History

The Strange Career of Beautiful Crescent

How an old textbook lodged itself in the heart of New Orleans’ self-mythology.

A postcard painting of a Mardi Gras movie
Postcard, The Rex Float, Mardi Gras Carnival, New Orleans, La., between 1913–30. New York Public Library Digital Collections

The state of Louisiana hasn’t passed a law against teaching its history of racism, but not for lack of trying. Last year, state Rep. Ray Garofalo, chairman of the House Education Committee, had to drop his bill that would have banned such “divisive concepts” after flubbing its rollout by saying schoolteachers should address “the good, the bad, the ugly” of topics like slavery. When fellow Republican state Rep. Stephanie Hilferty noted that “there is no good to slavery,” Garofalo quickly agreed, but a viral video of his original remark provoked a national outcry. He lost his chairmanship in the backlash, but now, in a new legislative session in Baton Rouge, Garofalo is back with a bill similar to his last one, and to others across the country targeting so-called critical race theory.

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The history wars are playing out differently in New Orleans, where the names of enslavers and segregationists are being removed from school buildings, streets, and other public spaces. Yet, even as symbols of white supremacy come down, the false historical narrative they represent has proved difficult to root out. In fact, as I learned when I applied for a license to give guided tours, an unlikely arm of city government—the Ground Transportation Bureau—is still pushing it.

Prospective tour guides have to pass a history test, and the city’s website includes a link to buy its designated study guide, the 2002 edition of the book Beautiful Crescent: A History of New Orleans by Joan B. Garvey and Mary Lou Widmer, first published in 1982. The title was familiar—it was my eighth grade Louisiana studies textbook in 1994—but I didn’t remember it referring, as it does, to “dirty Indians,” or calling formerly enslaved people “human trash.” Rereading it recently, I was unsettled that I hadn’t been more scandalized by it as a kid.

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Lodged in the city’s bureaucracy all these years, Beautiful Crescent is a testament to the reach of history curricula beyond schoolhouse walls. Its version of the past, long on white beneficence and short on Black lives, has persisted with support from New Orleans’ multibillion dollar tourism industry, which has its own interest in avoiding “divisive” accounts of racism.

Four editions of Beautiful Crescent
Four editions of Beautiful Crescent: the 1988 edition (the author’s eight grade textbook in 1994), the 2002 edition (purchased to study for the tour guide test), the 2012 edition, and the 2017 edition.  Jordan Hirsch
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The book opens by romanticizing New Orleans’ French founders, who supposedly relied on “their own ingenuity” to settle in inhospitable swampland. In reality, they tapped the expertise of Indigenous people, whom Garvey and Widmer disregard. Due to “a shortage of unmarried women in the colony,” they write, Frenchmen “were forced to take Indian squaws as brides,” though the men were the ones forcing themselves on Native women.

The book proceeds to roll out a succession of national, ethnic, and religious stereotypes, including praise for the “warmth and gaiety” of the Spanish (who ruled Louisiana after the French) and spite for the Irish, who were “hot-tempered, hard-drinking and eager for a fight.” We’re told that Jews engaged in “aggressive business practices” and that other immigrants arriving in the 1800s were perpetrators of unspecified “political corruption and illegal voting.”

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Garvey and Widmer luxuriate in descriptions of the “plantation aristocracy” of 19th century New Orleans while mostly ignoring the enslaved people who generated its wealth. When the authors do address slavery, they invoke French and Spanish slaveholding laws—which were less severe than those in Anglo America—as evidence of New Orleans’ “European” broad-mindedness about race. It’s true that these laws offered some benefits to the enslaved, but bondage here was still brutal, and under American control the city became a hub of the domestic slave trade, not a sanctuary from it. Still, we find this description of Black people “‘sold down the river’ to New Orleans”:

For a slave, it was a better place to live than most other southern cities. They enjoyed the mixture of people, the excitement, the places of amusement (even for them, like the Place Congo, where they danced on Sunday afternoons). They liked shopping for their masters in the colorful markets and shops.

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Beautiful Crescent drops the pretense of continental sophistication when it turns to the “War Between the States.” The authors rail against the Unionists who took control of New Orleans in 1862 and refer to the ensuing years of Reconstruction—characterized by Radical Republican support for Black enfranchisement and desegregation—as “the darkest in the history of New Orleans.” When “the Confederate patriot” Francis T. Nicholls became governor in 1877, they write, “New Orleans was at last free again.” The book blows through the next century in fewer than 40 pages, with no mention of its persistent systemic racism.

