- Cheryllyn Branche, second from left, listens as Sandra Green Thomas addresses Georgetown
University historian Adam Rothman, far left, during "Sold South," an historic panel
moderated by University of New Orleans Professor Emeritus Raphael Cassimere, far right,
and sponsored by the Midlo Center for New Orleans Studies with the Historic New Orleans
- University of New Orleans historians Mary Niall Mitchell, left, and Connie Zeanah
Atkinson, right, pose with Cherylln Branche following the panel discussion on Dec.
14. Mitchell is the Ethel and Herman L. Midlo Chair at UNO and she and Atkinson direct
the Midlo Center at UNO.
- The Midlo Center was founded with a gift from New Orleans area civil rights attorney
Herman L. Midlo, left, and his wife Ethel. Their daughter, groundbreaking historian
Gwendolyn Midlo-Hall, right, carried out her mother’s wishes to establish a center
and a lecture series that would serve as a memorial to her father's work taking on
challenging civil rights cases that touched on issues of police brutality and workers’
TriPod: New Orleans at 300
Leading up to the Tricentennial of New Orleans in 2018, the Midlo Center, in collaboration
with WWNO and The Historic New Orleans Collection, is producing a one-a-week series
of radio broadcasts and podcasts related to New Orleans history. Drawing from an advisory
board of nationally recognized historians on the city, the series has already won
national recognition, winning an Edward R. Murrow Award for Excellence in Broadcast
Freedom on the Move
The Midlo Center is collaborating with the University of Alabama Department of History,
and Cornell University on this collaborative digital humanities project on runaway
slave advertisements in the Gulf South, the rest of the southern United States, the
Caribbean and Brazil. More than 6,000 advertisements have been collected by the Midlo
team. Mitchell is heading the research project in Louisiana.
The Midlo Center edits this place-based tour site driven by student research and writing,
a joint project with Tulane University. Since assuming editorial direction of NOH,
Midlo has initiated collaborations with the Tennessee Williams Festival, The Historic
New Orleans Collection, the Louisiana State Museum and the Preservation Resource Center.
Humanities Action Lab Global Dialogues on Incarceration
UNO is the only national partner from Louisiana for this traveling exhibit, called
States of Incarceration, created by The New School for Social Research in New York
and on display at the Ogden Museum of Southern Art throughout April 30. The Midlo
Center coordinated several public events around the issue of incarceration and facilitated
community partnerships with the Louisiana Center for Children's Rights, Ashé Cultural
Center, Central City Fest, Angola Prison Museum, Angola State Prison, local and national
artists, local high school art classes and local university faculty.
Orleans Parish School Board Records Digitalization Project
This ongoing project aims to summarize, digitize and create helpful ways to search
the records of the Orleans Parish School Board—which span, in linear feet, the length
of five football fields. Since 1983, the collection has been housed in the Louisiana
and Special Collections Department of UNO's Earl K. Long Library.
To Be Sold: The American Slave Trade from Virginia to New Orleans
The Midlo Center was the 2015 national teleconference co-sponsor and planner for To
Be Sold: The American Slave Trade from Virginia to New Orleans, a daylong symposium
funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities that took place in both Richmond,
Va., and New Orleans, in collaboration with The Library of Virginia and The Historic
New Orleans Collection.
Celebrating Midlo Center
25 Years of Promoting Louisiana’s History
Cheryllyn Branche sat at the front of the room, her hands resting on a cordless microphone
as dozens of people waited to hear her story. Seven months earlier, the retired Catholic
school principal didn't know this was her story and she knew nothing about the woman
seated next to her, Sandra Green Thomas.
Now, as the room filled up with family and strangers, historians and activists, and
as she prepared to speak publicly for the first time about the truth of her own family
history, the weight of her ancestors' journey from slavery to freedom was palpable
in a way she'd not yet experienced.
Branche reached to clasp Thomas' hand for a moment. They were two New Orleanians whose
lives had been suddenly changed by the knowledge that their ancestors—men and women
whose names they knew, whose pictures they'd seen, whose faith they'd been taught—had
been enslaved by Jesuit priests at Georgetown University and sold to Louisiana plantation
owners nearly 180 years earlier to help keep the university afloat.
"At this age and state in my life, it's taken me on a journey that is unimaginable,"
Branche told the people gathered at the Historic New Orleans Collection on that December
night last year during an event arranged in celebration of the 25th anniversary of
the University of New Orleans' Ethel and Herman L. Midlo Center for New Orleans Studies.
