Compiled by Tribune Staff
It’s a good thing that one does not have to be limited to those 28 revolutions the earth makes around the sun right after Jan. 31 and just before March 1 to celebrate the rich history, culture, and influence of Black people. To be sure, February is not enough time. And the history and impact of Black people in our nation and here in New Orleans—is too deep and important to contain to a calendar month.
New Orleans is home to museums, cultural repositories, archives, historic sites and much more. And there is still plenty of time to take it all in during February, the month designated to highlight Black history. But not to worry, we at The New Orleans Tribune celebrate Black History all year long and so should you.
Celebrating Black History in New Orleans any day of the year is an easy task. Some 300 years after its founding, there is hardly a single aspect of the New Orleans that has not been influenced by people of color—the food, the architecture, the music and more.
For this issue, we have complied a list of a few of our favorite places to visit and things to do (not meant to be exhaustive) as we celebrate and highlight Black History Month in February and all year long in New Orleans.
Le Musée de f.p.c. | 2336 Esplanade Avenue
The door to a hidden history is opened upon entering Le Musée de f.p.c., a historic house museum, which is one of the country’s few attractions dedicated exclusively to preserving the material culture and telling the story of free people of color.
The house museum examines and interprets New Orleans and American history through the lives of free people of color as reflected in its collection of art and material culture.
The founders of this repository strive through their collection of documents, paintings and decorative arts to present, interpret and preserve the history and culture shared by descendants of free people of African descent in New Orleans and throughout the country.
Free people of color, often abbreviated f.p.c., is the term used to refer to Blacks who were born free or manumitted before to the Civil War. Also referred to as gens de couleur libres, their presence in New Orleans is recorded as early as 1722. Although there were enclaves of free people of color who numbered well over a quarter million residing throughout the United States during the antebellum period, New Orleans and south Louisiana were home to one of the oldest and largest populations of such. On the eve of the Civil War, in New Orleans alone, 18,000 free people of color lived here, owning and paying taxes on $15 million of property.
This remarkable community of resilient, resourceful and enterprising people produced artists, artisans, entrepreneurs, educators, physicians, journalists, and countless business owners and professionals prior to the Civil War. And in the midst of Reconstruction, the former free people of color led the entry of Blacks into politics. Perhaps most forgotten is the activist role they played in the Civil Rights Movement as early as 1862.
For more information or to book a guided tour of Le Musee de f.p.c., call 504-323-5074.
Backstreet Cultural Museum | 1116 Henriette Delille St.
The Backstreet Cultural Museum celebrates New Orleans street culture and Mardi Gras history. It houses a collection of Mardi Gras Indian costumes and even rare photographs of Mardi Gras Indians from the 1940s as well as an interesting collection of artifacts that mirrored the Tremé’s vibrant African-American community and pays homage to Mardi Gras Indians, jazz funerals, Skull and Bone gangs, Social Aid and Pleasure Clubs, and other great aspects of New Orleans culture and music.
While there, visitors can explore New Orleans’ art and cultural heritage by viewing collections, exhibitions, music and dance performances.
The Lower Ninth Ward Living Museum | 1235 Deslonde St
The Lower Ninth Ward Living Museum celebrates the rich history of this unique neighborhood.
The Living Museum features oral histories from community members, exhibits of key events from the history of the Lower Ninth Ward, and cultural events that entertain and educate.
The Living Museum was co-founded by Dr. Caroline Heldman and Ian Breckenridge-Jackson in 2011 in response to the painfully slow rebuilding of the Lower Ninth Ward.
The Mardi Gras Indian Hall of Fame and the Donald Harrison Sr. Museum |1930 Independence St.
What’s Mardi Gras in New Orleans without Mardi Gras Indians? And Cherice Harrison-Nelson, teacher, activist, culture bearer and Queen of the Guardians of the Flame, is committed to preserving the culture of the Indians.
“For many, being a Mardi Gras Indian is a calling. It is a spiritual experience that consumes your being; it is in fact, a way of being,” she says.
This lifestyle has been ingrained into her very being through the practices of her father the late Big Chief Donald Harrison, Sr., who had been masking since 1949.
In 1999, Harrison-Nelson founded the Mardi Gras Indian Hall of Fame, dedicated to illuminating the authentic experiences of diverse members of the Black/Mardi Gras Indian community. It was established as a part of the curriculum at Oretha Castle Haley Elementary School, where she was on the faculty.
The Donald Harrison, Sr. Museum houses many intricate costumes, artwork, music collections and paraphernalia that are associated with the Mardi Gras Indian culture. They also put on the Mardi Gras Indian Hall of Fame Week Celebration, in which they honor New Orleanians who have contributed to the preservation of their culture and community.
The Mardi Gras Indian Hall of Fame and the Donald Harrison Sr. Museum are open from 10 a.m. until 7 p.m. for tours by appointment. For more information or to make reservation, call 504-214-6630.