Garvey and Widmer were born in New Orleans in 1929 and 1926, respectively, and both were members of the Louisiana Colonials, a heritage organization for people who can certify that their ancestors lived in the area during the French or Spanish period. Garvey was the great-granddaughter of the impresario who commissioned the city’s French Opera House. Widmer was active in the United States Daughters of 1812 and wrote historical romance novels as well as a “nostalgia series” of illustrated books about old New Orleans. That people of their generation and background wrote a volume like Beautiful Crescent is less remarkable than their success keeping it in print.

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Garvey and Widmer self-published their book in 1982, and public schools in Orleans Parish, which encompasses New Orleans, began assigning it right away. Garvey’s day jobs may have helped her cultivate this warm reception. She was an administrator and teacher in the city’s school system, and she also gave tours and trained tour guides. In the book’s acknowledgments, she and Widmer, who taught for 16 years herself, thank “our many school-teacher and tour-guide friends, who have so generously offered to help us promote our history of New Orleans.”

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In 1983 a French Quarter hotel hosted a kind of launch party for Beautiful Crescent, encouraging every guide in the city to sample it. The campaign worked. In the 1980s, local colleges and historical societies started using the book in their tour guide training classes. With student and guide purchasers boosting demand, it made the Times-Picayune’s list of the “hottest titles” of 1990, eight years after its debut.

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The local tourism industry held up Beautiful Crescent as a gold standard long after this. In 2012, the president of the Tour Guides Association of Greater New Orleans said it was “like the bible for tour guiding.” By then it was ensconced in the city’s Ground Transportation Bureau, which handles tour guide licenses, and had taken on authority for the general public. In 2018, the Times-Picayune cited it multiple times in a series of articles commemorating the city’s tricentennial.

The book has remained a bankable seller for decades. Garvey and Widmer printed 11 editions before putting the copyright up for sale in 2009. Widmer, who’d served as president of the South Louisiana chapter of Romance Writers of America, found a buyer at one of the organization’s meetings. Kathy Chappetta Spiess and her sister Karen Chappetta embraced “the responsibility of keeping this magnificent book … alive.” They took it to Pelican Publishing, a well-established regional press, where it has had four printings. (Pelican has since become an imprint of Arcadia Publishing.)

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For a new edition in 2012, Chappetta Spiess told me she and her sister “corrected the absolute wrongs” in the text while keeping a promise to Widmer to “stay true to the original work.” They replaced terms like “Negroes” and “Orientals,” and took out some overtly racist passages, but nearly all of the 2002 version remained, including the authors’ characterization of the Haitian Revolution—which overthrew slavery and established a republic—as proceeding from “a Voodoo ceremony of crazed dancing and the drinking of animal blood.”

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In the latest version, from 2017, Chapetta Spiess went further, removing more derogatory language and adding a section on recent history that addresses racial inequities in New Orleans. This edition hasn’t been easy to come by, though. Amazon still defaults to the 2012 version, and local bookstores took a while to stock the new edition. In any case, the story it tells from the city’s founding through the civil rights era is still Garvey and Widmer’s, where “the blacks” fear evil omens “because they so long adhered to the voodoo cult.”

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My eighth grade Louisiana studies class read in Beautiful Crescent that white New Orleanians “accepted” public school desegregation in the early 1960s. That claim could be quickly disproved by looking around our classroom, where the students were mostly Black, with minorities of Vietnamese American and white kids, including me. When I started school in the ’80s, most white families had already abandoned the city’s school system, leaving it about 90 percent Black.

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The history curriculum, however, remained whitewashed. Black students had no analogues in our textbook other than jazz musicians, and Black neighborhoods, where most of them lived, were erased altogether. After asserting that “there was no geographical segregation of Blacks and whites” in early New Orleans, Beautiful Crescent ignores the discrimination that sorted the metro area by race in the 20th century.

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A coalition of Black organizers began pressing the Orleans Parish School Board for new curricula in the late 1980s and by the early ’90s won some concessions, including the establishment of an Africana studies program to develop lessons on Black history, culture, and geography. The program’s director, Clyde Robertson, told me that every white principal in New Orleans resisted the new material. Even as Africana studies developed in the mid-’90s, schools continued assigning Beautiful Crescent. The text, which was added to the syllabus seemingly with no questions asked, would only be removed after years of sustained pressure.

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I recently asked a former classmate, a Black woman, about the book, and she recalled dismissing it outright because of its neglect of Black Creoles—the authors generally use the term Creole only in reference to white people. At 13 she had already learned to tune out narrators like Garvey and Widmer. I’m Jewish, but didn’t remember Beautiful Crescent’s antisemitism, probably because it posed no real threat; I imagine I laughed it off. I only questioned the book’s authority after my dad, a historian, saw me reading it and warned me it was no good. Even then I didn’t realize what it could represent to students of color.

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For white readers, Beautiful Crescent could be quite flattering. We learned that, thanks to the “unique attitude” of enslavers in New Orleans, an enslaved person was “enjoyed for his cuisine, his humor, and his many cultural aptitudes.” I may have rejected the idea that enjoying Black culture somehow excused white supremacy, but I definitely assumed—wrongly—that my white classmates’ enthusiasm for bounce rap was a sign of their political enlightenment. Rereading Garvey and Widmer, I recognized their tone from my adult life in New Orleans, where connoisseurship of and condescension to local Black culture regularly overlap. (It’s a long-standing feature of the racial order here: the ritual drumming and dancing of enslaved people in Congo Square was a major attraction for white spectators in the 19th century.)

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The last chapter of Beautiful Crescent pivots from descriptions of historical events to lists of nightclubs and restaurants. It’s an odd but revealing segue, exposing the preceding pages as a sales pitch to tourists. In the book Desire & Disaster in New Orleans: Tourism, Race, and Historical Memory, Lynnell L. Thomas describes how this “traditional tourism narrative” softened the realities of slavery and glossed over “the Reconstruction and civil rights eras and their bitter struggles for racial justice.” It’s a version of history that reflected the prevailing views of white New Orleans. Beautiful Crescent codified them in a tidy volume.

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Garvey, who co-owned a French Quarter gift shop with her husband, was one of countless New Orleanians with a personal stake in a market-friendly historical narrative. She and Widmer wrote Beautiful Crescent at a time when the city began leaning on tourism to prop up its economy, a dependency that has continued throughout the life of their book. As the authors enthuse in the 1993 edition, “Tourism continues to be the ‘rising star’ in our economic sky.” (The line referred to the recent opening of a casino boat called the Star, which, in the end, left town after a few months.)

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A postcard painting of a Mardi Gras parade
Postcard, Rex Pageant, Mardi Gras Day, New Orleans, La., Between 1898–1931.  New York Public Library Digital Collections
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The tourism market expanded in the 1980s and ’90s as Black advocates and businesses worked to attract more Black tourists. While demand grew for more inclusive accounts of the city’s history, they didn’t displace the old politics of Beautiful Crescent. Thomas describes the paradox of a new “multicultural tourism narrative,” which “highlighted the city’s black cultural contributions” even as it denied “black history and agency.”

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She finds it in a 2002 letter to visitors from Mayor Ray Nagin, who described jazz emerging from a deracinated “gumbo” of influences. While it’s true that Black and Afro Creole jazz pioneers drew from diverse traditions, their new style emerged around 1900 as tightening Jim Crow laws made their shared racial designation—“colored”—increasingly significant. Jazz itself can be seen as an assertion of artistic freedom in the face of anti-Black repression.

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In 2017, Mayor Mitch Landrieu used the same conceit in his nationally celebrated speech about removing Confederate monuments, saying that jazz “developed across the ages from different cultures.” He also called second lines—street parades with brass bands—“a product of our historic diversity,” but in reality, Black people created them through mutual aid organizations formed when they were denied service by white insurers. Even as Landrieu confronted symbols of white supremacy, he denied its role in the development of the city’s signature cultural practices, a stripping away of context that makes them easier to sell.

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Thomas argues that widespread acceptance of this narrative of multicultural harmony comes at a cost to the most vulnerable New Orleanians. She traces it through the government’s response to Hurricane Katrina, citing the ready flow of aid to tourism infrastructure like the Superdome while displaced families waited, often in vain, for the support they needed to reestablish themselves in the city.

The trend continued in the 2010s under Landrieu, now President Joe Biden’s infrastructure czar, who championed a makeover of streets and sidewalks in the French Quarter and a new streetcar line near the Superdome as the recovery lagged in flood-ravaged residential areas. He also supported lax regulations for short-term rental companies like Airbnb, allowing them to eat into the city’s already-depleted affordable housing stock. When vacationers began staying in historic Black neighborhoods—the source of the culture that attracted many of them—rising costs chased longtime residents.

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The post-Katrina gentrification of New Orleans makes Beautiful Crescent’s mythical past, where Black culture materializes apart from Black communities, look like a prophecy. The tourism industry has no complaints: Pre-COVID New Orleans was posting record numbers of visitors and visitor spending while housing nearly 95,000 fewer Black people than before the levees failed.

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This upheaval goes unmentioned in Landrieu’s 2018 memoir, In the Shadow of Statues, and in the 2012 edition of Beautiful Crescent. The latter includes a section about Katrina that celebrates the city’s “rise above disaster,” with assurances that New Orleans will rebuild “higher and stronger” than before. It’s the sort of boosterism that runs throughout Garvey and Widmer’s original—standard-issue for politicians and tourism boards, but damaging in a classroom. Garvey’s tour guide training course in the ’80s, for example, was billed as both preparation for the city’s licensing exam and a way for nonguides to become “informed citizens.” But her gauzy brand of history obscured the issues most in need of civic attention and encouraged residents to relate to our home touristically, as passive observers and consumers of culture.

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In this regard, Beautiful Crescent was far from alone. In Authentic New Orleans: Tourism, Culture, and Race in the Big Easy, Kevin Fox Gotham writes that, in the 1960s and ’70s,

the Greater New Orleans Tourist and Convention Commission worked to convince residents that “the development of tourism was really being done on their behalf and, more important, that tourism was constitutive of civic life and local authenticity.” By the time I was assigned Beautiful Crescent as a young teenager, I’d been inundated with media celebrating New Orleans as a world apart, a place that transcended the vulgar mores of mainstream America. It was a gratifying self-image. The tourism narrative appointed white locals stewards of New Orleans’ cultural riches, and took us off the hook for dismantling the city’s structural racism.

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In 2011 the Landrieu administration began enforcing a long-ignored city ordinance requiring prospective tour guide licensees to pay for a background check, be fingerprinted, and, if they operated a vehicle, pass a drug test every two years. While some guides welcomed the professional standards, four sued the city, joining a national movement to strike down what they considered onerous occupational licensing requirements. The case went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.

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The city claimed that its licensing requirements, including the test for which Beautiful Crescent was the study aid, ensured that tour guides were knowledgeable enough to “provide a consistent standard of information” to visitors. The plaintiffs said that the ordinance violated their First Amendment right to talk for a living. The city responded by noting that it didn’t regulate the content of tours, even if it was “historically inaccurate.” The administration’s argument won—the ordinance was upheld—but also made clear that the city wasn’t advocating for a truthful narrative so much as an agreeable experience for tourists. As a federal judge wrote, its goal was to “[protect] the city’s tourism industry” by “weeding out” “faux tour guides who are really ‘panhandlers.’ ”

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In a waiting room on the morning I took the licensing test, several people thumbed copies of Beautiful Crescent. A woman next to me had the 2002 edition, guessing, like I had, that since it was the resource linked on the city’s website, the test questions would be derived from it. They weren’t, at least not directly, and many didn’t come from the later editions, either.

Much of the test was about local architecture (not detailed by Garvey and Widmer), the current location of businesses in the French Quarter, and the regulations around giving tours. It dealt with history, too, though a question asking the year of the Battle of New Orleans didn’t include the right answer among the choices, and there were no questions indicating that a base knowledge of Black New Orleans would be required to get a license. Beautiful Crescent’s function seemed to be to familiarize people with tidbits of 18th- and 19th-century political history.

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The exam was overhauled in 2019 by Wesley Pfeiffer, then deputy director of the Ground Transportation Bureau, using questions from tests given in tour guide training courses at Loyola University and Delgado Community College, which list Beautiful Crescent as recommended reading. Pfeiffer told me that the book had been the city’s study aid for as long as anyone in the office could remember, so he kept it in place. He said he’d never read it or heard any complaints about it.

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Some tour guides rejected the book but didn’t share that with the Ground Transportation Bureau. One, Robin McDowell, called it out in the magazine Antigravity in 2016. Another, Dennis Morgan, told me he saw Beautiful Crescent and the rest of the city’s permitting process as hurdles to clear so he could share an alternate narrative with tourists. He’s one of several Black guides who took stock of the disproportionately white industry and started their own companies. Morgan felt the city “wanted to restrict how you present New Orleans,” so when he got licensed to drive a tour bus he didn’t tell anyone that his outfit, 2nd Line Tours, would focus on issues like urban slavery and the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

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Every guide I talked to read Beautiful Crescent dutifully, expecting to be tested on it, and many pulled material from it for their tours. Fortunately, they also consulted other sources, and several had read widely. One reserved the term Creole only for white people, but they otherwise avoided factual errors and stereotypes. When I went on some tours in 2020 and 2021, I felt the influence of the old narrative mainly in what went unsaid. A guide in the Garden District spent hours on the architecture of antebellum mansions, while barely mentioning slavery. There was hardly any discussion of the past 100 years on any tour I took—no segregation, no civil rights movement, and no grappling with the displacement of Black residents after Katrina.

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The 2017 edition of Beautiful Crescent made strides on this front, replacing its 2012 paean to post-Katrina resilience with a fuller account of governmental misdeeds and racial inequity. Chappetta Spiess told me the changes came from research she did after her day job working on behalf of Black-owned businesses exposed her to racial bias. Her explanation made me think of Landrieu, who credited his awakening on Confederate monuments to a conversation with jazz luminary Wynton Marsalis. Like Chappetta Spiess, he had a personal experience that seemed to widen his perspective without changing its frame. Reorienting the larger historical narratives they promote, as the activists challenging my school curriculum knew, will be a long-term project.

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The Solomon Northup marker
The Solomon Northup marker, seen in 2022.  Jordan Hirsch
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Meanwhile, as the public attention paid to the history of slavery and racism has increased in the past few years, more tour guides and visitors have been willing to do that work. In 2017 the Afro-Louisiana Historical and Genealogical Society put up a marker where Solomon Northup, author of Twelve Years a Slave, was held after being kidnapped into bondage—the first in the area to accurately address New Orleans’ role in the domestic slave trade. I lived nearby and saw some white guides make it a tour stop. Passing locals sometimes read the marker and then gazed up Esplanade Avenue, as if taking a new measure of its oak trees and mansions. In 2018 more markers went up, and the city’s Tricentennial Commission put together a tour about slavery.

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This trend came to a halt along with the rest of the tourism industry when the pandemic hit. As business rebounds, many tour guides are trying to adjust to the political climate without alienating customers—one mule carriage driver asked my permission to bring up slavery when I rode with him as a tourist. A guide who relies on tips to pay the rent is still likely to earn more by discussing French Quarter architecture than by delving into the forced labor that built it.

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For years the most popular depictions of slavery in the industry have been “haunted” history tours, which throng the LaLaurie Mansion in the French Quarter every night. The woman of the house, a socialite in the 1830s, tortured and killed people she’d enslaved there. Tour guides disinclined to talk about systemic racial violence recount the gory details of that episode and spin stories about ghosts haunting the mansion. In the telling, enslaved people evaporate into the kind of phantasmagoric atmosphere many tourists want to find here.

In 2020, when I told Pfeiffer at the Ground Transportation Bureau what was in Beautiful Crescent, he said he would “expedite” its replacement, but left the position without doing so. Now the department is revisiting its tour guide regulations, but Beautiful Crescent and the history test aren’t on the agenda. (It has, though, proposed suspending the licenses of tour guides who get arrested for anything, before a judgment is rendered in the matter.) Forty years after Garvey and Widmer finagled their book into school curricula, it remains the city’s study guide of choice.

Educators in New Orleans have stopped teaching Beautiful Crescent, though it remains to be seen what they’ll do if the state criminalizes lessons about structural racism. No matter what happens in the legislature, to tell the truth about New Orleans’ past, we’ll have to reckon with how we sell it, to tourists and ourselves.

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