Mayor Victor H. Schiro

Mayor Victor H. Schiro: New Orleans in Transition, 1961–1970

Edward F. Haas
Copyright Date: 2014
Pages: 416
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  • Book Info
    Mayor Victor H. Schiro
    Book Description:

    During the turbulent 1960s, the city of New Orleans experienced unprecedented economic growth, racial tensions and desegregation, political realignment, and natural disaster. Presiding over this period of sweeping change was Mayor Victor H. Schiro (1904-1992), an unassuming, moderate Democrat who sought the best for his city and adhered strictly to the rule of law in a region where laissez faire was standard practice and hardened defiance was a social norm. Schiro sought fairness for all and navigated a gauntlet of conflicting pressures. African Americans sought their civil rights, and whites resisted the new racial environment. Despite vigorous opposition and an unfriendly press, Schiro won election twice.

    Under his direction, the city experienced numerous municipal reforms, the inclusion of African Americans in executive positions, and the broad extension of city services. The mayor, a businessman, recruited new corporations for his city, heralded the development of New Orleans East, and brought major professional sports to the Crescent City. He also initiated the plans for the construction of the Superdome.

    At the height of this activity, Hurricane Betsy devastated New Orleans. In response, Schiro coordinated with the federal government to initiate rescue and recovery at a rapid pace. In the aftermath, he lobbied Congress for relief funds that set the precedent for National Federal flood insurance.

    eISBN: 978-1-62674-040-2
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
    (pp. ix-2)
  4. Prologue
    (pp. 3-6)

    During the early summer of 1961, the city of New Orleans was a community in transition. The previous year, the United States Census Bureau had reported that 627,525 people lived in the Crescent City. Of these individuals, 392,594 were white, 233,514 were African American, and 1,417 were members of various other races.¹ Although the city was no longer the South’s largest metropolis—Houston had wrested away that title in 1950—New Orleans was clearly growing.² The census figures of 1960 indicated an increase of 57,080 people over the past decade. Local population stood at its highest total ever. Civic leaders...

  5. 1. Youthful Odyssey
    (pp. 7-22)

    To use the vernacular of native New Orleanians, Victor Hugo Schiro was not “from here.” Schiro’s birthplace was Chicago, Illinois. Nevertheless, from his birth on May 28, 1904, until his death eighty-eight years later, New Orleans was central to Schiro’s life.

    The child was the only son of Andrea (later Americanized into Andrew) Edward Schiro and his wife Mary An Pizzati. The Schiros already had a daughter, Elizabeth Vindictis, called Bettina, who was also born in Chicago, a year before her brother, on April 21, 1903.¹ Andrea Schiro was a native of Piana dei Greci, Palermo Province, Sicily. The English...

  6. 2. Beginning a Career in Sales and Service
    (pp. 23-36)

    In 1932, Schiro was twenty-eight, bouncy, gregarious, slight of stature, already sporting the thin, neatly trimmed mustache that would become his trademark throughout his public career. In his early life, Schiro had had a variety of employment experiences, but he recalled decades later that his position with the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company was his “first job.” Initially the work was difficult. Schiro went from door to door in a downtown district that stretched from Canal Street to Elysian Fields Avenue, collecting weekly premiums that commonly amounted to only a few cents per customer. He deposited the paltry sums in a...

  7. 3. Into Politics
    (pp. 37-56)

    When Victor Schiro launched his new insurance agency in the Maritime Building, he had absolutely no political aspirations. Years later, he recalled, “I didn’t know what ward or precinct I lived in.” The success of his business topped his list of priorities.¹

    In late 1949, New Orleans Mayor deLesseps Story Morrison altered Schiro’s perspective forever. Morrison attended a dinner at the Optimist Club to honor representative Franklin D. Roosevelt Jr., of New York, the late president’s son. Schiro, the president of the organization, sat between the two men. During the ceremonies, Morrison turned to Schiro and made him a proposition....

  8. 4. Councilman-at-Large
    (pp. 57-72)

    The successes that Morrison and Schiro achieved in the municipal elections of 1954 triggered ambitions in both men. Morrison had his sights set on the governor’s mansion in Baton Rouge. The mayor, then only forty-two, believed that the governor’s office would be the next logical step in a meteoric political career that he felt certain would soon propel him onto the national scene. Morrison fantasized that the vice presidency and perhaps even the White House could be within his grasp.¹

    Schiro, for his part, believed that he could become mayor after Morrison moved on to Baton Rouge. His ability to...

  9. 5. Interim Mayor
    (pp. 73-91)

    While Victor Schiro contemplated a campaign for mayor in 1962, Chep Morrison had plans of his own. After his failure to amend the New Orleans city charter to allow reelection, Morrison found himself in a lame-duck status that he did not enjoy. He soon began to search for alternatives. Scorning several opportunities in business, the mayor decided to seek a diplomatic post within the administration of president John F. Kennedy. Morrison believed that his lengthy experience with Latin America, a trouble spot for the young president, would stand him in good stead for a federal appointment.¹

    When news of Morrison’s...

  10. 6. The Expedient of Race
    (pp. 92-106)

    On September 30, 1961, the political analyst Iris Kelso reported that the most common observation about the forthcoming mayoralty election among politicians was “I’ve never seen it like this before.”¹ The prospect that most amazed veteran Crescent City politicos was the budding alliance between councilmanat-large James A. Comiskey of the RDO and deLesseps S. Morrison, the former mayor and creator of the CCDA. For sixteen years, Morrison had bashed the Old Regulars, particularly assessor James E. Comiskey, as “the bad guys” in Crescent City politics. Now the assessor’s son and Morrison appeared to be allies. Young Comiskey began his campaign...

