Lulu White: The Black Owner of New Orleans’s Most Notorious Brothel, Mahogany Hall


Before there was the French Quarter, there was Storyville.

New Orleans’ Red Light District was established in 1897 and named for city alderman Sidney Story, who wrote the ordinance that created the district.

It was the first district in the United States that attempted to regulate prostitution of women by designating a specific district for such activities. Shreveport, LA, followed suit quickly and established their own Red Light District soon after.

The relatively freedom the district enjoyed, quickly made it wide-known across the country. In fact, the fact that it was regulated allowed the district – and the various establishments to publicly advertise themselves in newspapers – local and nationwide. This, made the district not only a house-hold name and attracted many tourists from all across the country.

Storyville was located in the area between the streets Iberville Street to St. Louis Street and Basin Street and Robertson Street. The district was home to some of the most famous brothels in the country, including Mahogany Hall.

Mahogany Hall was owned by Lulu White, a light-skinned black woman who passed as white.

She was known in the area as the “Queen of Storyville” and was considered one of the wealthiest businesswomen of her time.

She was also well-known for her stylish outfits, her flamboyant lifestyle, and her generous charitable donations.

She was also known for her beautiful women and luxurious parties.

Lulu White: Early Life

White was born in Mississippi in 1868 or 1869 as Lulu Hendley in Alabama.

Little else is known about her life – and she like it that way.

Years before the term “fake news” would be so common, she would spread wide rumors and claims about her life, including that she was from Cuba and the Bahamas.

Lulu White: Her Life in New Orleans

She arrived in New Orleans sometime in the 1890s and quickly established herself as one of the most successful madams in the city.

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In addition to Mahogany Hall, White also owned several other brothels in Storyville, including The Palace and The Big 25. 

Lulu White: What Was the Storyville District in New Orleans Known for?

Storyville was the red-light district of New Orleans, Louisiana from 1898 to 1917. It was created by municipal ordinance under the city’s new mayor, Sidney Story.

It was located by Basin Street in the uptown area known as the Tenderloin.

The district was used to regulate prostitution and other vice activities within the city of New Orleans.

The Storyville district in New Orleans was known for its prostitute houses, or “maison’s de joie.”

Many of the white girls in the brothels were poor immigrants from European countries, part of the large wave of immigration that came to the US in the late 19th, early 20th century.

These houses were clustered around Basin Street, and most of them were run by white women. Lulu White was one of the only non-white business owners in the district.

The prices for services in these houses were high, and unlike brothels in many other parts of the country – they were high-end establishments, and not run-down places.

Storyville also plays an important part in jazz history.

The district was home to many of the city’s most famous jazz clubs, which were frequented by both local and visiting musicians.

Some of the most famous names in jazz, including Jelly Roll Morton, Louis Armstrong, and Sidney Bechet, got their start playing in Storyville clubs.

Lulu White: What Made Mahogany Hall in New Orleans Special?

Mahogany Hall was one of the largest and most lavish brothels in Storyville.

It boasted 23 rooms, each with its own theme.

Themed rooms were not uncommon in brothels of the time, but Mahogany Hall’s themes were more creative and upscale than those of its competitors.

For example, one room was paneled entirely in mirrors, so that guests could watch the nude women who worked at the brothel dance.

Other rooms had theme names like “The Congo” and “The Arabian Nights.” 

In addition to its opulent decor, Mahogany Hall also featured expensive art on its walls and performances by soon-to-be-famous jazz musicians such as Jelly Roll Morton and Sidney Bechet.

White herself was something of a celebrity; she was often written about in local newspapers and even had a song penned about her.

Aside from the lavish style, White prided her self for having one of the only interracially brothels in the country.

Like most places in the South at the time, most brothels were usually separated by race – brothels for Whites and for blacks.

White, like other famous black women in history, refused to play along and deliberately hired both white and black prostitutes. Which is some kind of equality, I guess.

Lulu White: Her Downfall

White’s luck ran out when prostitution laws changed in 1917 and Storyville was shut down.

Many of the buildings in the district were demolished, including all of White’s brothels.

It is believed that she left New Orleans shortly after Mahogany Hall closed down and moved to Los Angeles, where she opened a beauty parlor. 

Lulu White: Later Life & Death

The exact date and circumstances of White’s death are unknown.

Some historians believe she died sometime between 1917 and 1931; others believe she may have lived into her 60s or even older.

No matter when or how she died, one thing is certain: Lulu White was one of the most famous—and infamous—women to ever come out of New Orleans.

Lulu White with her dog circa 1893, Courtesy of the Collections of the Kinsey Institute at Indiana University.

Was Lulu White black or white? What race was Lulu White?

While the exact race of Lulu White is not definitively known, she was widely believed to be African-American due to her status as a woman of color in a segregated time period.

Some sources suggest that she may have had mixed heritage or could have been Creole, but this is speculation.

It is, however, well-known that White was able to sometimes able to “pass” as White, and was relatively light-skinned.

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