Opened in 1963, it was a place where people met and changed the world.
Maurice M. Martinez and Harriet J. Ottenheimer
Coedited by Bryan Houser
In the politically and racially charged atmosphere of the 1960s, The Quorum coffee house created a successful model for multicultural exchange. Opened in 1963 to persons from all racial backgrounds, The Quorum became a frequent target of segregationist harassment in New Orleans. In 1964 police raided The Quorum taking 73 people to jail and accusing them of things like "playing guitars out of tune."
Combining oral history and rare archival materials "The Quorum" shows what happens when ordinary people become involved in extra-ordinary events.
(runtime: one hour)
The Quorum is a story about social change and racial integration in New Orleans occurring in a coffee house that opened its doors to persons from all racial backgrounds in 1963. The coffee house was begun by an idealistic group of individuals most of whom had met at the Ryder, an earlier, short-lived, racially integrated coffee house on Rampart Street in the New Orleans French Quarter. When the Ryder was shut down by city officials on the pretext of needing the space to construct a hotel, approximately twelve of the former Ryder patrons banded together to establish a similar sort of establishment with a similar purpose. The group included artists, musicians, university students, and local business people. Organizational meetings were stormy, as there were so many different opinions voiced about how to manage the financial aspects of the project. One artist quit the group. Another person threatened to "take his football and go home!" But the group persisted, establishing itself as a board of directors and electing officers. This group found a suitable location and pooled their money to pay the first month's rent. The building they rented, at 611 Esplanade Avenue, was owned by the Second Methodist Church next door. It included two upstairs apartments, a patio, and a slave quarter apartment in the back. Volunteers from the group worked to remodel the first floor space. A stage was built for poetry readings and musical performances. Together, they worked to make the apartments suitable for renting and to get the coffee house ready to open. Jack Frazier, the former owner of the Ryder, donated his coffee-making equipment and furniture: chairs, tables, couches, and a coffin that was used as a table. Howard Cohen, the Ryder's former manager, was hired to manage the day-to-day business such as making and selling coffee and tea, having pastries on hand for sale, and generally taking care of the facility. In honor of all of the lively discussions involved in getting started, and the cooperative spirit in which they had managed to work together, the founding group decided to name their new coffee house "The Quorum."
The Quorum's clientele included artists, writers, poets, musicians, scholars, university professors, actors--including some from the “Free Southern Theater”--intellectuals, and folk artists including country blues singer Babe Stovall who performed fairly regularly. Composer Jerry Jeff Walker used Quorum audiences to try out preliminary versions of songs he was writing. The Quorum allowed the social gathering of Blacks and Whites, who sat together at tables in the coffee house, when Blacks and Whites were forbidden by State law to sit together at tables in restaurants and bars. The Quorum explicitly allowed this very thing. It was a frequent stop for the “Freedom Riders” who rode Greyhound buses into the South to volunteer in the registration of Black voters and to assist in the Civil Rights Movement. Classes were given so people could learn the complexities of registering to vote, New Orleans-style.
Audiences at the Quorum were presented with a wide range of events: impromptu and regularly scheduled lectures, poetry readings, live music, and open forums with dialogue and discussion. There were also games: Risk, Dominoes, Ghost, for example, and a general atmosphere of openness to almost any sort of event or discussion, so long as it was of interest to patrons. Most importantly, The Quorum was one of the first “integrated” public places for both Whites and people of color in New Orleans since the era of Reconstruction.
In the politically and racially charged atmosphere of the 1960s, the Quorum was a haven for open-minded individuals who wanted to assert such values as freedom of speech and the rights of free association. In an effort to protect the establishment, and its patrons, the Quorum's Board of Directors decided to designate the coffee house a "Private Club." Many public establishments in New Orleans--restaurants in particular--were closing up and reopening as private clubs in those days, just to be able to remain legally segregated. Being a private club would allow you to list your preferred patrons as members and to deny access to everyone else. The Quorum's founding group decided to try the same strategy in reverse: they would be a private club, only they would consider anyone who walked in the door to be a member. If you bought coffee, tea, or pastry you were asked to sign the membership book, to validate your membership. As a result, many people referred to the Quorum as the Quorum Club, and it was widely known under both names. Somehow, the city fathers, segregationist groups, and police department got wind of the Quorum and its integrated activities. The Quorum soon found itself harassed by members of White supremacist organizations--numerous "dial-a-hate" phone messages targeted The Quorum--and surveilled by the New Orleans Police. The Police Department sent two undercover agents under the supervision of an agent code-named “Spider” to infiltrate the Quorum and to report back to the police department. These undercover cops tried their best to blend in, buying coffee, joining discussions, and even reading poems onstage at Sunday evening "Poetry Nights."
