5 Women Who Shaped New Orleans
New Orleans is a city of so much history, and we’re proud to say that women had a large impact on that history.
In honor of International Women’s Day and Women’s History Month, we’re shining the brightest spotlight on some of New Orleans’ most influential women – and their impact on our city.
Ruby Bridges was the first African American student to integrate an elementary school in the South. That elementary school was William Frantz Elementary School, located in New Orleans.
Bridges was born the same year that Brown v. The Board of Education ruled to end racial segregation in public schools. However, the ruling was not immediately enacted.
School districts created entrance exams meant to deter non-white students, and Bridges was one of five students who passed that entrance exam and was allowed to attend a previously all-white public school.
In her first year at William Frantz Elementary School, Bridges ate lunch alone and held her own against screaming crowds and racial slurs, never missing a day of school. Bridges also attended her classes alone, as only one teacher was willing to teach her: Ms. Barbara Henry.
Bridges’ family suffered as well, facing evictions, job losses, and difficulties shopping, as many stores refused to serve them.
Despite it all, Bridges graduated high school and went on to more success, writing two books and becoming a lifelong activist for racial equality..
In 1999, she established the Ruby Bridges Foundation to continue the fight to end racism.
Today, Ruby lives in New Orleans with her husband Malcolm and continues to be known as a leader in public school desegregation.
Baroness Micaela Almonester Pontalba
Born an aristocrat, the Baroness Pontalba spent her life between New Orleans and France.
During her time in New Orleans, Pontalba used her inheritance to design the Pontalba Buildings, the iconic structures that flank Jackson Square.
Following her design and construction of the Pontalba Buildings, she inspired the city of New Orleans to make improvements to Jackson Square, including renovations to St. Louis Cathedral, additions to the Cabildo and Presbytere, and the installation of the statue of Andrew Jackson that resides in Jackson Square today.
Pontalba was also instrumental in the renaming of Jackson Square (originally called the Place d’Armes).
Though not an architect, many consider Pontalba to be one due to her vision for the French Quarter and her impact on Jackson Square and the surrounding area.
Leah Chase is fondly remembered as the Queen of Creole Cuisine. She is the founder of Dooky Chase restaurant, the first upscale restaurant in New Orleans where African Americans could gather.
As such, Dooky Chase became a gathering place for leaders of the Civil Rights Movement, including A.P. Tureaud, Ernest Morial, Oretha Castle Haley, Martin Luther King, Jr., the Freedom Riders, and many more.
Dooky Chase was a hub for planning pivotal events such as the Montgomery Bus Boycott and hosting voter registration campaigns to draw in African American voters.
Her restaurant was also home to Chase’s extensive African-American art collection, supporting local musicians and artists alike.
In addition to being a prominent and influential member of the African American community in New Orleans, Chase served on the boards of the Arts Council of New Orleans, the New Orleans Museum of Art, the Urban League of Greater New Orleans, the Greater New Orleans Foundation, and the Louisiana Children’s Museum.
Chase is also the inspiration for Tiana in Disney’s The Princess and the Frog.
Today her restaurant serves the finest creole cuisine in the city, and her legacy lives on in the Chase Family Foundation, which supports and cultivates “historically disenfranchised organizations by making significant contributions to education, creative and culinary arts, and social justice”.
Sophie B. Wright
Sophie B. Wright began a life devoted to education when she was just 14, opening a school for girls in a spare room of her family’s home.
Wright moved on to operate a boarding school for girls called the Home Institute, along with a free night school for working men and boys.
She later helped open a facility for disabled children called the Home for Incurables, along with a retreat for underprivileged women and children called the Rest Awhile.
Today a monument honoring her work for education stands on Magazine Street.
Margaret Haughery came from a tragic beginning but ended her life as a well-known New Orleans philanthropist.
Haughery was born into poverty in Ireland and moved to the states with her family at five years old. By nine years old, she was an orphan. At twenty-one, she married and moved to New Orleans. By twenty-three, her husband and child had both passed away.
Haughery then began to work as a laundress, donating her extra wages to the Sisters of Charity who ran the Poydras Orphan Asylum.
She later worked for the Sisters of Charity, saving money to start a dairy and purchase a bakery, which she then used to help finance the construction of St. Elizabeth’s Asylum, St. Teresa’s Asylum, and St. Vincent’s Asylum, all orphanages.
Haughery became known as the “mother of orphans”, having devoted her life to feeding and caring for the hungry and abandoned.
Upon her death, Haughery left her entire fortune to charity, and today, a monument to Haughery stands at Camp and Prytania.
And So Many More
There are so many more influential women who had an impact on the city of New Orleans. Take some time this month to read more about them and their legacies!