Historical Marker For Father Of Musical Marsalis Family

NEW ORLEANS (AP) — It was time to unveil a historic marker for low-key civil rights figure Ellis Marsalis Sr. but the pale blue sheath around the marker stayed fast. Officials heaved and jumped, tugged at corners, pulled ribbons in all directions. Finally it gave way.

         It seemed almost fitting, said relatives of Marsalis, who died in 2004 in a house near the marker's location on River Road in Old Jefferson. He raised a family of musicians prone to the limelight but was never one to toot his own trumpet.

         "He would have been mortified," said grandson Charles Harris. He laughed, thinking of his grandfather's likely reaction to the pomp and praise. "He was a very quiet man. He would have suffered through the ceremony — suffered."

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         Marsalis' daughter, Yvette Washington, painted a similar picture in her speech.

         "He was just a plain, country man," she said.

         A crowd of admirers, historians, politicians nodded. But they were there because they knew Marsalis was far from ordinary.

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         His achievements publicized themselves. A black business owner and political voice during the segregation era, Marsalis raised a family that became internationally known for jazz. His most familiar business, the Marsalis Mansion motel, was patronized by black intellectuals, political leaders and performers who were invited to preach, lecture and play in downtown New Orleans but could not stay in its hotels.

         The motel grew to include a swimming pool and restaurant. People who stayed there included Martin Luther King, Jr., Thurgood Marshall, Ray Charles and Nat King Cole.

         As a child growing up in Harahan, Jefferson Parish President John Young said, he often bicycled past the old motel but learned of its importance only as an adult.

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         "Too often today, we don't know our history," Young said.

         The marker helps to ensure that is not the case, said Sybil Haydel Morial, whose husband, the late New Orleans Mayor Dutch Morial, collaborated with Marsalis on registering black voters in Jefferson and Orleans Parishes.

         "He deserves his recognition," Morial said. "It's a landmark, an important place. In the years when you couldn't stay in downtown hotels, this is where everyone came."

         Jackie Harris, who worked under Dutch Morial's son, former Mayor Marc Morial, to rename New Orleans International Airport for Louis Armstrong, said Marsalis' legacy is an important lesson for future generations.

         "Mr. Marsalis taught a perfect example of communities working together," she said. As Marsalis registered black voters, he worked with a white sheriff; though he was a lifelong Republican, he registered Democrats.

         "We need to continue to work across the aisle," Harris said.

         Bassist Eustis Guillemet, who came to know Marsalis through his son, the pianist Ellis Marsalis Jr., proposed the marker. He grew to see Marsalis as a political leader whose contribution should not be ignored, but also understood that Marsalis would not advocate for attention.

         When the motel was declared a fire hazard and demolished in 1993, Guillemet said he stepped up to ensure the site would be commemorated.

         "I didn't want to let this patriot go unknown when they knocked down the building," he said. "The man did not want to be made a show of."

         Marsalis Jr. said he has passed down River Road often only to notice how the neighborhood was changing, how the business his father built was now spread with gravel, an empty lot, an insignificant blink in the eyes of most drivers. The marker would make it something more.

         "I wish my father was here to actually see this," he said.

         – by AP/ Reporter Adriane Quinlan with NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune



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