by Brooke Obie
Throughout 2018, New Orleans will be celebrating its 300th anniversary. As the celebrating began, I visited my favorite American city. Though the hometown of Mardi Gras is known for its one-of-a-kind food and fun celebrations, it's also rich with culture and history.
Scroll through these photographs to see the oldest African American neighborhood in the country, learn the story of the first coffee seller in New Orleans and meet the people who are shaping the city today. From Congo Square to the Mayor's Office, there is much to learn about one of the most vibrant cities in America.
This Black History Month, there's no better time to visit New Orleans.
Brooke Obie visited New Orleans courteousy of the New Orleans Tourism Marketing Corporation.
The Tremé neighborhood of New Orleans is the oldest Black neighborhood in America. Running from North Rampart Street to Saint Bernard Street. Founded in 1783, this was the only place in America during slavery where Black people and other people of color purchased land and homes with regularity. From museums and restaurants to theaters and churches, Tremé offers countless opportunities to get outside of the famed French Quarter and dive into this neighborhood's significant Black history and culture.
Saint Augustine Catholic Church in Tremé is the oldest Black parish in America. Founded in 1841, both free and enslaved Black people worshipped at Saint Augustine's. Many civil rights activists, including Homer Plessy, whose infamous Supreme Court case Plessy v. Ferguson introduced the doctrine of "separate but equal" in the Jim Crow era, worshipped at St. Augustine. The train station where Plessy was removed from a train for riding in the "whites only" section--the crime that sparked the case--is nearby.
After substantial damage to the church in the wake of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the diocese announced that the church would close even though hurricane survivors were being significantly helped by the church community. Parishoners barricaded themselves in the church, protesting the decision, and after two weeks, the community came to an agreement to keep the church open. The documentary film Shake the Devil follows the ordeal. The church has now been renovated and remains a pillar of the neighborhood.
Today, Congo Square sits inside the Louis Armstrong Park within the famous African American Tremé neighborhood of New Orleans. The wide-open space is the site of concerts, weddings, festivals and historical celebrations. But in 1817, Congo Square was, by city ordinance, the only place where Black people could congregate. Fearing insurrections by the enslaved people, enslavers and other city leaders did not want Black people to be able to congregate in private. The wide-open space offered enslavers surveillance, and many enslaved people took their only free day from forced labor, Sunday, to play music, dance, and sell good in the marketplace for a chance to buy their freedom or escape. These musical celebrations were opportunities for enslaved people to reinforce their African culture and traditions, many of which live on in celebrations held at the Square today.
Leah and her husband Dooky Chase turned a New Orleans staple po' boy sandwich shop into a thriving sit-down restaurant that's been in business since 1946.Though Dooky passed away a few years ago, Leah, the restaurant's executive chef still runs the show of this iconic soul food restaurant. A bedrock of the Civil Rights Movement, leaders from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Mahalia Jackson and James Baldwin used to meet in secret in the restaurant's upper room to strategize protests and more. Over the years, Leah would dedicate the restaurant's walls to showcasing Black artists' work when galleries turned them away. Come for the soul-food buffett and dine on the history in these storied walls.
There would be no New Orleans without hundreds of years of unpaid labor it gained from enslaving people of African descent. Though there are testaments to this fact throughout the city, it's just outside New Orleans, at the Whitney Plantation, where tourists can get the most in-depth understanding of the interior lives of enslaved people. Where the vast majority of plantations open to the public in the south focus on the grandeur of the plantation owners and relegate the enslaved population to a footnote, the Whitney's sole focus is on the people who, against their will, made that plantation function. The Whitney is a fascinating place where the knowledgeable tour guides explain what daily life was like for enslaved people in Louisiana and tell stories of the specific people enslaved on that plantation. Dehydration is a real risk in New Orleans' summers, so be sure to hydrate or travel during the cooler months.
In a historic victory, New Orleanians elected LaToya Cantrell to be the city's first woman mayor in its 300-year history. Mayor-elect Cantrell will be inaugurated in May, but Cantrell is always out and about in the city. Here she is at Dooky Chase's Restaurant with 95-year-old executive chef Leah Chase.
Visual artist Brandan "Bmike" Odums opened his first solo exhibit, Studio Be just two years ago. The muralist uses spray paint to depict civil rights icons like Fannie Lou Hammer and Muhammad Ali and elevates New Orleans locals to icon-status. Portraits of the Virgin Mary and Jesus are painted in the image of local models in the very Catholic town, helping New Orleanians to see the image of God in themselves. Bmike's murals also depict modern social justice movements, highlighting police brutality and mass incarceration. Fascinating for adults and children alike, the studio features a Young Artists in Residence corner where Bmike's paintings are printed in black and white for students to color and hang on the wall these powerful images. But hurry to visit Studio Be; the exhibit will be closing by the summer. If you don't make it in time, you can see Bmike's artwork on walls throughout the city. In celebration of the 300th anniversary, he's been commissioned to paint new murals that showcase local history.
In the early 1800s, enslaved woman Rose Nicaud became the first coffee seller in New Orleans. Using a cart she created to push through the market on Sundays, the only "free" days for enslaved people, Nicaud sold black coffee or coffee with milk to great success. She was forced to give the majority of her profits to her enslaver, but she saved up the remaining portion and eventually was able to purchase herself from her enslaver. Because of her resourcefulness, many other Black women became entrepreneurs following her example. Known as Les Vendeuses, they and the coffee shop Cafe Rose Nicaud on Frenchmen Street are Nicaud's legacy.
Community Book Center is the only Black-owned bookstore in New Orleans and features Afrocentric art, clothing and books. Owned by Vera Williams, CBC has been living up to its name for more than 30 years, with its array of events that bring New Orleanians together to discuss Black history and culture. This photo is from a Kwanzaa celebration in December 2017 where the community liaison, (not pictured, but affectionately known to us all as Mama Jennifer) introduced the Kwanzaa principle of the day, Nia, to a crowd of eager participants.
Located in Tremé, this museum has the most comprehensive collection of African American New Orleanians' processional traditions in the world. Here, you can learn about Indigenous Mardi Gras traditions, second-line parades and jazz funerals. In addition to its wide array of Indigenous Mardi Gras costumes and cultural artifacts, Backstreet also hosts community events and public performances and collaborates with institutions during big annual celebrations like Essence Fest and Jazz Fest.
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