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The Scarlet Letter ‘R’: The unveiling of Katrina’s oldest survivor, Racism

August 30, 2015

by Tammy Marchand

Aug. 29, 2015, of this year marks the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina’s lethal brush with New Orleans. Although Katrina did not hit New Orleans head-on, the whip of her tail as she swept past the city’s southeastern perimeter caused a surge of wind and waves that only a head-on Category 3 could deliver.

Amongst the survivors of the storm is New Orleans’ oldest resident, Racism. The torrential storm winds blew the tattered skirt of New Orleans over her head, revealing her ugly birthmark, the Scarlet Letter “R,” the emblem of Racism.

Maj. Tracy Riley faces strong racist opposition to her Black business in the French Quarter, but she has a lot of support too.

Maj. Tracy Riley faces strong racist opposition to her Black business in the French Quarter, but she has a lot of support too.

It would be impossible to compile and render a true and thorough picture of racism in New Orleans or the state of Louisiana in one article. This article barely scratches the surface, but will help us to begin to identify the core of the very components of racism that preserves it.

At the core of racism is a three-tiered cast system imported from Haiti in the early 1800s with the arrival of the French, their Afro-Creole relatives and their African slaves fleeing from the Haitian Revolution. It is an unspoken, unchallenged, very protected and tabooed discussion that incites anger, embarrassment and denial by many Louisiana lovers. The credentials of the second tier have morphed and changed over the years, but their role in racism remains true to its origins.

In a nutshell, New Orleans has been recolonized by newcomers, pre-Katrina employables and the pre-Katrina “haves” who see Katrina as the opportunity to implement a “fresh start” on a “clean sheet.” Today, thousands of pre-Katrina residents, mostly African-Americans in the third tier of the Haitian cast system, cannot afford to return to their hometown. Pre-Katrina renters are outpriced by post-Katrina colonists who came bearing the wealth and resources needed to resuscitate the city.

A “fresh start” means employing a socially engineered recovery plan that makes it nearly impossible for many lower-income families to return. The unskilled and those who are not able to attend college often find themselves employed in activities that are housed in the foyer of modern slavery – the Louisiana prison labor system.

The lack of and inaccessibility to opportunities underpin crime and are necessary to the survival of the prison labor system. When there are no opportunities, some create opportunities within the existing industries while the severely under-skilled and disenfranchised resort to underground economies. According to a study conducted by the Data Center Research, the number of minority businesses in New Orleans was on a rise before and after Katrina, but minority-owned businesses were still substantially underrepresented both before and after the storm.

On many levels, a visit to the New Orleans French Quarter can be likened to time travel. The French Quarter is the face and footprint of the original city. The antiquity of the French Quarter goes further and deeper than just old buildings with historical placards. One would imagine that for Confederate enthusiasts, it would conjure up the notions of antebellum days.

Some folks, like Maj. Tracy Riley (retired), owner of the Rouge House, have recently learned that the antiquated mindset and hierarchical systems of the 1700s and antebellum days are still intact. Progress for African-Americans in the French Quarter comes with a glass ceiling that was installed at the arrival of the city’s first slaves in 1719, reinforced with Code Noir in 1724, and embellished with the hierarchical system that was imported from Haiti by French, Afro-Creole and African refugees of the Haitian Revolution.

Amongst the survivors of the storm is New Orleans’ oldest resident, Racism. The torrential storm winds blew the tattered skirt of New Orleans over her head, revealing her ugly birthmark, the Scarlet Letter “R,” the emblem of Racism.

For some New Orleanians, doing business in the French Quarter is “a privilege and not a right” that is bestowed by local kangaroo courts reigning above the laws of the land. The latest casualty of the French Quarter’s kangaroo court is retired, disabled veteran Maj. Tracy Moore-Riley. You be the judge.

An honorably discharged U.S. Army and Army Reserve veteran of 24 years, Maj. Riley returned to the home of her alma mater, Dillard University, to open a much needed venue for independent artists to have access to the many resources of the entertainment industry that they otherwise would not have. A wife of 18 years to fellow service member Maj. Dale Riley and mother of two, Maj. Tracy Riley decided to follow her dream of opening the next “Motown of the South” in the “Hollywood of the South,” New Orleans.

Like any eager entrepreneur entering the business arena, she did her homework. According to Mark Waller of NOLA.com, New Orleans attracted 9.28 million visitors in 2013 – the second-highest tourist count on record. An estimate of what all the visitors spent, however, showed an all-time high of $6.47 billion.

Tracy Riley

Tracy Riley

By locating her business near the heart of the tourism destination of the country, Maj. Riley was assured that her dream business would thrive, relying mostly on the sale of great food and alcohol. These profits would then be used to reinvest into the state-of-the art equipment and services required to train and polish some of the brightest unknown artists in Louisiana.

