Naomi Drake and her control of the
Racial Classifications in Louisiana
In the very valuable but little publicized
book, 'White' by "Definition": Social
Classification in Creole Louisiana
(written) by Virginia R. Dominguez
(Rutgers University Press, 1986),
----- it explains how secret files were held in the
state government of Louisiana and kept on `White'
families of Mixed-Race lineage or who were at
least "suspected" having some part-"black" ancestry.
In 1938, in Sunseri v, Cassagne
(191 La.209, 185 So.1 - affirmed on
rehearing in 1940, 195 La.19, 196 So.7) -
the Louisiana Supreme Court proclaimed
"traceability of African ancestry" to be
"the only requirement" for definition
of 'Colored' (i.e. 'Mixed-Race').
In 1949, Naomi Drake assumed the post of
Supervisor and Deputy Registrar of Vital
Statistics at the Louisiana Bureau of Vital
Statistics, and she figures prominently in the
cases filed against the Bureau through the mid-1960s.
Armed with the traceability criterion established
by the court in 1938, she followed the practice
of race-flagging, pulling out a birth certificate
that lists a baby as 'White'-- but bears
a name common to "Coloreds".
Such birth certificates are checked against a
"Race List" maintained by the Vital Records Office.
If the name appeared on the "Race List," then a further study of
genealogical records maintained by the Vital Records Office
was conducted (a description given to the New Orleans States
Item, June 5-16, 1978, by a Dr. Doris Thompson who had been
Assistant Secretary of the State Department of Health and
Human Resources, of which the Bureau is a part). pp. 37-38
If the Bureau determined through study of its genealogical records
that the person in question had "any" African ancestors, the
applicant was then informed that a certificate would be issued
only if it declared the person to be "Colored" [i.e. Mixed-Race]
If the applicant refused to accept such a certificate,
the Bureau in turn refused to issue a certificate.
There is evidence that between 1960 and 1965 a minimum of
4,700 applications for certificated copies of birth certificates
and a minimum of 1,100 applications for death certificates
were held in abeyance by the Bureau under the
supervision of Naomi Drake (188 So. 2nd 94) ...
Individuals petitioned the courts to force the Bureau to
change the racial labels that appeared on the birth
or death certificates of members of their families.
They presented evidence that purported to prove that these
people were `White' -- despite the imputations of the
Bureau self-described / appointed "genealogists".
In each case, the Bureau questioned the authenticity
of much of the evidence adduced, or the nature of
the evidence introduced during the proceedings.
Plaintiff's job was to dispute the authenticity of
the document(s), prove that (s)he was the child of
a different marriage or of a sexual union resulting
from a parent's remarriage or concubinage, or
dispute the meaning of the specific social label that
"in the eyes of the Bureau" implied 'Negro' ancestry.p. 44
NAOMI DRAKE'S POWERFUL RACIAL WHIM:
Naomi Drake and Race Changes in the Vital Stats
Office of the Orleans Parish in the state of Louisiana
In a society in which few `White' people could imagine anything
worse than being called "black", Naomi Drake wielded the weapon
of racism with the ardor of an armed knight defending her king.
During 16 years as the head of the Bureau of Vital Statistics
for New Orleans, Drake made it clear that there was
nothing worse in the world than to allow a person
to live as `White' who did not "deserve" to do so.
She lorded over the birth and death records of
generations of New Orleanians, and unilaterally
changed the race of thousands of them from `White'
to "black "---- almost never the other way around.
When she was finally fired in 1965, Drake was feared
and reviled - by parents who could not get birth
certificates to put their children in public schools,
by lawyers who could not do research or complete
wills, by adoption agencies and funeral homes.
But the source of her power and reputation
says more about racism in New Orleans
than it did about her peculiar habits of mind.
She was able to wield such power because of racism's sway.
No matter what they looked like, who they were or
how they had lived, `White' people knew that to be
touched by any hint of "blackness" was to be "tainted"
(`stigmatized' by the sting of their own racial prejudices).
That is what made people fear Naomi Drake.
The Civil Service Commission agreed to delete the names of
any witnesses from its final decision upholding Drake's firing.
That was to save the witnesses the embarrassment of having
been suspected as being "black", however inaccurately.
If Drake thought there was the slightest hint that someone who
lived as a `White' person might have "any" African ancestry,
----- she would not issue a birth or death certificate.
At the time of her firing for her refusal to issue certificates,
the backlog of birth certificates had mounted to 4,700.
Almost 1,200 death certificates had been held up.
