Alcée Fortier and the Creole Culture of New Orleans
One of the biggest educational influences on New Orleans and its French heritage was Alcée Fortier (1856–1914), the 1st cousin 4x removed of our sister-in-law Judge Wendy (née Baldwin) Vitter. There are so many entities named after him in New Orleans that the name "Fortier" is a very familiar name, though many probably don't know a lot about the man behind the name.
Alcée was the son of Florent Louis and Marie Edwidge (née Aimé) Fortier, of prominent French Creole ancestry. His maternal grandfather François Gabriel "Valcour" Aimé was the first person to successfully refine sugar and became the richest person in Louisiana; his plantation on the Acadian Coast was christened "Le Petit Versailles" for its lavishness. Alcée was born on his paternal grandmother Marie Félicité (née LaBranche) Fortier's sugar cane plantation on the German Coast in present-day Westwego, Louisiana, now a suburb of New Orleans, the city where Alcée grew up.
Alcée Fortier would become a major force in documenting, analyzing, and preserving Creole culture. The word "Créole" in Louisiana refers to the descendants of the New Orleans inhabitants who came from France and Spain — before the Louisiana Purchase in 1803 when New Orleans became "American." That shift in ownership from French to American was a big culture shock on both sides of the aisle. The related term "Creole of Color" ("Gens de coleur libres") was used to describe those of mixed race, often descendants of enslaved people who were themselves free. In the days of French and Spanish rule prior to the Louisiana Purchase, many Creoles of Color enjoyed privileges in society, which changed under American rule.
Alcée Fortier became a renowned professor of French and Romance Languages at Tulane University. He elevated the study of French in Louisiana and in the USA overall. He attained the position of president of the Modern Language Association, which to this day continues to be the leading professional association in the USA for scholarship in language and literature, comprising over 25K members, mostly in academe.
Through his extensive scholarly research and writings, Fortier helped preserve and document Louisiana Creole and Cajun dialects, including the stories and traditions from Africa. Cajuns (or more formally, Acadians) were a separate group from Creoles who originally settled in the Nova Scotia and New Brunswick areas of Canada, but were evicted by the British after the Treaty of Paris in 1763. After going back to France, many voyaged again and settled in southern Louisiana in the area west of New Orleans known as Acadiana.
Fortier married Marie Lanauze in 1881. Her father Adolphe was a prosperous French immigrant who ran a hardware store in the French Quarter. He was the first commercial tenant of the famous Pontalba Buildings that flank Jackson Square; they are the oldest continuously operated apartment buildings in the USA. Commercial tenants occupy the bottom floor, and the upper floors are reserved for living quarters — a mixed-use model still popular today in urban environments.
The French Quarter was the site of the original settlement in New Orleans at its founding in 1718 by Jean Baptiste Le Moyne de Bienville. Creoles in the 1800s generally lived in the French Quarter, Fauborg Marigny (just below the French Quarter) or another of the regions below Canal Street, which divided the Creole sector from the American sector.
The terms "below" and "lower" refer to downriver; "downtown" is the region on the lower (or downriver) side of Canal Street. Americans lived in the areas "above" (or upriver from) Canal Street, known as "uptown." Those terms are still used today in New Orleans by the older generations. (But they're apparently not in vogue with the younger generation: When one of our nieces recently asked for directions and was told by her father that the destination was "below Napoleon Avenue on the river side," she asked in exasperation, "Who am I? Amerigo Vespucci?")
There was quite a cultural struggle in the early 1800s when Louisiana's first governor William C. C. Claiborne tried to institute English as the official language, even though the majority of New Orleanians spoke French. Because of widespread discontent, the governor ultimately repealed the rule and reinstituted French as an official language of the state, and French culture remained dominant in New Orleans in the 1800s.
For his expertise in Louisiana history and culture, Fortier was made an inaugural member of the Louisiana State Museum Board of Curators. Several current places in New Orleans bear his name:
- Alcée Fortier High School (1931–2005). Closed after Hurricane Katrina, the building is now renovated and operates as the Alcée Fortier campus of Lusher Charter School, housing its middle and high school. Lusher is one of the top-performing public schools in the city.
- Alcée Fortier Hall at Tulane University.
- Alcée Fortier Street in New Orleans East.
- Alcée Fortier Park in Faubourg St. John at Esplanade Avenue and Mystery Street.
When Jeff Vitter's sister Martha Louise "Tootie" (née Vitter) Jackoniski started as a high school mathematics teacher, her initial assignment was at Fortier High School, which was just down Freret Street from the campus of Loyola University where she graduated. She left teaching the following year when she married Jim and moved out of state.