New Orleans is more than beignets and Bourbon Street, voodoo queens and Mardi Gras. An old city with a multicultural blend of its African, French, Cajun, and Spanish roots, this city has a culture that is all its own. This includes the unique architecture, with its distinctive ironwork, balconies, and 19th century shotgun and camelback houses, as well as its historic neighborhoods, which include some of the oldest Black communities in the country.
Two projects selected as recipients of African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund awards saw a need to help those communities share their history by using preservation as a tool to empower them to continue to protect their homes and tell their stories. “These civic leaders demonstrate the role of contemporary preservation as a tool for confronting the historic inequities and invisibility of New Orleans’s Black American history,” says Brent Leggs, executive director of the African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund. “Through their community-driven activism, our nation will celebrate the overlooked civil rights leadership of Black women and discover neighborhood-scale approaches to help reduce cultural and racial displacement.”
Removing Barriers and Providing Resources
The Tremé neighborhood, adjacent to the popular French Quarter, is one of New Orleans’ oldest neighborhoods and known as a home to jazz and brass band musicians. The neighborhood includes Congo Square, now a part of Louis Armstrong Park and the New Orleans Jazz National Historic Park, which was long a place for enslaved Africans to gather and dance.
In the 1960s, the neighborhood was split by the construction of the I-10 expressway, with further displacement following the departure of longtime residents after Hurricane Katrina in 2005. However, its prime, historic location, has also led to absentee homeowners, short-term rental housing, and a rise in real estate values as it deals with the pressures of gentrification. “When displacement starts, it becomes easier and easier to accomplish because people don’t have a reason to fight as their community is gone,” says Danielle Del Sol, executive director of the Preservation Resource Center of New Orleans (PRCNO). “We felt historic preservation shouldn’t be one of those factors.”
Although Tremé has historically been racially mixed, it is predominately Black and many of the homeowners have lived there—often in the same home—for generations. When homes are altered and materials are removed or replaced with non-historic materials, homeowners are penalized and fined by the city’s historic district landmarks commission. These citations are for a range of violations such as rotting porches, alterations to historic millwork, ironwork, or columns, and modern changes, such as adding a satellite dish. For low-income homeowners, these citations led to many being unable to make those changes and consequently, accruing fines. Because these violations were often considered aesthetic and not a “quality of life” issue, homeowners were unable to receive assistance.
PRCNO recognized that there was a need and they were uniquely positioned to help. Through their Revival Grants program, the organization worked with the commission to identify low-income homeowners who had violations and offered them no-match grants for repairs and restoration of their historic homes at no cost to the homeowners. “We thought that if the historic district guidelines are hurting homeowners, we need to step up, as this is on us,” says Del Sol. “We know this is only a Band-Aid, but we had to do something. We feel that it helps to right the ship of our field and empowers people to protect the places they care about.”
Their goal is to grow the program in order to help dozens of homeowners a year. After PRCNO started talking to the commission about the issue, the commission increased their own dialogue with homeowners, and now has a moratorium on citations. “There’s so much historic fabric and a high poverty rate. There is a convergence of issues that causes problems for homeowners,” says Del Sol. “Our influence had made a change in our direct work and I am proud of that.”
PRCNO sees the recognition of the history of a community and its built by-products as a form of empowerment, helping them to tell their own stories. Historically known as the home of the city’s carpenters and masons, the Seventh Ward wanted to become a state cultural district and be included in the National Register. The neighborhood’s omission from these designations surprised PRCNO, who worked with them to make those happen. “We are proving that we care about communities across this city, their buildings and what matters to them. We try to meet them where they are [within] the social structures of the community: neighborhood commission meetings, church groups,” says Del Sol. “If a neighborhood wants it, we want to give it to them and that’s equity too. By telling these stories, it makes it harder for injustice to [happen in] that community as their history is seen as important,”
Histories of the Community, By the Community
So many of us have heard the story of Ruby Bridges, the little girl who integrated a New Orleans elementary school and was immortalized by artist Norman Rockwell. There is a little-known story here as Bridges wasn’t the only one to do so on that day in 1960. A neighborhood over, in the Lower Ninth Ward, three little girls known as the McDonogh Three did the same thing. Like Ruby, the parents of Leona Tate, Gail Etienne and Tessie Provost agreed to work with the NAACP and volunteered to have their six-year old daughters integrate New Orleans schools. That day, faced with hostile crowds lining the streets to protest their presence, the McDonogh Three spent most of the day in the hallway outside of the principal’s office as white parents removed their children from the school rather than allow them to attend classes with the girls. Sixty years later, civil rights pioneer and activist Leona Tate is telling that story by thanks with support from a 2020 African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund grant.
Twelve years ago, Leona Tate had no intention to start a foundation, but felt she couldn’t get any answers otherwise. She received a call that the McDonogh 19 school building was up for auction and when she did a presentation to the school board, she found they didn’t know the history.
In January 2020, Leona Tate Foundation, Alembic Community Development, and People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond (PISAB) took ownership of the building and through this partnership, McDonogh 19 will be transformed into the Tate Etienne Provost (TEP) Center. Within it, there will be 25 units available for senior housing, but the bottom floor will be the TEP (Tate Etienne Provost) Interpretive Center to highlight its history and other civil rights movements, as well as community space to hold 'Undoing Racism' workshops. “The building needed to be something,” says Tate. “That building, for me, will be some racial healing.”
“The TEP Center will be a space for those stories not necessarily associated with New Orleans and the Civil Rights movement to be explored,” says Tremaine Riley, executive director of the Leona Tate Foundation for Change. “We think of Mississippi and Alabama, but we’ll be able to shine a light on pivotal events that happened here in New Orleans and other places in Louisiana.”
For Leona Tate, it is a story close to her heart, and she is seen as being in and of the community. “With the larger preservation organizations, they’re in it for the preservation work. There’s a connectedness, as Leona is not an outsider,” Riley says. “She has received a lot of community support and overall, the community has been behind it. That approach has really served that project as there is a sense of ownership.”
Tate is already thinking ahead: “When I hear the word ‘preservation’ I think of fixing something. When we get this project done, we’ll move down the block to the next one.”
She feels the story of the McDonogh Three is not well-known, even within New Orleans and would like it included in local curriculum as a way of making history real, especially since people would register surprise that she is still alive. “In cities like New Orleans and D.C., people cherry-pick the history that is the most palatable and easiest to convey and that’s what sticks,” Tate says. “As an educator, I go to schools and speak to the children and they have no idea what I am talking about. We’re not asking them to change it, just to fit it in.”
Tate and Riley see the campus as an important anchor for the community. “The Lower Ninth Ward is so downplayed, so I hope that it does something. Some people just don’t get it,” Tate says. “I would like people to know and understand that what we did wasn’t just for New Orleans, but for the world.”
PRCNO and the Leona Tate Foundation recognized that communities in New Orleans are more than just the buildings within them. Whether it is about generations of a family or three little girls who made a very big difference, they are also about the people within them who will be able to continue to have their stories to share.
Lawana Holland-Moore is the associate program officer of the African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund.