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'Economy Hall': Upcoming book covers free Black activists in 1800s New Orleans—including Catholics

Black Catholic history features in a new book from Fatima Shaik, a NOLA native who recently scoured the archives concerning a legendary mutual aid society.

"Economy Hall: The Hidden History of a Free Black Brotherhood" by journalist Fatima Shaik, due in March from The Historic New Orleans Collection, will cover a city undeniably chocolate and Catholic, but also coordinated and communal.

While the average American be well-aware of New Orleans’ strongly Catholic (and strongly Black) history, and of its extended period as a non-US territory, many may not be aware of the implications in an age of state-sanctioned slavery.

According to a press release for the book, between 1800 and 1840, "almost half of the Black population in New Orleans were free".

From the juxtaposition between this group and the enslaved Blacks emerged a mutual aid tradition that has up to now been only lightly covered in the literature.

Many free Black New Orleanians, Spanish citizens between the founding of the United States in 1803, were Catholic—including some of the founders of the oldest Black neighborhood in the country, Tremé, and the oldest Black Catholic church, St Augustine.

Both are featured in Shaik’s book, as is a radical White priest Fr Claude Paschal Maistre, one of the earliest pro-Black activist priests in US Catholic history. Maistre himself spearheaded multiple Black Catholic mutual aid societies.

Shaik’s book focuses on the Société d’Economie et d’Assistance Mutuelle (“Economy Hall”), an organization Maistre did not start but which supported him during his racist exile from the archdiocese.

The ledgers of the society’s longtime secretary, Ludger Boguille, were discovered by Shaik’s father in the 50s and form the basis for much of the book.

Notably, the society’s inauguration ceremony was presided over by the pastor of St Augustine—which, though founded around the same time by freedmen, was unique in that these better-to-do Black Catholics made a point to purchase pews specifically so that enslaved Blacks could also attend.

This model of Black Catholic benevolence colors the history of New Orleans as well as much of the upcoming tome, as according to Shaik, the mission of Economy Hall was “to help one another and teach one another while holding out a protective hand to suffering humanity.”

Especially in the current social and religious climate, it’s hard to argue with that.

Full press release

Nate Tinner-Williams is co-founder of Black Catholic Messenger, a priesthood applicant with the Josephites, and a ThM student w/ the Institute for Black Catholic Studies at Xavier University of Louisiana (XULA).

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