Edwin Buggage Editor-in-Chief
New Orleans is a City with a rich history relating to the fight for Civil and Human Rights. While some know the stories of Plessy v. Ferguson or the recent re-naming of Jefferson Davis Parkway to Norman C. Francis that honors the life and legacy of Dr. Norman C. Francis.
Today, as the City is working to re-writing the history to reflect a more accurate picture of New Orleans; many of those who have shaped history both locally and nationally are still living among us. They are filled with stories that are enthralling, educational and inspirational.
In part 3 of our series Re-writing the History, we spoke to Civic and Business Leader Don Hubbard. As some know these names, we had the opportunity to speak with him about his life and legacy as a history making New Orleanians.
The Journey to Justice: Coming Full Circle
St. Charles Avenue is a major thoroughfare, where the historic streetcar passes and where families gather for Mardi Gras parades. On this street there are a mix of businesses both large and small and beautiful homes, but only a few owned by African Americans. Near Louisiana Avenue is the Hubbard Mansion, a bed and breakfast owned by Civic and Business leader Don Hubbard, who started it as a gift to his late wife Rose who wanted it as a retirement business.
His journey is one that’s taken him in some ways full circle to the neighborhood he grew up in and where his spirit of activism began.
“Activism was always part of my life; my family was involved in the NAACP and also a political organization uptown called the OPPVL – Orleans Parish Progressive Voters League headed up by Rev. A.L. Davis. It was natural to do some things different,” recounts Hubbard.
Speaking of the instance where his 5 year old, self-recognized, that racial difference existed on a streetcar ride that’s near where he lives today says, “I remember we didn’t have a car and we caught the bus or streetcar and we usually caught the Louisiana to the Freret bus down to Canal Street; but my mother decided to give me another experience and we walked down to catch the St. Charles Streetcar and we were sitting on the back of it while some White kids were on the front playing. And I told my mother I wanted to go sit up there and my mother said no let’s sit back here. I am five years old, I said no I want to sit up there and asked why couldn’t I? And later my mother said something to me that resonates in my head today, ‘their waiting for you to change it.’ I didn’t realize what that meant until high school, basically it meant when there was something you didn’t like that you did not need a crowd, you gotta change it. That was my beginning of getting involved with CORE (The Congress of Racial Equality).”
This led Hubbard in the 1960’s to help lead efforts to desegregate the City of New Orleans and to combat police abuses. In 1963 he helped organized a civil rights march on City Hall and was a key leader in the activities that led to the integration of lunch counters, restaurants, department store fitting rooms, and other public accommodations, by their efforts through boycotts against stores on Canal Street like Woolworth’s and McCrory’s lunch counter, the Loews Theater, and other entities.
From New York to Mississippi: The Longest Ride of My Life
Many know of the story of Schwerner, Chaney and Goodman; the three young Civil Rights workers who were killed in Philadelphia, Mississippi during Freedom Summer by members of the Ku Klux Klan in 1964. This story was also the basis of the 1988 film Mississippi Burning.
Mr. Hubbard who has told this story many times again recounts how as a member of CORE, he drove the car filled with fliers, t-shirts, and other information. This promoted voting that the young workers were killed in from New York and how it could have been him that lost his life.
Recalling those tumultuous and uncertain times he says, “CORE meeting everyone at the meeting like Lena Horne and Brock Peters people I’d seen on TV and heard of but didn’t know. Rudy Lombard who introduced me to CORE and we’d been doing some work getting people registered to vote in Mississippi and we couldn’t move around.”
“So, Rudy Lombard talked to Lena Horne about helping us get transportation we could use in the Mississippi Summer Project. Lena Horne arranged with a car dealership for us to have a Ford Station Wagon, and Rudy said you have to bring it down there. I went and they loaded the car up with freedom now flyers and hiding it with a sheet. I thought I could do it in a day. I got up and began driving in what I call the longest ride of my life.”
“I was in Mississippi and couldn’t take a nap and there was a young White boy in an Air Force Uniform thumbing a ride. I offered him a ride if he would drive and I got in the back seat and went to sleep. He probably saved my life because here I am driving a brand-new car full of CORE Material with a temporary New York license plate on it.”
The Politics of SOUL (The Southern Organization for Unified Leadership)
SOUL have become a political force, that’s over the years worked to get people elected who would serve to better the lives of Black New Orleanians. Today, it is still as viable and relevant as it was when it started as the City continues to face new challenges.
“When I moved to New Orleans East my street was the only two streets that were paved by the Gentilly East Development Association. We brought a diverse group of people together. Black political ballots organized by neighborhoods that everybody should get something. It was King Wells from Pontchartrain Park who said since we are bringing everybody together why we don’t call it The Southern Organization for Unified Leadership that meant everybody had a seat at the table.”
The Fight Business and Being the Greatest
As a fighter for Civil Rights, Hubbard became a force in business and entered into arenas, even when it was something, he’d never done before he would not be deterred. This was on full display as Hubbard, who’d never promoted a fight, along with Sherman Copelin brought the Muhammad Ali vs. Leon Spinks rematch to New Orleans in 1978; that at the time earned nearly 5 million dollars at the box office. An estimated 90 million viewers watched the main event in the U.S. and estimated to have been watched by a record 2 billion viewers in 80 countries.
“I remember telling Boxing Promoter and Manager Butch Lewis the rematch should be in New Orleans and I should promote it,” he says with a laugh. They laughed and said you come to one fight and now you want to be a promoter. Eventually, I got a meeting with Ali and went to Chicago and I spoke with Ali and said to him they are trying to have this fight in South Africa; how can you do that while Mandela is still in jail. I said I want to bring the fight down to New Orleans. My company operated the Superdome, and we came to a deal.
Knowing he would face challenges to make it happen he says:
“They asked me for a 50,000 guarantee on the date and I had 72 hours to raise the rest of the money. I came home and told my wife we are in the fight business. I knew how to promote because as a kid I learned from Pops Staples, I grew up with his kids as teenagers and I’d dealt with Dionne Warrick. And Sam Cooke and I were close friends.”
Lauding his accomplishment in an Ali like voice he says, “I am the world’s greatest boxing promoter because I started at the top, I started with Ali and he gave me a ring commemorating it. According to the local Chamber of Commerce that fight put the Superdome on the map.”
Black Excellence and the Future of Civil Rights
As he looks around and see the work of young people in the Black Lives Matter Movement, he is inspired and optimistic about the future of the struggle for Civil Rights.
“I see these young people and they are out there fighting for what’s right. They see something and they aren’t waiting, they are taking the mantle of activism and changing it. That is something I am encouraged by, seeing the next generation continuing to fight for justice.”
Seeing a changing world where Black Excellence is no longer in the shadows but on full display, Hubbard says that greatness was always there and was the inspiration for how he’s led his life, one of courage and with a yes, I can attitude.
“Growing up all my heroes were Black, so I knew that if we were given a chance, we could show the world that we could compete on any level.”