What An Ugly Name

Written by: Tachmonite Butler
About: Oretha Castle Haley

When I was a third grader some years ago, they were changing the name of the school I was attending. There was a ballot of three names the students had to choose from. I cannot remember any of the names except the one that won, Oretha Castle Haley. Like most third graders of the time, I didn't know who any of the three people were or what they did to have their name on a school.

Well, be that as it may, I left the school the year of its official name change (the next year). I never again wondered or cared about who Oretha Castle Haley was until one very unusual day many years later, during the middle of my senior year of high school.

I was in my car driving past the school, looking at the building in disgust after being stopped by a red light. I thought to myself, "The Oretha Castle Haley Tigers, what an ugly name." After thinking that, I pulled off in my car, still glancing back at the school.

Upon turning to look ahead, I found myself in an unfamiliar neighborhood. So being the person that I am, I turned the car around to see where I missed my turn. And upon turning the car, I could not drive forward. It was not because I ran out of gas or into a tree or something like that. It was unbelievable that in the middle of the road I saw a group of people that look like the night's sky. You would not believe how many blacks were marching down the road with the few whites between them looking like the stars in the night. They were holding signs with sayings such as, "You promised an end to racial injustice," and they were holding them proudly—so proudly that I left my car to join them. I've always been an advocate for racial justice in New Orleans, but this time was strange. The shouting and walking had me in a daze as I walked with them, singing the songs and talking with people I didn't know.

So after about an hour or so of walking, we reached our destination, a building that resembled City Hall, except that it was old and it looked like no one had been there for years. Before I could ask, someone said, "It's empty. Now what do we do?" This made the crowd a little restless and uneasy. Just as I began to think things were about to get ugly, this young lady, this magnificent black woman, began to address the crowd. She spoke like a strong, majestic animal, a tiger perhaps, leading others on the hunt. Of her whole speech, I only remember one thing she said, one very important and true point: "What we say together is important... As long as we are held in economic and political slavery, they [the whites] aren't free either."

I only remember what she said because it held such meaning for me. And at that moment I woke up from my daydream to find myself still next to the school, and the light was green. I rushed home so I could do my report and go to sleep. But while doing my report, which was on a civil rights march in the early 1960's from Shakespeare Park to City Hall, I was alert, especially since for the third time Oretha Castle Haley came into my vision. First was as I stopped next to the school, second was in my daydream as the woman who addressed the crowd, and third as I researched the civil rights movement in New Orleans. And it was then that I made it a point to learn more about Haley, this fighter/warrior for civil rights.

From reading, I found out Oretha Castle Haley was born in 1940 as Oretha Castle. While a student at Southern University of New Orleans, she led boycotts, sit-ins, and other acts of civil disobedience as a leader along with other young people of the New Orleans chapter of the Congress for Racial Equality (CORE). And it was in this position that she effectively fought for racial justice in New Orleans. And her fight continued for the rest of her life. After graduating from SUNO, she continued as a community activist and leader, fighting for civil rights, quality health care, and fair, community-based education.

I still have much more to learn about Haley's life. Like most of the unsung heroes I know about, books contain too little information for me to learn the whole story. But I do have dreams and elders that can help me. And now I feel proud to see Oretha Castle Haley's name on my old school. I think it's a great way to show appreciation for all the work she has done for blacks—and all people—in New Orleans.