Shakespeare Park, officially named A.L. Davis Park since 1979, is an urban park in New Orleans’ Central City neighborhood, at the intersection of Washington Avenue and LaSalle Street. An important convening place for brass bands, second lines, Mardi Gras Indians, community meetings, concerts, Church revivals, and Civil Rights protests during the 1960’s, this park is blooming with traditions and heritage; yet, it doesn’t have the same meticulous attention from the city as other parks in New Orleans. The confusion over its neglect deepens further when research unveils that Shakespeare Park is also notable as the staging area for the Zulu Social Aid and Pleasure Club Mardi Gras Parade for most of the 20th Century.
History of the Site and Name
Worthia ‘Showboy’ Thomas with a trombone and another member of Red Allen’s Brass Band at a Sunday School parade in Shakespeare Park, 1950. Photo Credit: Ralston Crawford Collection, William Ransom Hogan Jazz Archive, Howard-Tilton Memorial Library, Tulane University, New Orleans, Louisiana
Originally part of the property of John McDonogh, the site of the what is now A.L. Davis/Shakespeare Park has been a public park since at least 1859, when a city ordinance called for the “creation of a public square” in the area bounded by St. George’s Avenue (modern Howard Street), Washington Avenue, Jacobs Street (modern Freret Street), and Fourth Street, to be called ‘Douglas Square’. In 1893, another city ordinance renamed the space ‘Morris Park’, noting that its former name “is no longer appropriate,” without any indication as to why this change was made (New Orleans Public Library. “New Orleans Squares and Parks Openings, Name Changes, etc.”). A separate account from the same year notes that, “it has at various times in its history borne the names of such famous Americans as Millard Fillmore, John Bell, and Stephen A. Douglas,” and “though it has great natural advantages, has never taken rank as one of the show places of the city” (“City Hall: The Police Board.” The Times Picayune. p. 9. April 13, 1893).
An 1880 Daily Picayune article provides insight into what the park was like in those days. Somewhat isolated from more populous areas of the city, the article notes that the square “is infested by a gang of hoodlums equal in point of ferocity, brutality, and boldness to any gang that has ever existed in the more populous parts of the city” and that police rarely visit the sparsely populated area “except to make an arrest or to investigate a complaint” (Douglas Square Hoodlums.” The Daily Picayune. March 29, 1886).
Only seven years later, the council again renamed the park in 1900, this time in honor of deceased city mayor Joseph Shakspeare, a name which it retained until 1979 (New Orleans Public Library). It was during this period of time that the park experienced its heyday and height of popularity. When the city allocated money for park improvement in 1947, the “biggest and most significant” portion was to go to the park, to allow for “a major recreation [specifically for the African-American population that made up the surrounding neighborhoods], a cinderpath, a lighted football field, a swimming pool, shelter house, and fenced-in playground” (“Playground Improvements.” The Times Picayune. Pg. 8. October 29, 1947). It was also during this period that the park served as the starting point for the annual Zulu Parade on Mardi Gras Day; the starting point later moved a few blocks further from the river to Jackson Avenue and South Claiborne Avenue in 1977 (“Zulu Orders All Cares Cancelled.” The Times Picayune. Sec. 1 pg. 10. February 22, 1977).
When prominent clergyman Rev. A.L. Davis—the first African-American member of the city council—died in 1978, community leaders proposed naming a place near his Central City New Zion Baptist Church in his honor (“Tribute to Dr. Davis Discussed.” The Times Picayune. Sec. 3, pg. 5. July, 7, 1978). After considering Shakespeare Park, Lasalle Street, and Third Street as candidates for rechristening after Davis’ death, a committee convened by Councilman J.M. Singleton and headed by Mayor Moon Landrieu proposed the renaming of Shakespeare Park to A.L. Davis Park less than a year after Davis’ death (“27,752 OK’d for Mayor’s Crime Panel. The Times Picayune. Sec. 1, pg 4. July 20, 1978). Reverend Louis Landrum, another prominent local preacher, noted that “the city should not allow the Reverend Mr. Davis to ‘go off the scene’ without something to keep his name alive so young people could emulate him.” The park was elected over the streets under consideration as most appropriate because, as one of Davis’ long-time allies argued, “it was where he got his political start” (Atkinson, Paul. “Man Who Once Arrested Davis Joins in Tribute.” The Times Picayune. Sec. 1, pg 18. July 14, 1978).
Shakespeare vs. Shakspeare Park
While generally referred to as Shakespeare Park, the park’s official name is A.L. Davis Park. In the early years of the park’s existence, it is generally referred to as such. However, extremely shortly thereafter, the more familiar name ‘Shakespeare’ gained popularity. In fact, between 1905 and 1919 ‘Shakspeare Park’ is never mentioned in any New Orleans newspaper. ‘Shakespeare Park,’ however, is mentioned more than 50 times during that same time period. By the time of its appearance in the 1948 City Plan, even official documents refer to the space as ‘Shakespeare Park’, while its name “on paper” remained ‘Shakspeare.’ It is worth noting that when the council renames the park in honor of A.L. Davis, it is to replace Shakespeare, not Shakspeare, Park.
Perhaps even more tellingly, despite its having been named for Davis in 1979—an action that was initiated by the community itself—over 30 years later the moniker of Shakespeare Park remains prominent. Dr. John celebrates the site using this name in his 2004 song ‘Marie Laveau’: “I seen him kissin’ a young girl, up at Shakespeare Park /Hanging on an oak tree, in the dark (Dr. John. “Marie Laveau,” N’Awlinz Dis, Dat, or D’Udda. New York: Blue Note Records, 2004). More recently, a 2012 notice advertising Cash Money Records’ Annual Turkey Giveaway lists the event as taking place at ‘Shakespeare Park’ (Spera, Keith. “Cash Money Records to Hold Annual Turkey Giveaway Tuesday.” The Times Picayune. November 22, 2012).
Shakespeare Park has been the site of a countless number of important events. A Great Depression Era Works Progress Administration concert series at the park in the early 1930’s featured many prominent, influential names in the early history of New Orleans jazz music; one 1932 concert featured the Tonic Triad Band, lead by Henry Pritchard and P.W. Beaulieu, while another that same year featured a “mass band” consisting of ten different brass bands under Pritchard’s direction (Band Concert Given. The Times-Picayune. p. 10. August 15, 1932; The Times Picayune. p. 8. June 22, 1932).
During the 1960’s and 70’s, Shakespeare Park was a major site of New Orleans Civil Rights and anti-Vietnam War organization. Aside from a number of memorials commemorating the life of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and annual conventions of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, perhaps the most significant of these events took place in 1969 when hundreds of students from SUNO, Xavier University, Loyola University, Tulane University, and Dillard University participated in a massive anti-war march and rally where Senator Charles Goddell and several local civil rights leaders spoke (Goddell Will Talk at Rally. The Times Picayune Sec 1 p. 18. November 10, 1969). In 1972, after two black Southern University students were killed in Baton Rouge, over 250 SUNO and Dillard University students organized and attended a memorial at the site (Memorial Rights for two slain blacks Monday. The Times Picayune. Sec. 1 p. 6. November 18, 1972). During the same era, many well-attended marches to protest the Vietnam War ended at the park, where rallies were then held (Marchers Protest Asian War. The Times Picayune. Sec 1 p. 8. May 5, 1972).
With all that history and all those events–even during present day–this park is one worth preserving.
This was originally published on 5/7/2015 at Media Nola.