Dominic Massa / Eyewitness News
NEW ORLEANS - Most Americans remember Lee Harvey Oswald as just a mysterious figure in grainy film images from those dark days in Dallas 50 years ago. But few may know that his story actually begins here in New Orleans.
He was born and raised here, worked here and was even captured by TV news cameras chronicling his activities in that fateful summer of 1963.
Oswald was born in New Orleans on October 18, 1939, two months after his father, Robert, died suddenly of a heart attack.
“He was a happy go lucky child, actually,” his mother, Marguerite, remarked in a news interview after the assassination. It’s a description that few others would share.
Oswald's mother struggled to make ends meet for Lee and his two brothers, and moved several times during those early years.
Young Lee grew up in a house on Alvar Street in the Ninth Ward, that has since been demolished. At one point, the family also lived in houses on Congress Street, Bartholomew Street and an apartment on Pauline Street. They would also stay with relatives in Lakeview and Mid-City. Oswald’s brothers also spent time in an orphanage.
Before long, the family would move to Dallas, the first of Oswald’s many brushes with that city.
Oswald's school age years also included a stint in New York, but soon he was back in his hometown, living for a time in the French Quarter, and enrolled at Covington Elementary and then Beauregard Junior High on Canal Street, now Capdau Charter School.
He spent just a year there and at Warren Easton High School before dropping out to join the Marines.
No one knows for sure why Oswald returned to New Orleans in 1963, after spending time in the Soviet Union.
He lived in a house in the 4900 block of Magazine Street and worked for a short time at the Reily Coffee Company on Magazine.
Oswald formed a New Orleans chapter of the pro-Fidel Castro "Fair Play for Cuba" committee and was filmed by local news crews handing out leaflets near the old International Trade Mart at Camp and Common, now the Sheraton Hotel.
At one point, Oswald he scuffled with local Cuban refugees, whom he initially had expressed support for but then questionably changed course, and he was arrested by NOPD for disturbing the peace.
The attention led to media coverage, a broadcast debate and an interview by WDSU anchor Bill Slatter.
“I am not a Communist and I think the red herring is rather ridiculous to toss into this,” Oswald said. Slatter asked, “Are you a Marxist?” “I would definitely say I am a Marxist, but that does not mean that I am a Communist,” Oswald replied.
Slatter, now retired, remembered the encounter in a 1995 interview with WYES-TV.
“He was kind of an innocuous little man, you know, an unprepossessing fellow who didn’t really impress any of us very much but was very serious. He seemed (to have) a lack of sense of humor,” Slatter said.
In a 2003 interview, former States-Item newspaper editor Walter Cowan also remembered a run-in with Oswald. Cowan said he came into the newspaper's newsroom demanding to tell his side of the story, which he felt the broadcast media had ignored.
“It just appeared to me that here's a guy that just looked like hate poured out of his pores of his face,” Cowan said.
Like many others in New Orleans, Cowan, who died in 2010, would see that face again, in a much different light, some three months later.
“The day that Kennedy was killed, (editor) John Wilds was in a darkroom that had a television and came running out and he said, ‘Walt, that man you talked to about the Castro incident? That’s the guy they arrested for killing Kennedy.”
Other newsmen in town would have a similar reaction when they heard the name Lee Harvey Oswald, in a very different context.
Former WDSU photographer Mike Lala, who died in 2005, remembered filming Oswald and his “Fair Play for Cuba” leaflets, but the footage was almost lost.
“Everyone at the same instant realized we might have had film of Oswald,” Lala said in an interview. “We had a three-month throwaway box. He was either in the second or third box. We kept stuff we thought was important and the scrap we put in a box and at the end of the month was tossed.”
“Once we saw Oswald was the guy, we found out we had it, we notified New York, fed New York and immediately Lee Harvey Oswald's picture was shown over the whole United States.”