The George and Leah McKenna Museum of African American Art | 2003 Carondelet St.
The George & Leah McKenna Museum of African American Art is an institution that collects, interprets and preserves the visual aesthetic of people of African descent in North America and beyond. Through innovative programs and exhibits that engage versatile audiences, the McKenna Museum seeks to make African Diasporan fine art accessible to visitors of all ages.
While exhibiting works by the masters like Edward Bannister, Henry Tanner, Robert Duncanson, and Joshua Johnson, the institution identifies and presents emerging artists as well
Treme Petit Jazz Museum | 1500 Gov. Nicholls St.
Jazz was born right here in New Orleans. And at Treme’s Petit Jazz Museum, founded by Treme local Al Jackson, the history of jazz is told.
A visit to the museum will provide an insider’s glimpse of the influences, legends, and historical events that gave rise to the music that has kept this community’s, and the world’s, feet tapping since 1895.
Historical Civil Rights Sites
In addition to unique museums, New Orleans has a number of historical landmarks and sites—of local and national significance—that help tell the stories of what it has meant and means to be Black in America. You don’t have to wait until February to visit these historic sites.
Plessy v. Ferguson | Corner of press and Royal
At the corner of Royal and Press streets stands a historic marker identifying the place where Homer A. Plessy was arrested on June 7, 1892, for challenging the state’s Separate Car Act. This planned action, supported by the local Citizens Committee, led to the landmark Plessy v. Ferguson Supreme Court decision, which ultimately upheld racial segregation and codified the separate, but equal doctrine that bolstered Jim Crow laws that would rule throughout the South. It wasn’t the result these civil rights leaders were looking for as they fought for equal rights for Black people. Yet it was an important achievement, setting the tone for the American Civil Rights movement of the mid-20th century. The Plessy vs. Ferguson case should be celebrated as one of the many bold steps taken in the fight towards equality for African Americans. And this landmark is a reminder of the courage of African Americans in knowing our worth and the fearlessness in our hearts to obtain what we are owed as human beings and citizens of this nation.
New Zion Baptist Church | 2319 Third Street
New Zion Baptist Church in uptown New Orleans is the birthplace of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, an organization that played a pivotal role in the Civil Rights movement.
On February 14, 1957, a group of Baptist pastors and activists from across the South, including Rev. Avery C. Alexander, civil rights advocate and attorney Israel Augustine and the Rev. A.L. Davis, met at the New Zion Baptist Church at the corner of Third and LaSalle streets. It was here the group formed the Southern Leadership Conference, later renamed the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). The members chose as their first president young preacher named Martin Luther King Jr. The organization would coordinate nonviolent action to desegregate bus systems across the South, and later would take on bigger issues of segregation nationwide. A plaque describing the work that Dr. King and the other SCLC members undertook inside New Zion Baptist Church sits on the exterior of the church.
William Frantz Elementary School, 3811 N. Galvez Street, and McDonogh No. 19 Elementary School, 5909 St. Claude Ave., are listed on the National Register of Historic places for the roles the schools and four, six-year old girls played in desegregating public education in the Deep South on Nov. 14, 1960—six years after the landmark Brown v. the Board of Education ruling by the Supreme Court.
Leona Tate, Tessie Prevost, and Gail Etienne, also known as the McDonogh Three, attended McDonogh 19 Elementary and Ruby Bridges attended William Frantz Elementary. They were met with a lot of outrage and protest against the integration. It marked a very tumultuous time in the history of New Orleans. Nearly 60 years later, there are still deep-rooted issues in local public education. Both McDonogh and Frantz Elementary have been shut down post Katrina. Since then, many other local schools have been closed or transformed into charter schools. It is important to look to these landmarks as a reminder of the sacrifices made. These landmarks serve as reminder to keep fighting for a better school system and education for current and future generations of African American children.
With the help of a $500,000 grant from The National Park Service, the Leona Tate Foundation has embarked upon a project to renovate of the former McDonogh 19 campus. The plans include the opening of the Tate Etienne Prevost Interpretaive Center where civil rights history will be shared and open discussions about racism wil take place.
CELEBRATING CULTURE, ART & TRADITION
Congo Square Inside Armstrong Park
Congo Square is located in the Treme neighborhood inside of Louis Armstrong Park. Originally called the Place des Negres, it was a sacred grounds where both slaves and free Blacks were able to congregate and practice their African and native traditions through spiritual practices, drumming, song and dance. Past leaders in New Orleans tried to suppress the gatherings and even renamed it “Beauregard Square” after the Civil War. But, in 2011 the New Orleans City Council formalized the name Congo Square. Preserving and fostering respect for this historic place is vital as it as been an anchor in the Black community and a principal part of New Orleans culture. It’s existence is one of the reasons New Orleans is one of the most African retentive cities in America. Even today, it helps to keep our African culture, music and rituals prevalent within our community and still serves as a gathering space for African Americans to continue rooted traditions in New Orleans.