Back in January, I was contacted by a researcher, Lasse Lau, editor of Queer Geographies, who was conducting research on Dixie’s Bar of Music, the fabled gay bar that once occupied the corner of St. Peter and Bourbon Streets. Lau asked me if I knew anything about the gay riot against the police that happened there in 1955. I responded by asking “What riot?”
While conducting research on another project at the LGBT History Archive in San Francisco, Lau ran across an oral history recorded in 1999 that caught his attention. The interviewee was Paul Coates, a Navy veteran, dancer, and founder of the Ballet Academy and Theatre in Shreveport, Louisiana. In the interview, Coates recalls his regular trips to New Orleans for Mardi Gras and references a “gay riot” at Dixie’s on Mardi Gras weekend, 1955.
Dixie’s Bar of Music was a popular gay bar on the corner of Bourbon and St. Peter Streets from 1949 to 1964. And for Mardi Gras, it was ground zero for gay men.
In his interview, Coates states, “Someone shouted out, ‘The police is trying to get in here’ so we said ‘Well fuck them!’ And so we got the bar stools and just piled them up against the door and we barricaded, we locked the door first, … So the police were trying to break down the door … they threw in tear gas … we all got our handkerchiefs and covered our faces and we found the goddamn tear gas and threw it right back out the window at them.”
I read this with amazement and bewilderment. A gay riot against the police on Bourbon Street? 14 years before Stonewall? During Mardi Gras? I had never heard of a riot at Dixie’s. I asked around and no one else had heard of it either. I checked with other local queer historians and even old-timers who frequented Dixie’s. Again, no one had ever heard about a riot at Dixie’s. I then became skeptical and chalked it up to a fanciful imagination. I was wrong. Sort of.
I told Lau that unless there was more documentary evidence, no one would believe the story. Then Howard P. Smith, a friend, and fellow writer (Smith and I co-wrote Southern Decadence in New Orleans) found a newspaper article referencing a riot on the same night Coates mentioned but had the riot taking place at Pat O’ Brien’s, a half a block away from Dixie’s in the 700 Block of St. Peter Street.
Could Coates have mixed up his bars? There was a “bachelor” bar at Pat O’ Brien’s which was frequented by “Friends of Dorothy” at the time. I read the newspaper account again and not a mention was made of gay men or the crimes they were typically charged with—“lewd behavior” and “crimes against nature.” Was Coates’ account an example of an exaggerated poetic license?
Police reports and arrest records shed some light on these questions. Robert Barrilleaux and his friends were walking in the 700 block of St. Peter when they noticed a young man, later identified as Lawrence Morrison, breaking into a parked car. Barrilleaux confronted the young man who fought back before Barrilleaux and his friends subdued him and brought him to a police officer stationed nearby at Pat O’Brien’s. Morrison kicked the cop in the groin. The officer then beat him with a billy club. A large crowd formed. Most were drunk. Rioting ensued.
The police report, submitted by Captain Edward Norman, dated 12:19 am, Sunday, February 21, 1955 (it was actually Monday morning), states: “Upon arrival at this location found a very large crowd in the 700 block of St. Peter St. from Royal to Bourbon St. estimated between 2000 and 3000 persons, all gathered about the entrance of 718 St. Peter St., mostly everyone had a glass or bottle in their hand and many were intoxicated … estimated crowd of 1000 to 1500 persons armed with bottles and glasses attacked several officers at St. Peter and Bourbon St. throwing bottles and glasses at them in the squad cars, again gas was used to break up the mobs.”
A block away, a responding police car, with siren blasting, got stuck in crowd congestion at the corner of Bourbon & Toulouse (site of another popular gay bar called Tony Bacino’s). A pedestrian, Eugene Breese, 21, of Texas, yells “Cut out all that goddamn noise!” and “Fuck you!” A crowd forms. Officer Fernandez gets out of his patrol car and approaches Breese, who punches him in the face and is subsequently arrested, including being charged with “reviling the police” (Ord. 4782).
According to the police report, tear gas had been deployed 45 minutes earlier in the 300 block of Bourbon Street. It was, apparently, an exceptionally raucous Mardi Gras weekend.
The newspaper article, the police report, and the arrest records raise just as many questions as they answer.
And what of Coates’ account? If the gay patrons at Dixie’s did indeed fight back against the police that night, regardless of the police motive for entering the bar, it would constitute a significant rebellion in the annals of queer history on a par with the Compton Cafeteria and Stonewall Inn riots. But is Coates’ testimony reliable? That is what needs to be corroborated. If you have any information about this incident, please contact me.