  11. 7. Early Days of Conflict
    (pp. 107-135)

    Victor Schiro’s stunning electoral success in 1962 altered the landscape of Crescent City politics. Although the injection of race into the contest reflected shifting trends in southern politics, the major tangible change in local affairs was an erosion of political stability. For sixteen years, elections in New Orleans had typically been struggles between deLesseps Morrison’s CCDA and the Old Regulars. Schiro’s candidacy, however, led to the fragmentation of the CCDA, with the appointive officials supporting the mayor and the elected officials backing Adrian Duplantier. The RDO endorsed James A. Comiskey, the powerful assessor’s son. Many canny political observers assumed that...

  12. 8. Mayor of All the People
    (pp. 136-170)

    On March 4, 1962, the Reverend W. Scott Chinn, president of the Big 4 Negro Democratic Club, one of the few African American political groups to endorse Schiro in the mayoralty primaries, wired his congratulations to the mayor. Chinn particularly praised Schiro for his success in securing ten million dollars in bond money from the state to support schools in New Orleans. The local press had condemned the achievement as a grandstand play that indicated Schiro’s willingness to inject politics into educational issues and reflected his developing ties with governor Jimmie H. Davis, a segregationist who had attempted to disrupt...

  13. 9. Prisons, Civil Rights, and Football
    (pp. 171-190)

    Victor Schiro certainly wanted to maintain calm in his city and pursue a path of fairness for all citizens, white and black alike. Numerous New Orleanians, however, did not share their mayor’s belief in fundamental human decency and the rule of law. The doctrines of white supremacy and segregation still prevailed in the hearts and minds of many whites, including individuals in positions of authority and influence.

    Accusations of police brutality, for example, would not go away. On March 4, 1963, Morris Rowe Jr. of 3159 Law Street alleged that he had received a severe and unwarranted beating at the...

  14. 10. Politics and Progress
    (pp. 191-224)

    On April 25, 1961, Scott Wilson, acknowledging Schiro’s desire to establish an outstanding municipal administration, advised his friend to proceed with caution. The publicist contended that Schiro was “in the position of ‘The Prince.’” Quoting Machiavelli, Wilson observed: “It must be considered that there is nothing more difficult to carry out, nor more doubtful of success, nor more dangerous to handle, than to initiate a new order of things.” Continuing the quotation, Wilson noted that the reformer “has enemies in all those who profit by the old order, and only lukewarm defenders in all those [who] would profit by the...

  15. 11. The Hurricane Mayor
    (pp. 225-245)

    As Schiro prepared to kick his reelection campaign into high gear, the forces of nature dealt him and his city a cruel blow. On September 9, 1965, Hurricane Betsy smashed into New Orleans, leaving devastation in its wake. Schiro’s ability to cope with this testing challenge and to guide the Crescent City on the path to recovery marked a defining moment in his administration.

    The storm, like many hurricanes, developed in the Caribbean and posed no immediate danger to New Orleans. A Miami forecaster deemed it a “weak storm with little chance of intensifying significantly.”¹ On September 1, 1965, the...

  16. 12. The Luckiest Man in Politics
    (pp. 246-264)

    Hurricane Betsy interrupted a mayoralty campaign that had begun many months earlier. On January 20, 1964, Schiro announced that he expected to be a candidate for reelection and believed that the field would include ten or twelve prospective opponents, although he declined to identify them. He contended, “If I have done a good job, I think that I have a right to that job. If not[,] the people will let me know.” Observers maintained that Councilman Fitzmorris would be one of Schiro’s foremost challengers. Fitzmorris, however, declared, “I have two years more as councilman-at-large. I will make a statement at...

  17. 13. Keeping the Lid On
    (pp. 265-290)

    On November 15, 1965, Mayor Victor H. Schiro, triumphant in the Democratic mayoral primary, commented on the political maturity of the African American citizens of New Orleans. Noting his increased support from the black community in the recent election, Schiro declared, “This is a definite indication that the Negro has become an independent voter.” He added that his philosophy of government would change “for the better because my hands are no longer tied.”¹

    The following month, Schiro’s words became much less cryptic. On December 27, Antoine Marcel Trudeau Jr., president of the Safety Industrial Life Insurance Company and associate of...

  18. 14. Growth and Frustration
    (pp. 291-325)

    On July 25, 1966,U.S. News and World Reportpublished an article on the commercial renaissance in New Orleans. Hugh McC. Evans, president of D. H. Holmes, one of the city’s foremost department stores, asserted, “Our business has been absolutely fantastic.” Evans reported an increase in sales of 25 percent over the previous year and added, “Every business has been good.”

    The article pointed to several reasons for the boom. First was the establishment of the Michoud facility in eastern New Orleans. Contracts at the plant totaled $1.5 billion. Its 27,000 workers received a payroll of $190 million and generated...

  19. Epilogue
    (pp. 326-336)

    On his last evening in office, Victor Schiro had dinner with Jack McGuire and his future wife Sue. The three reminisced about Schiro’s many years in politics, his accomplishments, and the good times they had shared. The mayor noted that the experience of the transition was both funny and sobering. After years and years of meetings, conferences, special events, and business trips, the numerous index cards that he always kept in his pocket to list his daily schedule of appointments had evolved into a single card. On it was just one word, “Inauguration.”¹

    Schiro was ready to relinquish his municipal...

  20. NOTES
    (pp. 337-404)
    (pp. 405-412)
  22. INDEX
    (pp. 413-441)
  23. [Illustrations]
    (pp. 442-449)