That the Midlo Center facilitated this moment—a first-person discussion of the legacy
of that now-infamous Georgetown sale of 272 enslaved people in Louisiana—should be
Named for Herman L. Midlo, a civil rights attorney in New Orleans from the 1930s to
the 1950s, and his wife, Ethel, the Midlo Center was founded in 1992 under the direction
of Joseph Logsdon, a UNO history professor who saw a need for a scholarly center devoted
to New Orleans history, culture, public policy and particularly civil rights topics.
After Herman Midlo died in 1978, his daughter, historian Gwendolyn Midlo-Hall, carried
out her mother's wishes to use his estate to establish a center and a lecture series
that would serve as a memorial to his work taking on challenging civil rights cases
that touched on issues of police brutality and workers' rights. Eventually, the family
broadened that gift into the Louisiana Board of Regents-approved Ethel and Herman
L. Midlo Chair, naming longtime historian and civil rights activist Joseph Logsdon
the first chair holder.
Under the direction of the chair, the Midlo Center seeks to push public discussion
of Louisiana history beyond statistics and generalizations to increase understanding
of the personal stories, faces and legacies of some of this state's most vexing social
and historical issues, including slavery and mass incarceration.
Gwendolyn Midlo-Hall, who inherited her father's interest in social justice causes,
was, in many ways, the perfect person to help Logsdon execute the vision. As a teenager,
Midlo-Hall helped her father in his legal research by conducting title searches at
the local courthouse. There, she encountered legal documents written in French and
Spanish—languages she eventually mastered, enabling her to decipher the often meticulous
notations in such historic documents that regarded the owning, selling and mortgaging
of enslaved people.
Later in life, Midlo-Hall pored through these and other documents, eventually creating
the first-ever searchable database containing the names, ethnicities and stories of
Africans and African-Americans enslaved in North America. Midlo-Hall's work now is
on display at the 265-year-old Whitney Plantation, the Wallace, La., property that
in 2014 opened as the only plantation museum in Louisiana devoted to the history of
slavery. There, a memorial named in her honor lists the names of 107,000 people who
were enslaved in Louisiana and whose stories are documented in her Louisiana Slave
"Dr. Hall is one of the first historians of slavery to enter the archives with the
conviction that individual black lives matter and that their individual histories
could and should be retrieved," says Mary Niall Mitchell, co-director of the Midlo
Center who has held the Midlo Chair since 2009. "She was, you might say, an early
adopter of digital technology and quickly recognized its importance to the field of
Over the years, and most recently under the direction of Mitchell and co-director
Connie Zeanah Atkinson, associate professor of history, the Midlo Center has played
an essential role in helping to bring Louisiana's rich and multi-textured history
alive for diverse audiences—and to great acclaim.
"It is important for us to continue to promote research and develop programming centered
on civil rights, to honor the Midlo family's bequest," says Mitchell. "Our work on
this history of mass incarceration--a pressing crisis today that Herman Midlo surely
would have responded to--is one example of this. At the same time, we are keeping
pace with the latest developments in the historical field, promoting, developing,
and collaborating on projects in the digital humanities such as New Orleans Historical,
a web-based tour site, and Freedom on the Move, a database of runaway slave advertisements."
The Midlo Center is also interested in projects that result in the collection of local
and regional oral histories. In recent years, it has supported the collection of stories
from and about the Sisters of the Holy Family, New Orleans' black political leaders
in the 1970s, New Orleans' South Rampart Street, Hurricane Katrina and the 1977 election
of Dutch Morial.
Raphael Cassimere, professor emeritus of history, says that given all of the work
the Midlo Center has undertaken over the years, its name might give a false impression.
"When you hear the word center, it may portray the wrong image of a large, ongoing
enterprise," he says. "When in fact it's basically two staff persons … and think of
what we've done."
The center was founded at a time when Louisiana's budgetary resources were plummeting
along with oil prices, he says. Despite that, its work has sustained, creating some
of the most meaningful conversations Louisianians can have with themselves and with
Last December, at the end of the two-hour panel discussion about the Georgetown slave
sale, Cheryllyn Branche told the audience something she says she often told her students:
"An oyster doesn't make a pearl unless it is irritated."
"For us to have this dialogue face-to-face," she went on, "gives all of us the opportunity
to voice and to commit to cleansing and being whole and being one. And without that
dialogue, we're not going to get there. If we don't talk honestly in these conversations
about slavery, injustice, white privilege or anything else that separates us and divides
us, if we don't do it, who is going to do it for us?"