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Marsalis, Ellis L., Sr. (1908-2004) | Amistad Research Center

Name: Marsalis, Ellis L., Sr. (1908-2004)
Fuller Form: Ellis Louis Marsalis, Sr.

Historical Note:

Ellis Louis Marsalis Sr. (1908-2004), a prominent New Orleans businessman and jazz patriarch, was the manager of the first African American-owned gas station in Uptown, New Orleans, Louisiana, and a hotelier serving African American travelers during segregation in the Shrewsbury community of Jefferson Parish for forty years.  Marsalis, Sr. dedicated his career to community development and civil rights by providing services to African Americans through his businesses and promoting the power of electoral politics to drive change in his community.

In 1936, Ellis Marsalis, Sr. and William Wicker started an Esso gas station in New Orleans, which became the first African American-owned gas station in the neighborhood. In 1943, Marsalis, Sr. started his career as an hotelier when he opened Marsalis' Motel in the Shrewsbury community in Jefferson Parish.  Also during the 1940s, he promoted positive change in the community by starting the Boosters Club, which registered African American voters throughout New Orleans.  Furthermore, while Marsalis, Sr. was not a musician himself, he was the patriarch of a family of musicians, including his son, Ellis L. Marsalis, Jr. and his grandsons, Wynton, Branford, Delfeayo and Jason.

Ellis Marsalis, Sr. was born on April 16, 1908 to Rosa Gayden and Simmie Marsalis in Summit, Mississippi.  In 1923, he moved to New Orleans with his mother to join his father and brother, who had already moved to the city in 1921.  At the time, his father worked at the roundhouse in Harahan and his brother drove a mule that delivered ice cream for Brownsville. In 1933, Ellis Marsalis, Sr. married Florence Robertson, whom he had met while enrolled in night school.  Together, they had two children, Yvette Marsalis Washington and Ellis L. Marsalis, Jr.

In 1936, Marsalis, Sr. began his business career as the manager of an Esso (now Exxon) service station, along with his business partner William Wicker.  When the station first opened, it was located at Eighth Street and Howard, but it later moved into the Uptown neighborhood of New Orleans.  The service station was the first African American-owned gas station in the neighborhood.  Continuing into the 1940s, he owned and operated the service station at the corner of Sixth Street and Claiborne Avenue.

In 1943, he purchased property in the Shrewsbury community of Jefferson Parish and converted a chicken barn into a forty room motel, complete with a swimming pool, restaurant, and lounge.  The motel was known by a variety of names, including Marsalis' Motel, Marsalis Mansion, and Marsalis Tourist Home.  From 1944 to 1986, he ran one of the only motels open to African Americans traveling to New Orleans at the time of Jim Crow segregation laws.  Guests to his motel included prominent civil rights activists, politicians, and musicians, such as the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr., Congressman Adam Clayton Powell Jr., Thurgood Marshall, Ray Charles, and numerous celebrities who visited the New Orleans area. While the hotel flourished during segregation, after the civil rights legislation in the 1960s, hotels and motels across the city that once blocked African American guests opened their doors to all travelers, and business to Marsalis' motel declined drastically.  On September 26, 1986, Marsalis closed the motel and it was demolished in 1993.

In addition to his business ventures, Marsalis, Sr. and several other African American men, with the assistance of the local sheriff in Jefferson Parish, founded the Boosters Club, which assisted African American residents in Jefferson Parish in registering to vote.  While Marsalis, Sr. started his work to register voters after he was personally refused the opportunity to register to vote and was escorted from the office, many African Americans living in the Shrewsbury community opposed his efforts at first because they were suspicious of his friendship with the local sheriff.

Ellis Marsalis, Sr. was also a member of a variety of organizations in his community and nationwide. Locally, Marsalis, Sr. and his family were active in St. James A.M.E. Church in New Orleans and the Dryades Street Y.M.C.A.  Personally, Marsalis, Sr. was also a committed member of the local Republican Party and served as the president of the Nationwide Hotel Association. Furthermore, he was also a 32nd-degree member of the Ancient and Accepted Scottish Rite of Freemasonry.

Ellis Marsalis, Sr. died on September 19, 2004 at the Ochsner Foundation Hospital in New Orleans at the age of 96.

Note Author: Diane Galatowitsch

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