This Day in Jewish History 1803: Code Noir Ends, Blacks and Jews Begin Fight for Rights

Jews and blacks had both been oppressed by the French, but allying to fight for their rights would take time.

Steamboats on the Mississippi at New Orleans, a major trading hub for the entire south.Wikimedia Commons

On this day, October 20, 1803, the U.S. Senate ratified the Louisiana Purchase and ended Code Noir, a French decree instituted to govern slaves and free persons of color – which also outlawed Jews from all French colonies. The royal decree was unexplained, but the issues at stake were not primarily religious: some Dutch Jewish merchant families had been posing fierce competition to the French over lucrative West Indies trade routes.

The original Code Noir had been passed by King Louis XIV in 1685, to secure the sugar cane and slave trade in Haiti. A second version for Louisiana was issued by then 13-year-old King Louis XV in 1724, six years after France established New Orleans.

Unlike the original 13 colonies, which were largely Protestant and English in character, the Louisiana Territory was subject to French law and Catholic social norms. Code Noir was a legal framework and a religious one too, requiring all slaves to be baptized as Roman Catholics. 

Yet the Jews stayed

The explicit ban was laxly enforced, and some Jewish merchants continued to live and thrive in French Louisiana, chiefly in New Orleans, the territory's main city. Isaac Rodrigues Monsanto, a Dutch Jew who came to the city in 1757 and became a wealthy merchant, is considered to be the first Jewish New Orleanian.

The French left these Jewish merchants alone, but after France secretly ceded Louisiana to Spain in 1762, Monsanto for example was exiled and his property seized under the Spanish continuation of Code Noir – Código Negro.

Only 25 years after the ban ended, beginning in 1828, the founders of what would eventually become New Orleans' Touro Synagogue began to openly practice Judaism.

Attracted like everybody else by booming New Orleans' strategic location at the mouth of the Mississippi river, Jews remained a small percentage of the population but became prominent members of society. Several landmark institutions were founded by 19th century Jewish businessmen, including the New Orleans Museum of Art and Delgado Community College, Touro Hospital, the Isidore Newman School (a top prep-school) and Woldenberg Park. In 1853, New Orleans lawyer Judah Benjamin would become the country’s first Jewish senator and later serve as the Confederacy's secretary of state. Also in the 1850s, Louisiana elected a Jewish attorney general and lieutenant governor. Even the Krewe of Rex (the prestigious organization that organizes one of the Mardi Gras parades to this day) in 1872 was Jewish - although Jews would later be banned from participating in Krewes.

The KKK rises

Meanwhile, though Code Noir had ended, slavery was institutionalized under U.S. law in the Louisiana Territory, and New Orleans became a hub for slave trading.

Come the Civil War (1861-1865), the city’s merchant Jewish population largely favored the Confederacy, prompting Union General Ulysses Grant to issue General Order No. 11 in 1862, at the war’s height, expelling all Jews from Tennessee, Kentucky and Mississippi in an attempt to cut down on illegal cotton trade between the North and South – an unprecedented move in U.S. history.  (Not that they left, it seems.)

Grant revoked the order at Lincoln’s insistence in January 1863 (and went on to win the majority of the Jewish vote in the U.S. when he ran for president in 1868). But in the post-war period, anti-Semitism began to take root in the embittered South as the Ku Klux Klan arose and began targeting blacks, Catholics and - Jews.

A Ku Klux Klan night rally in Chicago, around 1920.Underwood & Underwood

Now New Orleans would become a focal point in the battle against "Jim Crow" – the racial caste system. A community of well-educated, often French-speaking free persons of color, a remnant of Code Noir’s focus on education for free blacks, organized to fight for civil rights.

As segregation became a national issue and more and more Jewish activists joined the cause, the KKK stepped up targeting of Jewish institutions throughout the South. From November 1957 through fall of 1958, Jewish buildings were bombed in Atlanta, Nashville, Jack­sonville, and Miami, and reports of rabbis receiving death threats became common.

That same year on February 14, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference formed, elected a 28-year-old preacher named Martin Luther King Jr. as its president, and in 1964, got the Civil Rights Act passed.