My look back at Hurricane Katrina is one of death and dying, grieving and goodbyes as exemplified by the funeral of my mentor and the former Urban League of Greater New Orleans CEO Clarence Lyle Barney. It was Saturday, August 27, 2005—just two days before Katrina made landfall and the levees broke—when the Black community gathered at Dillard University Chapel to lay Barney to rest.
Ten years after the cataclysmic storm ripped our community asunder, forever changing the city, the defining event which, to me, symbolizes the mournful leave-taking of a people and their way of life is the leave-taking of our good friend and leader.
For 30 years, he had been the stalwart president of the local affiliate of the National Urban League. He was determined and committed, a daring trailblazer. With his feet planted firmly on the ground, Barney understood the challenges of the everyday New Orleanian. He was at ease in every sector of our community. Whether conferring with the well-heeled uptowners or with the regular men and women whose culture, hard work and spirit are woven together to create the very fabric of the city, he was comfortable; he was unapologetic and authentic.
At this time — the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina — and 10 years after Barney’s death, I find myself asking over and again, “What would Clarence Barney think; what would he say about the state of our city now?” Interestingly enough, I need only to turn pages in The New Orleans Tribune to find the answers. You see, Barney had been a frequent Tribune contributor—writing one of his last commentaries in the August 2002 edition of the paper, an issue emblazoned with the cover headline “Yell Fire”—a headline that he had animatedly suggested for that issue.
Facing the daunting reality that there was an effort afoot to take New Orleans back, to wrest influence and political muscle from the Black leadership that had steered its course during the previous 24 years, in that article he contemplated what he saw as an African-American community in dire trouble.
And as usual, Barney was right. In fact, anxiety and angst envelope me as I reread his column. With uncanny prescience, he lays out the steps the establishment will employ to take New Orleans back. He warns of the consequences Black New Orleans will face if it waits or does nothing or even worse—aids in their mission that he forewarned would:
“Proclaim that a certain group of citizens is morally, socially, culturally and intellectually superior and deserves to control New Orleans.”
Is this not exactly what happened when the “shadow government” met in the days and weeks after Katrina with their plans for green space in New Orleans East and the Ninth Ward and their plans for redeveloping public housing into mixed income dwellings that provide fewer options for the city’s poorest residents?
“Organize a network of private, quasi-public and volunteer institutions and supply them with a core ideology and message.”
How long after Katrina were our public education system and neighborhood schools seized and subsequently turned over to outside management organizations? How long after Katrina before talk of privatizing our public recreation system began?
“Identify Blacks to carry that message and put them in positions of power.”
To be sure, sadness washes over me when I consider the number of our leaders who have either co-signed these disastrous ideologies and messages or those who have sat silently saying and doing nothing as our communities, our schools, and our neighborhoods are placed on a modern-day auction block and sold to the highest bidders.
I know Clarence Barney would be troubled by this New Orleans. It may be new and different…revitalized. But it isn’t right. With too many poor, mostly Black people still left out, left behind, locked out and stranded—just as they were in those haunting days after Katrina—it could never be right.
In the 30 years that The New Orleans Tribune has been in existence and particularly since Katrina, we at McKenna Publishing have has taken seriously our mission to be an unfettered voice for the community. We remain undeterred in that mission. In so doing, we will strive to honor the legacy of our friend Clarence Barney. And personally, I, who served a term as vice chairman of the local Urban League board during his tenure, will challenge those who celebrate now to genuinely reimagine New Orleans as a city that refuses to leave anyone behind. Ours should be a richer city—not because we priced out and locked out the poor, but because we did everything in our power to eliminate the conditions that create poverty. Our city cannot be made stronger—truly stronger—by turning its back on the weak.
Yes, certain areas of the city have made progress since those precarious weeks and months immediately following the storm. And as we commemorate the 10thanniversary of Hurricane Katrina, those strides should be observed. But let’s not confuse progress for certain areas with success.
As I look back to the 10 years since Katrina and then look to the future, I want a better New Orleans for all of our citizens—not just a different one.