Daniel F. Desdunes, the famous bandleader of the Desdunes Band, was born in New Orleans around 1870. He worked as a janitor when he first came to Omaha in 1904 with his second wife Maida and son Clarence. Well-known for playing music as the troops boarded trains to leave for the war, his band was designated Omaha’s Official Band by the city council. Through his music, his band inspired generations of musicians. Through his life, Desdunes inspired generations to fight for freedom and equality.
While meeting an executive at an Omaha hotel, an employee denied Desdunes access to a hotel elevator. He, along with others, brought this case to the Omaha World Herald. They requested that hotels with restrictions on the “freedom of the Lift” create a public list to expose unfair treatment. This type of treatment was all too familiar for Desdunes.
In Louisiana, his father was a civil rights activist. The Citizen’s Committee formed in Louisiana in 1890 and selected 21-year-old Desdunes to challenge the law regarding public segregation on public conveyances. On February 24, 1892, he purchased a first class ticket on the Louisville & Nashville from New Orleans to Mobile, Alabama. At a train depot on Canal Street, he sat in a whites-only car. When informed, the railroad told the conductor to leave him alone, but fellow travelers complained. Police officials arrested and charged Desdunes with violating Louisiana’s 1890 Separate Car Act. His attorneys argued that since this was an interstate train, he had the right to travel freely.
On May 25, 1892, the Supreme Court handed down the decision Louisiana ex rel. Abbott v. Hicks where a train conductor seated an African-American in a whites-only car. Marr’s replacement Judge John Ferguson dismissed the case because Louisiana’s high court agreed that the act was unconstitutional under the commerce clause. The law was still in place. His father’s friend, Homer Plessy, would be the next to challenge the Louisiana law.
Daniel Desdunes was not just a great bandleader: he was a leader in the fight for equality. Having the courage to confront an unjust law marks his legacy. Others would take up the fight, and follow it through to its rightful conclusion. Desdunes, a civil rights activist and famous bandleader, helped pave the way.
Dan Desdunes Dies; Long a Band Leader. (1929, April 25). Omaha World Herald, p. 26.
An Affront to Dan Desdunes. (1928, October 22). Omaha World Herald, p. 6. Inness, R. W. (1928, October 18). A Heart Searching Question. Omaha World Herald, p. 14.
Jesse J. Otto, “Dan Desdunes: New Orleans Civil Rights Activist and ‘The Father of Negro Musicians of Omaha,’” Nebraska History 92 (2011): p. 107.
Wilds, J. (1977, May 1). In 1892 We Were Here. Times-Picayune, p. 21.