing in the park.



Audio recording of the above narrative "Segregation in Palmer Park."
Source: Audio recording courtesy of Kevin McQueeney. ~ Creator: Kevin McQueeney ~ Date: 2013
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Palmer Park, New Orleans, LA