New Orleans’ schools, our recreation department, state legislature, City Council, public monuments, health care and even Mardi Gras — these are all parts of our hometown that are better, more equitable and fairer thanks in large part to the work of Dorothy Mae Taylor.
How can one woman do so much to shape so many institutions?
Well, based on Taylor’s story, it takes the courage to stand up in the face of a vocal and formidable opposition, as well as the endurance to fight for what you think is important decade after decade after decade after decade after decade. (That’s five decades, in total, of public service!)
Taylor was born on Aug. 10, 1928, in New Orleans — the 13th and youngest child of Charles Henry and Mary Delavallade. She was a student in the segregated Orleans Parish school system and continued her education at Southern University — a public historically black college in Baton Rouge.
She married Johnny Taylor Jr. in 1948 and began her career as a Head Start teacher in Central City’s William J. Guste Elementary School. That program was designed to provide comprehensive childhood education, health, nutrition and parental involvement services to low-income children and families — issues she would focus on for the remainder of the century.
By the late-1950s, Taylor was a mother of five children and an active member of her children’s Parent Teacher Association. It was this experience that appears to have begun to transform her into the immovable force for change she was soon to become.
Political Career Gains Steam
It’s easy to look at the end of de jure segregation in the 1950s and 60s as inevitable. We now know that Brown v. Board of Education would find the separation of black and white students into separate schools to be unconstitutional in 1954, and we know that a half-decade later the six-year-old Ruby Bridges would be the first of many African American students to walk into formerly all-white public schools across the American South.
To live in those times, however, the future accomplishments of the civil rights era would have been anything but inevitable.
Beginning in the 1950s and ‘60s, Taylor was a powerful activist in that civil rights movement. She organized pickets, sit-ins and marches. As president of the PTA at two of her children’s schools (and three PTAs in total), while segregation was still the norm, she made a name for herself by demanding — and eventually securing — equal supplies and funding for Black schools in Orleans Parish. She believed public funding should be used to create public good that served the entire public — not just one particular race.
She continued to act on that belief as she fought to desegregate the New Orleans Recreation Department’s facilities by advocating for the discontinuation of public funding to the department. In the end, the city’s pools and playgrounds were integrated.
She also promoted adult literacy programs and organized voter registration drives targeting the city’s poorest minority communities in several large federal housing projects.
Taylor was hired as the Director of Total Community Action’s Central City Health Clinic. Her job was to improve access to health care for impoverished members of the community, but she did even more than just that. She met deputy director of Charity Hospital (and future civil rights icon) Oretha Castle Haley. She also developed what would turn out to be an entire generation of Black New Orleans leaders. Future mayors Ernest “Dutch” Morial and Sidney Barthelemy — along with dozens of other African American New Orleanians who would help shape the city in the coming decades — worked with Taylor at Total Community Action.
But she yearned to make a bigger impact. In 1971, she had her chance when Morial announced he was accepting an appointment as judge of the Orleans Parish Juvenile Court. To do so, he would have to relinquish his seat in what was then District 20 of the Louisiana House of Representatives. Taylor — who had by then been nominated to serve as deputy clerk in Civil District Court — ran for the seat with Castle Haley’s help.
When she won, Taylor became the first African American woman elected to the Louisiana State Legislature.
This isn’t the last time she’d make history. However, far from it.
Reaching Great Heights
Taylor admitted she was nervous about being the first Black woman to serve in the state Legislature.
“To be honest, I was somewhat afraid after I won the election,” she would later say, “because I knew that I would be the only Black woman out of 105 (overwhelmingly male, overwhelmingly white) legislators…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.”
During nearly a decade in the state Legislature, Taylor worked to improve the lives of the constituents in her district, which was made up of the first and second wards in New Orleans. A majority of the residents there lived below the poverty line and included three federal housing projects: Guste Homes, Calliope and Magnolia.
She fought for improved quality of services at Charity Hospital — where many of the people she served went for health care — and she continued working on issues involving children. Taylor also wrote the legislation to secure funding for Louisiana’s first Sickle Cell Anemia Education & Screening program and was even voted “Legislator of the Year” in 1972 by LSU.
But her tenure in the Louisiana House of Representatives is probably most remembered for the work she did increasing public awareness of the inhumane conditions that exist in the country’s prison system.
Mayor Sidney Barthelemy one said this about Taylor:
“She worked very hard to make sure that 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 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?”
From her own perspective, Taylor deemed her efforts to reform the penal system to be partially successful.
“Because I have involved the courts, community organizations, the press and hundreds of volunteers,” she said, “who are eager to work towards change.”
From Louisiana State Legislature to New Orleans City Council
After her legislative service ended in 1980, Taylor returned to Total Community Action, continuing to improve health care for the city’s residents and also growing the network of future Black political leaders. It was said that if an African American in New Orleans was running for office, Taylor was involved.
In 1984, she was appointed by Louisiana Gov. Edwin Edwards to head the state’s Department of Urban and Community Affairs, making her the first African American woman to hold a state cabinet position. The following year she won the “Humanitarian Award” from the Louisiana Association of Community Action Agencies.
Around this time, Taylor was considering a run for one of the two New Orleans City Council at-large positions. A woman had never been elected to the City Council before, but in the 15 years since being elected a state representative, New Orleans’ politics had changed. The first and second Black mayors had since been elected, and more than half of the City Council was African American, as well.
Continuing progress toward more diverse representation, not only did she become the first woman to earn a seat on the City Council in 1986, but she was chosen as council president the following year — a position she held until she reached her term limit in 1994.
Mardi Gras Legislation
Near the end of her time on the City Council — in 1992 — she authored an ordinance that would (for better or worse) become synonymous with her name long after she died in 2000. The ordinance insisted that all Mardi Gras krewes using city services to hold their parades must institute an open admission policy that didn’t discriminate against certain groups of people gaining membership.
To show that they were, in fact, discriminating, she held public hearings proving popular Mardi Gras krewes were not only keeping Black members from joining but also women, gays, Jews and Italians.
The debate grew extremely heated and Taylor was called a racist and berated on posters and shirts as “The Grinch who Stole Mardi Gras.” The effect of the ordinance was that several krewes — Momus, Comus and Proteus — said they would no longer parade in New Orleans. It’s worth noting, however, that some suggest the krewes were struggling to fund themselves for future parades anyway and may have used Taylor’s ordinance as a scapegoat. Though all three krewes said they would march in Jefferson Parish instead, none ever have, and Proteus actually adopted the new rules in 2005 and have since returned to parading in Orleans.
Decades later, some still view Taylor as damaging Carnival, but — in the opinion of many others — she bravely stood up and fought for a version that was more inclusive than ever. When Mardi Gras parades (hopefully, hopefully, hopefully!) return in 2022, we’ll be watching a Carnival that looks a lot more like the city in which we live than the season did back before Taylor was on the City Council.
But that’s just one of the many last effects of Taylor.
In 1993, for example, the City Council passed another ordinance that said any monument that “fosters ideologies which are in conflict with the requirements of equal protection” could be removed from public display. More than 20 years later, when our city’s Historic District Landmarks Commission voted to approve the removal of four statues — including one of Confederate General Robert E. Lee — it was those words they referenced as guidance.
Mardi Gras. Public spaces. Health care. Education. State and municipal political institutions. It’s hard to think of much in New Orleans that hasn’t progressed because of the bravery and enduring efforts of Dorothy Mae Taylor.
Matt Haines is a writer in New Orleans. He writes about New Orleans and a whole lot more, and you can find him on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter or his blog.