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Book Review: The Great Southern Babylon: Sex, Race, and Respectability in New Orleans

Long, Alecia P. The Great Southern Babylon: Sex, Race, and Respectability in New Orleans, 1865-1920 (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2005).

While some historians have chosen to study prostitution and other less reputable behaviors from social and cultural perspectives; others view the subject through the gaze of law, politics, and crime.  While Alecia Long’s narrative is driven by a series of five Louisiana Supreme Court cases, her entrance into this historiography with The Great Southern Babylon: Sex, Race, and Respectability in New Orleans, 1865-1920 resembles more of a town studies approach.  Her objectives, stated from the first page of the preface, are to explain a place – Storyville – and how it came into existence. By using locale as a cohesive focal point, Long successfully considers the relationship that race and respectability played in the formation, tolerance, and even promotion of sex entertainment in New Orleans.  While her examination of prostitution reveals many of the unique features of the region, Long successfully places New Orleans within a national context.  Protesting the exclusion of cities such as New Orleans, Tampa, Miami, and El Paso from larger conversations about prostitution, Long hopes that her work will be part of the undoing of a “false picture of southern homogeneity” evident in other studies. (5)

Offering an escape from traditional southern morality was an attraction New Orleans exploited.  In an era of strict taboos against interracial coupling, prostitution across the color line “remained a lucrative and much touted feature of the city’s culture of commercial sexuality for decades after Emancipation.” (11) From the legacy of quadroon balls and open market sales of fancy girls emerged a world of concert halls and brothels that New Orleans politicians and activists sought to preserve, regulate and segregate.  By creating the theoretically isolated vice district of Storyville, prostitutes and other commercial sex workers could be kept away from what was deemed respectable society. In practice, however, Storyville’s sixteen square blocks developed a symbiotic relationship not only with tourists and traveling business people, but also with the surrounding city and its residents.  According to Long, “While many respectable citizens were willing to profit from prostitution indirectly, most did not wish to share physical space with brothels and other sexually oriented businesses.” (149) Certainly the sex workers and business owners in and outside of the limits of Storyville made and spent a considerable amount of money in New Orleans. In addition they drew business to the city which economically benefited even the most removed enterprises in town. 

The allure of interracial liaisons dominated the sex commerce in New Orleans in interesting ways.  While being white implied a privileged status in most regions of the South, this was not necessarily the case in Storyville during the nadir of race relations. Due to the carefully advertised and well-accepted beliefs that women of color made better lovers, mixed-race prostitutes represented the ideal combination of refinement and culture while remaining “skilled in the erotic arts.” (205) Because women were able to increase earnings by claiming the status of octoroon, women of a variety of racial and ethnic backgrounds adopted the term if they could pass it off and profit from it.  In fact, identifiers such as race and nationality had less to do with a woman’s family tree than it did the sexual acts she would perform.  For example, women listed is Storyville’s Blue Books as French were women who sold oral sex services (called the “French” at the time), not ladies whose families came from France. Similarly, the status of octoroon designated price of services, level of education, atmosphere of her workplace, and other factors associated with the prostitute’s behavior.

Long reveals how race became a tricky classification as Jim Crow statutes changed from relaxed and tolerant for residents of the vice district christened, Storyville. Following national trends, progressive reformers attempted to mimic traditionally southern urban patterns.  In 1917, the city council passed legislation to force segregation in Storyville.  Although reformers wanted to use racial separation as a means to impose their dictates of morality and respectability on those in the vice industries, they had two major obstacles.  First of all, after decades of miscegenation in New Orleans, race was often difficult to delineate exactly.  While much of the South cultivated a white-black color scheme of racial codes, New Orleans had long operated on what Long calls “the tripartite racial system.” (203) Not only did this disrupt an already complex social strata, it interfered with consumer demands for cross-racial sex. Some whites wanted to keep black clientele away from white women, while other white patrons wanted to maintain their access to women of color. Furthermore, mixed-race women in Storyville resisted this regulation with a force far greater than politicians and activists had anticipated. For years the octoroon class of prostitutes took pride in their status at the top of the workers’ hierarchy in Storyville.  Long illustrates the lives and political battles of two successful octoroon madams affected by the policy changes whose cases temporarily held off Jim Crow in New Orleans.

Published from her University of Delaware dissertation, Long’s complex and compelling analysis of Storyville is sophisticated and contributory to American, and particularly, southern history.  Long convincingly argues that New Orleans is unique to the South but created by it as an internal release valve of mores and traditions.  This legacy of sex commerce and loosened social attitudes remained a constant attraction to the city throughout the rest of the twentieth century despite the official closing of the district as a segregated vice arena in 1917. While Long’s work indicates a strong drive to debunk many popular myths about Storyville, the tales are still vibrant and romantic.  In tandem with her strengths, however, Long neglects the prostitutes as workers with rights, despite a claim that in addition to studying the district, she “also wanted to learn about the lives of the women who worked there.” (xiii) Most of her attention is focused on the city leaders and wealthy madams at the top. Their omission is unfortunate, but Long’s work provides a solid foundation and springboard for further studies.