Sauvinet v. Walker
“If we appeal to the law engraved on our hearts, we find that human rights are common to all and that, what is common to all must be communicated to all…There is, therefore, no privileged class of American citizens—all are equal, and the access to places of public resort is a right to be enjoyed in common by all citizens.” This quote comes from a letter written to Major John Cartwright. The quote represents the complex nature going on around the 1870s. It shows the need of the society and law to grant everyone, regardless of race, civil rights and civil remedies for any wrongdoing that occurred.
On January 20, 1871 Charles St. Albin Sauvinet entered into the the Bank Coffeehouse on No. 6 Royal Street (now known as 106 Royal Street), which was owned by Joseph A. Walker. Sauvinet had gone to the Bank on many occasions; however, one day would change the situation. Before this date in late January, Walker spoke with Sauvinet and requested that Sauvinet not return to the barroom because Sauvinet was a colored man. Although Sauvinet did not have any attentions on going back to the Bank, his friends urged him to go there and get a drink with them. Once Sauvinet arrived, the staff at the Bank refused to service him. Sauvinet sent his attorney to Henry Dibble’s 6th District Court to serve a petition, in which Sauvinet requested $5,000 dollars in damages. At the local level, the judge ruled in favor of Sauvinet, despite the jury coming back undecided. The judge reduced the amount from $5,000 to $1,000. At the Louisiana Supreme Court, the same decision as the district court was reached. This case is about more than just a win for a man who was refused service at a local barroom, but it is also about the complex racial and color issues of New Orleans and the South as well. The case showed how the Louisiana Constitution sought to create social equality among its citizens, but that local and communal prejudice still lingered. It also shows how deeply complex the issue of race was for even those of that particular race.
The Bank Coffeehouse and the case of Sauvinet v. Walker manifest just how much race still played such a key issue in society after the Civil War. Because Sauvinet was a colored man, Walker and his associates wanted to bar him from a public place of establishment and deny Sauvinet of his civil rights guaranteed under the Louisiana Constitution. Although the Civil War had ended, race still mattered, especially in the Deep South. Further, race was important, because a particular race was hard to define. For example, the question of whether or not Sauvinet was a black man or a white man was frequent in the court case. The question of Sauvinet’s race is important, because it goes to show just how much people of the color race could pass off as white and construe the racial lines. In the case, Sauvinet, himself, does not know for sure if he is actually a colored man. However, when his race is brought up and questioned, he does make it known that he is “said” to be a colored man. By saying he is said to be and not that he is, Sauvinet is manifesting that he, too, does not know for sure. Nevertheless, Sauvinet states that because he was denied certain rights before the War, such as voting, holding office, and being excluded from the right of citizenship, then that makes him a colored man and not a white man. Sauvinet asserts this, because he states that if he were a white man, then, he would not have been denied any of those rights that white men get to enjoy. Because of Sauvinet’s fair complexion, some saw him as a white man and others as a colored man. However, the judge ruled that Sauvinet was indeed a colored man who had been denied services because of his race. Thus, the judge granted Sauvinet damages of $1,000.
Although Sauvinet was a man of status and reputation, the denial of a drink based off of his race came as a shock to him, as he states in his testimony that he was shocked and caught off guard by the situation. Although he was of fair color and the first man of color to serve as the Civil Sheriff of Orleans Parish, his reputation and fair skin was still denied at the barroom, because of the mere fact that he was a black man. While this shows how the community felt at this time in regards to race, the outcome of the case shows that the law and the Louisiana Supreme Court wanted to make sure social justice prevailed over discrimination. This case is significant because of the racial complexities being sought through and the idea of race being used as discrimination.
Walker v. Sauvinet, 92 U.S. 90 (1875)