“I believe we are literally stepping over the next Michael Jackson, Elvis Presley or Aretha Franklin out here in the streets of New Orleans. I want to hear and enjoy their works and I plan to present these artists to the world,” says Maj. Riley.

In June of 2013, Maj. Riley secured prime property in the French Quarter for the Rouge House. The supper club was on the first floor and the upper floors were earmarked for a future recording studio and an internet radio station.

Ignoring local whispers that Black business owners are not welcome in the French Quarter, Maj. Riley continued to pursue her dream of creating opportunities for a disenfranchised population of New Orleans who lacked the platform and outlet to monetize their musical talents in a refined social setting. Maj. Riley had no idea that the Rouge House had become the ping-pong ball in the middle of a game between the landlord of 300 Decatur and some French Quarter residents and businesses.

Previous businesses at the same address seemingly operated like nightclubs. Most of these “night club-like” businesses appeared to be owned and operated by the landlord yet deemed shady by the French Quarter community, i.e., the French Quarter Business Management District (FQMD, a state agency), the Vieux Carre Property Owners, Residents and Associates (VCPORA), the French Quarter Business Association (FQBA) and some residents.

The previous businesses’ clientele were mostly Black and Brown locals. Apparently, the French Quarter community drew a direct correlation between the color of French Quarter patrons and crime. Despite Maj. Tracy Riley’s professional demeanor and exemplary military and corporate career, she and the Rouge House were racially profiled and categorized with previous establishments of the same address.

The Rouge House received a temporary license to operate from July 4 through July 7, 2013. During the time, Maj. Riley was unaware of local suspicions that the Rouge House was a front for the previous establishment, Voila.

Ignoring local whispers that Black business owners are not welcome in the French Quarter, Maj. Riley continued to pursue her dream of creating opportunities for a disenfranchised population of New Orleans who lacked the platform and outlet to monetize their musical talents in a refined social setting.

The Rouge House operated under a temporary license as a supper club during the Essence Festival to serve food and provide entertainment for Essence Festival crowds. Limited operations continued while waiting for the final permit needed, a Louisiana state liquor permit, to fully operate.

By Riley’s own admission, “During the first permit application period, alcohol was served based on information provided by a paid business consultant; we did not knowingly or intentionally break the law. I am a rules person. We are here to follow the rules.”

The patrons of the previous business at 300 Decatur Street resembled the Rouge House’s clients in color only. Voila attracted what some French Quarter community members would call unsavory clientele who, in their opinion, increased safety issues in the area. The sight of African-American hues at the same address was enough to alarm some businesses and residents into thinking that Voila had reopened. The City of New Orleans and other Vieux Carre organizations had successfully shut down Voila earlier in 2013.

On July 29, 2013, Maj. Riley invited French Quarter residents and businesses to a meet-and-greet at the Rouge House, where she presented her business plans. In spite of Maj. Riley’s open-house presentation, some French Quarter businesses and residents seemed overcome by cognitive dissonance and felt reassured that the Rouge House was just the reincarnation of Voila.

Maj. Tracy Riley in uniform

Maj. Tracy Riley in uniform

In an email to the French Quarter community, Robert Watters, then chairman of state agency FQMD, stated that the use of the Rouge House “is a deceptive way to describe the conduct of a nightclub at 300 Decatur.” This kangaroo court verdict was seconded by Carol Allen, then president of VCPORA, in an email reply to Robert Watters and the French Quarter community.

Following the meet-and-greet, the Rouge House became the target of 24-hour surveillance and surprise inspections from the Louisiana Alcohol and Tobacco Control office. On one occasion, Rouge House security approached a man and woman; the man was taking photos of the building.

Because of the constant surveillance of the Rouge House, Rouge House security asked if he could be of any assistance but was instead accosted with a racial epitaph: “Go away, n-gger! We don’t want you here!” The woman of that same couple later appeared at the Sept. 4 public hearing of French Quarter residents and businesses opposing the opening of the Rouge House.

Once Maj. Riley obtained the more difficult liquor license, the City of New Orleans liquor license, she hand-carried her state liquor permit application to the office of the Louisiana Alcohol and Tobacco Control (ATC) on Aug. 20, 2013. Since she was an active duty, transitioning warrior of the Ft. Polk, Louisiana, Warrior Transition Unit, Maj. Riley was dressed in her duty uniform, the Army Combat Uniform (ACU).

When she arrived at the ATC help desk, she was informed that her application had been red-flagged before she had the opportunity to apply. According to Louisiana Revised Statute Chapter 26, paragraph 87 A(3), opposition to an application is not submissible until after the liquor license application is actually submitted.

The opposition was filed on Aug. 19, one day before Maj. Riley attempted to submit her state liquor license application. The ATC office apparently placed the buggy before the horse by initiating an application file nestling red flags and roadblocks before the application was submitted.

