Economy Hall: The Hidden History of a Free Black Brotherhood by Fatima Shaik

Economy HallIn pre-pandemic times, I used to meet occasionally in the evenings with several women at the cafe French Roast in Greenwich Village. A glass (or two) of wine, maybe a salad or tartine, and good conversation. It’s not so easy these days to meet people in a casual way and I miss those gatherings. One of the women at those French Roast gatherings was Fatima Shaik, the author of Economy Hall. I’ve been remiss in not writing sooner about this book, since I had the pleasure of interviewing Shaik for the Women’s National Book Association several months ago. She used to tell us about the years she spent doing research for a history book about New Orleans and how she had become immersed in the story. I knew I’d read it once it was published.

Economy Hall is indeed an immersive book and I understand why Shaik spent all those years uncovering the history of the group. It was a vibrant organization in the Treme district that served as a social club; a support network; an educational and charitable organization; and a way for the Creole community to display its learning and unique style. Many of the founding members came from Haiti, where they had been involved in uprisings. They spoke several languages, appreciated music and literature, and enjoyed good food. New Orleans didn’t want these rebellious Blacks, but they came anyway and created a vibrant free Black community. It’s quite a story, from Economy Hall’s founding, in the 1830s, to the 1950s when it had a second life as a popular venue for jazz. Detailed minutes–which Shaik’s father wisely rescued from the trash–provided a wealth of information but also difficult choices about how to present the material.

How does a writer decide when the research is done, when there’s enough information to tell the story? Which of the thousands of details and anecdotes are needed to invigorate the tale? And from whose point of view should the story be told? Shaik decided to let one of the members of Economy Hall tell the history: Ludger Boguille, an early member with ties to Haiti. For many years Boguille was the recording secretary, taking minutes of the meetings–in French–in a beautiful, almost calligraphic hand. Focusing on an individual was a great choice to bring the reader right into the life of the Society: the friendships, the fabulous social events, the feuds among members, and the painful striving for recognition by the white community.

It’s a great story, well told and I highly recommend it!

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