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Paul Trévigne: From L'Union to Plessy v. Ferguson

Each week, historian Sean Michael Chick will highlight some of the country's unsung heroes during the Civil War era who could serve as positive replacements following the takedown of New Orleans' Confederate monuments. This week, learn about the South's first black newspaper editor, Paul Trévigne.


Paul Trévigne was the first black newspaper editor in the South, and a radical voice for liberty and equality in the 1800s. He was born in 1825 to a fairly wealthy family. His father was a veteran of the Battle of New Orleans. He was biracial and a Creole and part of free people of color community. Like many with a middle class background, he was raised in the Faubourg Marigny on the corner of Rampart and St. Anthony.


In the years leading up to the Civil War, the community was divided. Many were well to do and even owned slaves, including the famous Marie Laveau. This group found itself increasingly being squeezed out by the South’s growing adherence to slavery as a “positive good.” This group lamented the days of Spanish rule, when avenues to freedom were open. In 1803, 32 percent of New Orleans was made up of free people of color. The number peaked at 44 percent in 1810, but by 1860 it hovered at around just 8 percent. 


Trévigne taught at the Catholic Indigent Orphan School, the first school in America to offer a free education to black children. He taught for nearly forty years, his specialty being language. His other calling was political action. Shortly after the Union captured the city in 1862 Trévigne and Dr. Louis Charles Roudanez founded the first black newspaper in the South: L'Union (The Union). The newspaper was mostly in French and targeted the Creole free people of color. Some issues were also run in English, meant for the generally poorer and more Protestant English speaking free people of color.


Trévigne argued for the freeing of all slaves in the south, and issued some of the earliest calls for full political equality for blacks of all classes. In the paper’s first editorial, on April 30, 1862, Trévigne declared, “We proclaim the Declaration of Independence as the basis of our platform.” He added, “You who aspire to establish true republicanism, democracy without shackles, gather around us and contribute your grain of sand to the construction of the Temple of Liberty!”


L'Union increased Creole free people of color support for the Union, aided in the recruitment of black soldiers, and pushed the Republicans towards greater expansion of black rights. L'Union folded on July 19, 1864 and was replaced with a true bilingual newspaper, La Tribune de la Nouvelle-Orléans (The New Orleans Tribune). Trévigne edited that paper until 1869.


Trévigne’s incendiary style made him many enemies, and over time he resorted more to satire and humor. In keeping with his French background and literary tastes, Trévigne used the style of Voltaire, Rousseau, Montesquieu, and Pascal. Trévigne argued that the blacks of Louisiana deserved equal rights and could, if they stayed together, form a powerful political bloc. Yet, as time went on the Democrats took control of the state government. Trévigne survived in part through government jobs, given in large part due to his steadfast loyalty to the Republican Party. In 1889 he was listed as “unspecified clerk” but he received $800 a year.


Trévigne and his son, Paul Jr., took on the school board in several court cases in the 1870s. Although aging, Trévigne tried to fight segregation, writing for the Crusader. Like many Creoles, he pointed out the impracticality of excluding people based on skin color when many were fair-skinned, and therefore difficult to differentiate. Trévigne though was not directly involved in the court case that became Plessy v. Ferguson although many of his friends were. He died in 1908 and was buried in St. Louis Cemetery No. 2.


In the early 2000s the schools of New Orleans were renamed. Local white notables such as Francis T. Nicholls and Charles Gayarré were replaced with the likes of Frederick Douglass (yes, he spelled his name that way), Harriet Tubman, Benjamin Banker, and others. Local black notables were forgotten in this process. Paul Trévigne, himself a teacher and education reformer, has no school named for him. There is nothing that honors the first black newspaper editor of the South.


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