The ATC help desk clerk informed her that she could not accept the application due to the preemptive hold and was unable to provide information on the opposition. Puzzled by these improvised policies, Maj. Riley left the ATC offices but was summoned back on the same day to drop off her application. Without any explanation or guidance in addressing the mysterious hold, Maj. Riley’s only alternative was to closely monitor the status of her state liquor application.

When she arrived at the ATC help desk, she was informed that her application had been red-flagged before she had the opportunity to apply.

Time was ticking and the Rouge House was losing revenue as each day passed without a liquor license. After several unsuccessful phone inquiries to the ATC and no return phone calls regarding the mysterious hold, Maj. Riley drove back to the ATC office on Aug. 28 to see if she could get some answers. Once again, she was on active duty and in her duty uniform.

The ATC commissioner’s secretary initially told Maj. Riley that she was unable to let her review the opposition because the person who had her application was on vacation. Refusing to believe that any state agency followed such outdated practices where her livelihood and income could be held hostage while the reviewer of her file was on a vacation, Maj. Riley insisted on getting a copy of the opposition immediately.

With persistence, Maj. Riley finally received a hard copy of the document containing the opposition and affidavits against the Rouge House. As she sat in the ATC office reading the 70 page opposition document from front to back, she realized that the opposition did not comply with Louisiana Revised Statute Title 26 guidelines.

Rouge House stage

Rouge House stage

In Maj. Riley’s summation, this was truly an economic lynching harnessed with unsubstantiated accusations. Immediately after filing a complaint at the governor’s office, Maj. Riley received a call from ATC agent Jeff Barthelemy requesting a meeting with Maj. Riley to discuss her questions about the Rouge House permit application.

When Maj. Riley returned to the ATC office to meet with Jeff Barthelemy, he proceeded to admonish her about her conduct and posture at the ATC office. In a reprimanding manner, he wanted to be sure that Maj. Riley clearly understood that a liquor license from the ATC was “a privilege and not a right” and strongly advised her on her posture and place when engaging with ATC employees. As if speaking in a coded language, he repeatedly asked Maj. Riley if she understood what he was saying.

At no time during the meeting did Agent Barthelemy address any of Maj. Riley’s questions about the opposition filed against the Rouge House and admitted that he would not be answering any of her questions. The meeting appeared more of an attempt to retaliate against Maj. Riley’s complaints to the governor’s office about the unprofessional conduct and dismissive responses that she received from the ATC office.

At the public hearing on Sept. 4, 2013, neighbors and business owners vocally reiterated concerns that the Rouge House was just another night club like Voila and not a supper club. Although the Rouge House was closed for regular business (but open for a few private parties) while waiting for a state liquor license, residents and businesses held the Rouge House responsible for disturbances beyond any business’s capacity: the noise generated by traffic and regular French Quarter activities and crowds that gathered on the sidewalks and streets from nearby businesses.

Some went on an unrelated tangent complaining about Maj. Riley wearing her U.S. Army uniform while conducting business at City Hall. Overstepping the scope of the hearing, photographs predating the Rouge House were supplied as opposition against the Rouge House. One resident rambled on and on about Voila, the previous business establishment, punishing the Rouge House for activities that anteceded its occupation of 300 Decatur.

In Maj. Riley’s summation, this was truly an economic lynching harnessed with unsubstantiated accusations.

On Sept. 11, 2013, Maj. Riley attended a closed hearing with Louisiana Alcohol and Tobacco Control Commissioner Troy Hebert and five to six ATC agents. Strangely enough, the meeting was held at the state police headquarters instead of the ATC offices.

Maj. Riley did not anticipate a hearing with ATC personnel who appeared to be armed. She alleged that Commissioner Hebert’s verbally abusive comments, the location of the meeting, and the presence of possibly armed ATC employees were intimidating and made her fear for her life.

In the days to come, Jeremy Deblieux, then president of the French Quarter Business Association (FQBA), wrote to Troy Hebert (ATC) in opposition to a Louisiana state liquor permit for Maj. Riley’s business. On Sept. 16, within only three hours of receipt of the FQBA request and without formal charges to substantiate the allegations, Commissioner Troy Hebert had Maj. Riley served with a letter officially denying her application for a state liquor permit.

On Dec. 5, 2013, Troy Hebert denied Maj. Riley’s business a state liquor permit a second time. The reasons listed appear to be identical to the first denial letter: handling alcohol without a permit and administrative reasons relating to lack of fingerprints and other minor errors. The average business undergoes two or three inspections within a two-year span.

The Rouge House

The Rouge House

With a strained budget, it was astounding that Commissioner Hebert expended limited resources on one business. Over the course of eight months, over 21 surprise inspections were conducted at the Rouge House. In each case, the Rouge House was within compliance.