To make ends meet, the Quorum's Board of Directors rented out the apartments in the two upper floors and the slave quarter apartment behind the main building. The income from these rentals helped to balance the books and keep the coffee house afloat. A noted young New Orleans artist, George Dureau, rented the apartment on the second floor. A young seaman and his wife, Lee & Reggie Grue, rented the top floor. A musician rented the slave quarter apartment.
On Wednesday night, July 29, 1964, the police raided the Quorum. Seventy-three persons were arrested and charged with “disturbing the peace”: playing guitars out of tune, engaging in conversations that had no logical end or conclusion, etc. Among the 73 were the tenants in the apartments upstairs and in the slave quarter apartment and some curious citizens who had come out to hear Babe Stovall perform his country blues and spirituals in the coffee house that night. The artist living in the second floor apartment, was also giving a party that night and he had invited the young couple from the third floor to join in. Nick, one of the musicians at the party in the second floor apartment, upon hearing the police enter downstairs leaped from the rear upstairs balcony onto the roof of the Methodist Church next to the Quorum and escaped through alleyways and a courtyard. Nick walked around to the front of the Quorum and watched from across Esplanade Avenue as the 73 persons were arrested and taken away in police vans and cars. Nick noticed that his two conga drums were also taken by the police. He followed the police down to the station house. As each person sat in stunned silence waiting to be arraigned, Nick boldly walked into the Police Station House, picked up his conga drums—as if he were a custodian directed to do this—and walked out of the room with his drums to the silent snickers and supportive smiles of those who were arrested. In accord with the style of the time, the newspapers published the name, race, and address of all 73 people arrested. As a result, people lost jobs, were evicted from apartments, and many suffered further harassment.
The Quorum continued to suffer additional harassment throughout the 1960s. Smoke bombs, phony narcotics raids and newspaper articles pretending to describe "communist, homosexual, integrationist," activities were frequent occurrences. In the mid-nineteen sixties the officers of the Quorum's board of directors were taken to court to defend the Quorum's right to sell coffee. The Quorum was charged with "selling coffee to non-members"--i.e. to some undercover cops--but the charge was impossible according to the policies of the Quorum because anyone who came into the club was a potential member and anyone who bought coffee was asked to sign the membership book. Ottenheimer, who was still Quorum secretary, remembers going to court on this issue and has a detailed account of the proceedings of the entire trial. By this time the Reverend Robert Shirley, the Pastor of the Methodist Church next door and Protestant Chaplain to the New Orleans Police Department, had joined the Quorum's Board of Directors and had been elected Quorum President. As Quorum President, The Reverend Shirley took it as his responsibility to speak out publicly in defense of the coffee house and its values. Regrettably for the Quorum and its Board of Directors, however, Rev. Shirley was transferred out of the parish by Methodist Church authorities a short time after this.
This motion picture, The Quorum presents scenes leading up to and following the arrest of the 73 persons on July 29, 1964. It reconstructs the ambience and interpersonal interactions of the Quorum’s audience and clientele. Interviews document the accounts of each living survivor and others who were a part of this scenario. The film relates personal stories of police brutality, intervention, and arrests providing insights into the characters involved: the undercover police, the Chief of Police and his staff, and surrounding segregationist forces. Interviewed is the counsel for the defense and how it was successful in getting all of the charges dropped against the 73 defendants, including those who plea-bargained by pleading guilty. This motion picture also unveils the tactics of fear and intimidation used by the police and the district attorney in their efforts to destroy the free right of assembly by American citizens as guaranteed by the constitution. The Quorum documents an event of social change in New Orleans that was a profound step in making freedom a reality for all its people.
To order a copy of The Quorum:
For your school or library contact Insight Media.
For personal use contact Such-a-Much Productions.
Study Questions for classroom use of the documentary are available here.
Maurice M. Martinez, Professor at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington, poet, photographer, musician, and filmmaker, was born in New Orleans. He is steeped in the African American culture through both his heritage and scholarly endeavors. He can be reached at :email@example.com.
Harriet Joseph Ottenheimer, Professor of Anthropology and American Ethnic Studies at Kansas State University, was one of the founders of The Quorum coffeehouse in 1963 and served as secretary of the Quorum's board of directors from 1963 until 1966. She publishes widely in the fields of ethnicity, language, and African American culture. She can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Bryan Houser, filmmaker (writer/producer/DP/editor), specializes in documentaries, experimental dreamscapes, music videos and comedic narratives. He can be reached at: email@example.com.
This page and all contents are Copyright © 2003
- 11 by
Maurice Martinez and Harriet Ottenheimer.
(Last update 12 January 2011)
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