Born in New Orleans, Louisiana on October 9, 1929, Ernest “Dutch” Morial grew up in the city’s English and French-speaking Seventh Ward. His father was a cigar maker and his mother was a seamstress. Graduating from Xavier University, a historically black Catholic institution in 1951, he became the first African American to receive a law degree from Louisiana State University in 1954. Battling segregation in the courtroom, he was elected president of the local NAACP chapter. In 1967 Morial became the first African American elected to the Louisiana State legislature since Reconstruction. Later, he became the first Juvenile Court judge in 1970, and the first Circuit Court of Appeals judge of his race in Louisiana in 1974.
In 1977 Morial was elected the first African American mayor of New Orleans, with 95% of the black vote, and 20% of the white vote, mostly from the city’s middle and upper-class Uptown neighborhoods. His leadership style was often described as arrogant and abrasive. When police officers went on strike in 1979 he refused to compromise, announcing his stand with his hand inside his coat in a Napoleonic gesture.
Although Morial significantly increased the minority proportion of city workers and policemen, he was criticized by some black community leaders for allowing continued police brutality. His tenure ended in 1986 despite his attempts to amend the city charter and run for a third term. Many observers felt that only death prevented him from entering the 1990 mayoral race. Four years later, in 1994, his son Marc Morial was elected mayor of New Orleans.
Ernest “Dutch” Morial, a member of Alpha Phi Alpha and Sigma Pi Phi fraternities, died in New Orleans on December 24, 1989 at the age of 60 In 2005 the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center became one of the national symbols of Hurricane Katrina when it served as a center for displaced people.