In apparent retaliation to Maj. Riley’s complaint to the governor’s office, Troy Hebert wrote a letter to Maj. Riley’s Army commander, Maj. Gen. Peter Lennon, alleging that Maj. Riley was “consistently (using) her uniform and position as a tool to persuade state officials to issue her an alcohol beverage permit.”

Without as much as a proper investigation, Army commanders failed to properly investigate the matter and authorized Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ) Article 15 proceedings against Maj. Riley, a decorated officer of over 24 years with a stellar performance record. Troy Hebert’s letter was tethered with supporting testimonials from ATC employees. To read some of the testimonials and the accusations is to know that Maj. Riley was guilty of not abiding by Jim Crow etiquette.

The opening of the Rouge House proved to be a short course in Jim Crow etiquette for Maj. Tracy Riley. The sight of her in her Army combat uniform was not welcomed by some of the country’s most patriotic citizens from the French Quarter to the Louisiana ATC office in Baton Rouge.

Much like the attitudes of many Southern Whites and the KKK after World War II, some French Quarter business owners, residents and ATC employees expressed disdain at the sight of Maj. Tracy Riley dressed in a U.S. Army uniform while conducting business with the same tone and manners as any “privileged” person in a similar circumstance.

Standing at 5 feet, 9 inches tall and cloaked in a tempered couverture chocolate brown skin, a regal posture and a majestic air of confidence, Maj. Tracy Riley learned that some French Quarter businesses and residents were concerned that her business would attract more of her kind to the French Quarter, thus posing a threat to the safety of the area. Maj. Riley says that she even overhead one ATC employee laughingly comment that she (Maj. Riley) was “going all Army on me.”

The opening of the Rouge House proved to be a short course in Jim Crow etiquette for Maj. Tracy Riley.

In testimonies written by ATC staff and compiled by Commissioner Troy Hebert, an ATC employee complained about Maj. Riley’s posture and how Maj. Riley made her feel inferior and that she behaved as if she (Maj. Riley) were her superior. Another written testimony said that Maj. Riley spoke “sassily,” which is typically a term used when an adult or someone of authority refers to a child or someone lesser.

Maj. Tracy Riley unknowingly broke the holy grail of Jim Crow etiquette by daring to unknowingly assume the natural posture and stance of a “privileged” taxpaying citizen. Maj. Riley felt that she was being scorned for making the assumption that she was on equal footing with “privileged” taxpayers visiting the ATC office.

The bottom and the top of Maj. Riley’s trail to opening the Rouge House is guarded by gatekeepers who are facing current unrelated racial discrimination lawsuits. For Maj. Tracy Riley, their trends of racial discrimination serve as probable cause.

Three African-American ATC employees have filed racial discrimination lawsuits against Commissioner Hebert. Robert Watters, the then chairman of the FQMD and owner of Rick’s Cabaret in Louisiana and Texas, is facing multiple racial discrimination lawsuits. The grueling details of these racial discrimination lawsuits are hair-raising to say the least.

Metaphorically speaking, the writing was on the walls, read aloud to her, and signed with the Scarlet Letter “R.” Maj. Riley can only conclude that this is racially motivated. Her business was racially profiled by a French Quarter kangaroo court, subjected to uncensored retaliation from the ATC office, and she is still wrestling in court for justice.

Maj. Tracy Riley, like Sandra Bland, is guilty of breaking Jim Crow laws. She is guilty of trying to open a viable business in the French Quarter while being Black, guilty of unknowingly intimidating “special populations” by wearing her U.S. Army uniform on active duty while Black, guilty of breaking Jim Crow etiquette and sentenced to an economic lynching.

Tammy Marchand is a native New Orleanian. She is a human rights advocate against injustices and inequality both nationally and globally and can be reached at marchandstand@yahoo.com.

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4 thoughts on “The Scarlet Letter ‘R’: The unveiling of Katrina’s oldest survivor, Racism

  1. Antonio Means

    A very poignant and, fascinating view of current and ongoing Jim Crow activity in New Orleans. This article sheds great light on the ongoing racism in the South, in particular New Orleans. Apparently, "Jim Crow", is definitely alive, and doing quite well in the French Quarter. I wish Maj. Tracy Riley all the best and sincerely hope that she becomes successful in her business endeavors in the French Quarter. It is shameful in this day and age that Jim Crow is still flourishing. God Bless Maj. Tracy Riley and may God Bless America. Great article indeed. Amazing revelations regarding racism, and the still thriving Jim Crow activities in New Orleans.

    Reply
  2. MAJOR Tracy Riley (retired)

    Thank you SF Bay for publishing this story. I won’t stop until we have Justice for New Orleans citizens with similar dreams to pusue happiness but are opposed simply based on their race. This hate filled practice must end.-MAJ Riley (retired) “A Soldier never quits.”

    Reply

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