When Peter M. Wolf began researching his latest book “The Sugar King: Leon Godchaux: A New Orleans Legend, His Creole Slave, and His Jewish Roots,” he found it challenging to find information about the 19th Century New Orleans business titan.
Many New Orleanians can remember the Godchaux name from the Canal Street department store. But Leon Godchaux’s legacy is vast. He also founded the Godchaux Sugar Company, established retail clothing stores that revolutionized the clothing trade, founded a railroad to bring sugar cane to his refineries, helped shore up levees following the 1873 flood, and owned 14 plantations.
“There was very little ever written about Leon Godchaux,” says Peter. “I searched through numerous archives but I eventually found that some of his descendants had participated in an oral history program.”
Peter, Godchaux’s great-great-grandson, was introduced to the Friends of the Cabildo Oral History Program where he was able to access recorded accounts of Leon Godchaux from his ancestors.
“The people that had participated in the oral histories knew more than anyone else,” says Peter. “It was truly a stunning experience to hear these first-hand accounts.”
The Friends of the Cabildo Oral History Program has conducted almost 700 recordings of New Orleanians that were interviewed from the 1970s to present day. Thanks to the generosity of donors these stories have been preserved and are available for anyone to access. They tell the story of New Orleans from the late 1870s to present day. But to hear the way these stories are told is invaluable for future generations.
“When you are listening to these recordings, you can feel the emotion,” says Peter. “A woman named Justine Godchaux was telling a story that was extremely surprising to her. You could hear in the timbre of her voice the emotion she was feeling. It was a very poignant moment and made the story so much richer.”
You can read more about Leon Godchaux and his legacy in New Orleans in “The Sugar King: Leon Godchaux: A New Orleans Legend, His Creole Slave, and His Jewish Roots.”