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May 20, 2012

Editor’s note: Each year the AJC Project holds a youth essay competition for students in Orleans Parish. The theme of the competition changes each year and asks students to reflect on a historic or current topic. This year is Louisiana’s bicentennial. Students were asked to write about a person of color from Louisiana who has been critical in shaping our state’s history. Below are the full essays from our first place winners, and essay excerpts from our second and third place winners. Winners were announced at a ceremony in May at Maple Street Bookshop.

9th-12th Grade Category

 
1st Place: Samantha Adams, “The Life and Legacy of Israel M. Augustine Jr.”

“What constitutes as greatness? To me, greatness means to set a precedent—doing something that has never been done before—whether it entails breaking a “glass ceiling” or feeling as though you “have overcome.” Greatness is a historical accolade that can only be assumed by few. Israel Meyer Augustine Jr. has achieved greatness in breaking down color barriers amongst judiciaries in Louisiana.

Before his historic ascension began as the first African American district judge and elected judge in Criminal District Court of Louisiana, Israel Augustine was born in New Orleans on November 16, 1924. He graduated from McDonough 35 High School. Judge Augustine graduated from Southern University, and pursued a degree in law at Lincoln University in Missouri. Judge Augustine rose above discrimination and became one of the most prominent attorneys in the city of New Orleans in the 1960s. It was not until 1969 that Israel Augustine made history when he was appointed as a judge in the Criminal District Court of New Orleans making him the first African American judge in the state. After 15 years of service, he became a judge in the 4th Circuit Court of Appeal in 1981. Prior to that time, there had never been a black man elected to a city-wide public office. One of his most notable accomplishments was that he was the presiding judge over the Black Panther Trial of New Orleans in 1971. This case charged and acquitted 12 Black Panthers for attempted murder during a gun fight with police. Judge Augustine was the first African American judge to preside over a Black Panther case in the United States. This truly showed how his effect in Louisiana shaped United States History in one of our countries most volatile periods. Along with this case, other lasting remnants of Israel Augustine’s legacy still remain in the city today such as structures that bear his name, in particular, Israel M. Augustine Middle School and the Israel M. Augustine Criminal Justice Center.

Judge Israel Augustine’s election to a city wide public office opened the door for other black politicians to follow suit. Arguably, his election made it possible for every public office to be held by an African American in a predominately black city. Since his election, there has been a record number of African American politicians holding public office in the city. There is no public office that has not been held by an African American today, including but not limited to mayor, city council, clerk of court, assessor, judges, and district attorney. Notably in the judiciary, there are a record number of black judges serving in Criminal Court, Civil District Court, First City Court, and Traffic Court. His road to greatness has been like a tall ship of impenetrable fortitude and determination on a rough sea roaring with hardship and discrimination. Acknowledging his maiden voyage, Judge Augustine had to experience grave burdens and struggle such as self-doubt, isolation, and fear of failure, but he maintained his dignity. His struggle allowed other African Americans in our state to believe that they can surmount the waves of racial injustice with hard work and resolve.

Israel Augustine had a love not just for his own people but all people. He started community outreach programs that focused on the future of inner city youths and criminals coming back into society. I have a personal connection to Israel in that he was my great-great uncle on my mother’s side. He sold my grandfather the land on which his home is built on today. In our family, he has always been a source of inspiration and a model of what it means to be successful.”

 

2nd place: Irene Marino, “Louis Armstrong”

“I think Louis Armstrong was an important person of Louisiana History because he had a great personality and he brought music to New Orleans. In my opinion, New Orleans is known for great music because of Louis Armstrong.”

3rd place: Travis Cummings, “Mahalia Jackson”

“On October 26, 1911, a Louisianan legend was born. A native of New Orleans, Mahalia Jackson was a young girl with strong unique vocals. … A vocalist told Mahalia Jackson that she should stop “hollering” so that the whites could understand her better but she refused and continued on with her unique shouting.”

 

Pre-9th grade Category:

 
1st place: Julia Beery, “Reverend Avery Caesar Alexander.”

“Avery C. Alexander was an important African-American in Louisiana’s history. He was courageous enough to boycott and protest for his people’s rights and also was a great leader elected to the Louisiana House of Representatives.

Avery Caesar Alexander was born in Terrebonne Parish, Louisiana on June 29, 1910. In 1927 he moved to New Orleans. He earned his high school diploma in 1939 after taking night classes at Gilbert Academy. After studying at the Union Baptist Theological Seminary, he was appointed into the Christian Ministry in 1944.

Reverend Avery Alexander was a member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and traveled all through the state of Louisiana working with voter registration drives before the passing of Voting Rights Act of 1965. He boycotted white businesses in New Orleans that did not offer any jobs to blacks besides maintenance or cleaning work, over “the mop and broom”. Another thing Rev. Avery C. Alexander did was boycott the New Orleans Public Service Inc. because they would not hire black bus drivers, and he was successful. Reverend Alexander also marched with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and participated in sit-ins at white lunch counters. During one sit in at the City Hall eating facilities, he was arrested and dragged up the steps and out of the building. Reverend Alexander was later elected to the Louisiana House of Representatives in 1975 where he held office until the end of his life! During his life he also had the jobs of a real estate dealer and an insurance agent. Another job he had was a longshoreman. From 1958-1962 he held the position of the manager of the longshoreman’s welfare system. Reverend Alexander established a non-denominational ministry called the Church of All People in 1990. He was its leader until his death on March 5, 1999 when he was 89 years old.

Reverend Avery Caesar Alexander helped shape Louisiana’s history because he was brave enough to change the way people thought of him and others like him. He wanted to be treated like everyone else and have the same rights, for example the right to vote, which he finally received! He was also a good mentor to other African- Americans because if he could be in the Legislature and he could successfully boycott unfair things and he’s just like me, why can’t I do that too? This shows that his courage was a prelude to more opportunities for African-Americans.

In addition to being a leader, Rev. Alexander was also a team player. He marched with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., including the march from Selma to Montgomery, a distance of 47 miles, and had to work together with others to make decisions when he was in the Louisiana House of Representatives. Another reason why Reverend Alexander was one of the critical pieces in Louisiana’s history is that he helped other African-Americans get jobs above the “mop and broom” level. This was important because he wanted others to give him and the other African-Americans a chance to show they were just as good as any other person and deserved respect. The second example of this is when Rev. Alexander worked on voter registration drives. He and the other African-Americans involved in these drives played a big part in getting the government to consider letting them vote. This was when the passing of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 happened.

I hope you agree with me that Reverend Avery Caesar Alexander was an important puzzle piece in our state’s history.”

2nd place: Princeton Carter, “A Louisiana Trailblazer: Judge Karen Wells Roby”

“There is no question that Judge Roby has worked hard to help women work toward achieving success. She freely gives of herself- teaching, mentoring and leading. She makes the State of Louisiana better, and has paved the way for many women – young and old – of all races and cultures.”

3rd place: Imani Gaudin, “Judge Karen Wells Roby”

“In the legal profession, she shares her time and has mentored African American female attorneys with her brown bag lunch that she holds in her chambers. Through these sessions, Judge Roby has helped to guide young female lawyers through the legal profession from associate, to partner to judge. … Through Judge Roby’s involvement, I began to learn about the importance of being involved and helping people.”

 

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