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Two Fridays ago, I had the pleasure of going on a day trip to my favorite city…
Everyone has a reason to love (or hate) the Crescent City. If you love shopping, the best in the world is on Royal Street. If you love music, obviously the entire city is infused with rhythm. Gambling, drinking, and more… we all know New Orleans has it. Festivals, fairs and food? It doesn’t get any more delicious than in this city.
But, for me, it’s the people from New Orleans that I love most. And I met so many neat people in just a couple hours while visiting. When I took my day trip, I was on a mission to pick up a piece of artwork that was at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Foundation‘s gallery for WCALA Femme Fest’s 10th anniversary. What a dream come true to finally get to be in a show in New Orleans!
A man named Robert Frances from the foundation let me in to pick up the art and then was so nice to give me a tour of the Jazz & Heritage Foundation. The foundation is the nonprofit owner of the world famous Jazz Fest. That’s not all they do although that is a year round preparation to put on this huge festival. When the festival isn’t in full swing, the foundation holds events, hosts weddings and other happenings, rents studio practice space for musicians, runs the Heritage School of Music for kids 8-17, hosts concerts on sight (some even are free), has a gallery space, and more. Check out the collages of photos I took of the museum….
Robert and his family have been in the New Orleans area for generations. He is a Mardi Gras Indian. You’ve probably seen these handmade costumes if you’ve ever been to the Big Easy but did you know how they are made? I learned from Mr. Frances so much about the costumes, the Mardi Gras Indian’s history, the first black land owned settlement in Louisiana and at least one of the first in the US, the Tomb of the Unknown slave memorial, and the Backstreet Heritage Museum.
The Backstreet Hertiage Museum is literally one street behind the Jazz & Heritage Foundation. Robert asked me if I had ever heard of it and asked if I’d like to check it out. Of course, after having such a great chat with him I had to check out this museum that he and one of his brothers have been running for over 20 years after his other brother and sister had started it years before that.
The museum is comprised of 3 main areas: jazz funerals, Mardi Gras Indians, and second lines social clubs and parades. My first stop was to see the Mardi Gras Indian costumes. It was sensory overload! Each costume has thousands of seed beads, sequence, and other design elements. It can take a year to create one costume. I can’t imaging hand sewing each individual seed bead and sequence and feather to the fabric and cardboard or canvas. I love to sew with a machine but the hardest thing I’ve ever made have been stuffed animals and that’s like kindergarten level compared to these designs and talent. I learned so much about the Mardi Gras Indians who were descendants from slaves that escaped plantations in the area and were taken in by the local Native Americans. I learned about resilience, hardship, tenacity, and more at this museum.
The Jazz Funerals room at the Backstreet Cultural Museum was a memorial to friends and family members who had passed and included items from each parade with photos of the person memorialized and mementos that were unique to that person. It was a history lesson in New Orleans and how many people it has taken to make up the tale of a city that has been through so many different things. Mr. Robert was so nice to share about different jazz funerals that were for family and friends and different aspects of each event that mourned the loss loved ones while remembering and celebrating their lives. It was so moving for me to learn about his friends and family including his mom, brother, sister, and more. New Orleans isn’t the buildings, or Bourbon Street, or the river walk, or the Warehouse district. It’s the people. It’s the stories. It’s the history. And Robert was gracious, just like lots of New Orleanians, to share with me stories of life and of this great city.
Ok, ok. I’m getting all sappy but even though I was born in Memphis and have lived in a bunch of different places in the south. I feel most connected to New Orleans for a bunch of different reasons. The longer I live in NorthWest Louisiana the more I feel drawn to the city where Laissez Faire (“leave alone”) and Laissez Les Bon Temps Rouler (“let the good times roll”) were cemented into the cobble stoned streets. For goodnesssakes, on this trip while at Cafe du Monde, there was a homeless guy throwing some bottles into a trash can like making a free throw. One of the bottles didn’t make it so another homeless guy fussed at him to pick it up and throw it away. It was escalating quickly into a yelling fight. They fussed back and forth until the initial guy fussing started saying, “Leave alone. Leave it alone.”(aka let’s just stop fussing) So free throw guy picked it up and finally picked up his trash, threw it away, and was on his way. No big brawl happened. Both parties seemed to be content and ok how it all turned out and I continued to have my conversation with a long time New Orleans resident who happened to have traveled the world in her 20s-30s as an acrobat. She then had come back to NOLA after marrying and having children. She said she was in her 60s and still looked in great shape plus was lovely to talk with while eating my beignets!
Alright, back to the museum! The second line social clubs and parades room was again a delightful sensory overload! I loved seeing different costumes and for the different clubs. I also liked learning about the meaning of “Second Line”. I would paraphrase this but am afraid I would leave something out… Check out one of the informationals you can read throughout the museum.
This museum isn’t giant but it is packed with so much information, history, and joy. Beautiful, colorful costumes, photos of people that have been memorialized, information about the history of part of the soul of New Orleans to learn, and more can be found in this building. And literally on the corner next to this museum is another New Orleans treasure.
Mr. Frances took me across the street to St. Augustine church and it was moving. He told me about the importance of the church historically and also shared with me the site of the Tomb of the Unknown slave that memorializes the unknown slaves that had died and were buried on the land this church and much of this part of New Orleans entailed. It was heartbreaking.
The cross is made from material from an actual slave ship. I look back at the past and it is just heartbreaking and horrible. But like all of history, it is so important to NOT forget what has happened to keep it from ever happening again. To fight against this and any time people are oppressed and exploited. I want to teach my children the entire history of this country. I want them to understand things at a tender age that I didn’t know the depth of that have happened until my 30s and 40s. That’s why next time we visit NOLA this church and the Backstreet Heritage Museum will the one of our first stops.
“Saint Augustine is important to New Orleans and the entire U.S.A. The church is recognized by the Smithsonian Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington D.C. as the oldest black catholic church in the country. As such, the church is a part of the museum’s permanent exhibit. Much took place within the walls of St Augustine Church and its hall and school. Both severed as a meeting place for some of our country’s most prominent civil rights activists.”
I will be back to the Backstreet Cultural Museum with my family. Hope you will consider visiting on your next New Orleans trip. It’s one of the coolest and most interesting museums in this city.