And if she could prove African ancestry --- however distant
-- she would change a person's Race in the official records
of the City of New Orleans, usually without notifying the
person affected or any of the person's family members.
According to testimony at her hearing, she once reportedly
said, "All the people in White Castle are half-breeds".
She would ferret out signs of African ancestry in children of
unmarried mothers, call them in to her office and inform them
that their children were "adulterous bastards," testimony showed.
Drake, who died in 1987, ordered her employees to
pull every certificate in the office designated by race
with the letter "C" - which usually meant `Mixed race',
[a.k.a. 'Colored'] but also sometimes meant Chinese
or something else ----- and change the race on such
documents to 'N' or `Negro' [i.e. `Mono'-racially Black]
She kept a list of "flagged names," that she believed were
suspect, and should be checked for signs of African ancestry.
Any request for a certificate of a person with a
flagged name had to be held up for further research.
The list included such names as
Adams, Charles, Landry and Olsen.
She explained how she could tell when someone's
birth certificate was wrong at her dismissal hearing
before the Civil Service Commission:
"Very often we are acquainted with the name,"
"We know them to be the names of 'Negro' families."
She had her workers scour the obituaries of people who had
died, looking for any clues that a dead person identified as
`White' had "black" relatives or survivors, such as services at a
traditionally "black" funeral home, relatives with traditionally
"black" names or burial at traditionally "black" cemeteries.
Her research was instrumental in a decision by the Orleans Parish
district attorney's office in 1956 to obtain an indictment against a
Plaquemines Parish woman on charges of filing a false document.
The woman's crime:
She considered herself [to be] `White' and had
recorded that on the birth certificate for her child.
The woman was eventually acquitted, but only after being
asked a series of questions designed to attach to her any
"blackness" at all, including whether her doctor treated
her as a "black" person or a `White' person, and
where her husband's sister's children attended school.
When Drake was fired, few people were happier
to see her go than Peter Huhner, father of five.
Huhner had tried to get birth certificates for his children.
But Drake suspected Huhner's wife had African
ancestry, and so refused to release the certificates.
After months of battling Drake unsuccessfully,
Huhner finally put his children in parochial school.
But what Huhner was most concerned about, according to
his letter to city officials after Drake's dismissal, was not
the burden of private school tuition or the denial of a
public education, but that his family had been besmirched.
"We find it difficult to understand how my wife's parents were
registered as being `White' as were their parents," Huhner wrote.
"And after being brought up that way, after all these years,
someone that does not even know the family at all has reason to
believe differently and would cause this much embarrassment."
was fired [from the
Bureau of Vital Statistics] in 1965.
She refused to issue 4,700 birth certificates
----- most of them because she suspected `
White' babies of having African ancestry.
When Bureau of Vital Statistics Director Naomi Drake
decided someone had African ancestry, she would simply
cross out 'W' ('White'), in this case on a death certificate,
and write in 'N' ('Negro' [i.e. `Mono'-racially Black] )
often without telling the families of her decision.
The fact is, however, that the practice of race-flagging
and withholding certificates actually continued long
after Naomi Drake's departure from her post.
We have no way of estimating the number of applications
for birth or death certificates withheld since the mid-sixties
(this information is now considered confidential and is carefully
guarded by clerks and Bureaucrats), but other indices are telling.
Twelve mandamus proceedings against the Bureau
have been initiated since Drake's official departure.
Also on May 26, 1977, Wayne Parker, at the time
Registrar of Vital Statistics, admitted in an interview
that in 1977 the Bureau employed two full-time clerk
investigators to handle only cases concerned with
racial designation, and that the Bureau spent some
six thousand man-hours in 1976 exclusively on race cases.
Parker estimated that between sixty and a hundred surnames
were regularly flagged by the Bureau and checked in a
special file room against fairly extensive genealogies
kept by the Bureau on the many branches of these families.
Thompson (cf. New Orleans States Item, June 5-16, 1978)
estimated that 250 names of `White' families with
"partial black ancestry" were kept at the Bureau. p.49
It should be pointed out that one does not actually have to have
any African ancestry in order to be a victim of "race flagging."
NewsBank InfoWeb NewsBank Full-Text Newspapers
Times-Picayune, The (New Orleans, LA) August 16, 1993
Author: JAMES O'BYRNE Staff writer
Section: NATIONAL Page: A7
Estimated printed pages: 4 Article Text:
Copyright, 1993, The Times-Picayune Publishing
Corporation./ All Rights Reserved./ Used by News
Bank with Permission. / Record Number: 9308190280 Record Number: 9308190280
Copyright. / All rights reserved.