Born in New Orleans, Ernest Morial grew up in the city’s Seventh Ward. His father was a cigar maker and his mother was a seamstress. Graduating from Xavier University, a historically black Catholic institution, he became the first African American to receive a law degree from Louisiana State University. Battling segregation in the courtroom, he was elected president of the local NAACP chapter, and later elected to the Louisiana State legislature, becoming the first black member since Reconstruction. Later, he became the first Juvenile Court judge, and the first Circuit Court of Appeals judge of his race in Louisiana.
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 he significantly increased the minority proportion of city workers and policemen, he was criticized by some black community leaders for 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. Later, his son Marc was elected mayor of New Orleans. 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.