Healthy Soul

New Orleans – Meandering around town

My friend Valarie and I are on our own Black History tour aboard Amtrak, visiting heritage sites pertaining to African American history in Chicago; Memphis; Jackson, MS; New Orleans; Birmingham, and Washington, DC. We began Tuesday, June 28, 2011. Here is what we did on Day 8, our second day in New Orleans.

Christine DeCuir, the media services coordinator for the New Orleans Metropolitan Convention and Visitors Bureau Inc., had left a packet of information about the city for me. I picked up the packet at the front desk of my hotel when we checked in on Monday. Among the items were:

• A V.I.P. pass attached to a six-page listing of restaurants and nightclubs, attractions and tours, and services and shopping establishments that would offer a discount to the pass-holder. We decided on the jazz brunch at the Court of Two Sisters, 613 Royal St.

Marlon Dunams works at the Court of Two Sisters restaurant.

• A multicultural visitors guide seemingly prepared for the July 2011 Essence Music Festival in collaboration with the Soul of New Orleans organization. On Monday, we walked to one of the restaurants on the list – Irene’s Cuisine in the French Quarter, only to be disappointed. It was closed for the Independence Day holiday. Yesterday, we stopped to buy pralines at Loretta’s Authentic Pralines, also in the French Quarter. Unfortunately, the map included in the packet was of the French Quarter only, so it was not easy getting a lay of the land to figure out where some of the listed museums having an African-American focus were located. Others, like the New Orleans African American Museum of Art in Tremé, only open on Wednesday through Saturday so we missed them by being in town Monday and Tuesday. We decided to visit the traveling exhibit “Race: Are we that different?” at the New Orleans Civil Rights Museum, being housed in the Old Mint, one of the Louisiana State Museum’s five sites in the city.

• New Orleans 2011 Official Visitors Guide showing the six locations of the 26 sites of the African American Heritage Trail across Louisiana. We decided to visit Congo Square and the French Market.

The morning

Continental breakfast at the Hotel New Orleans was included with the room. We helped ourselves to fresh strawberries and cantaloupes, saving our appetites for the jazz brunch. In fact we walked over there, burning calories in anticipation of adding some. Along the way we stopped in stores, tried on a few outfits, but decided not to buy, and took pictures of edifices such as the Louisiana Court of Appeals, the Fourth Circuit and the Louisiana Supreme Court – both housed in the same building. I’ll have to check to see if this was the court where Plessy v. Ferguson case was heard before making its way to the U.S. Supreme Court.

The Court of Two Sisters restaurant was named after the location where two Creole sisters ran an upscale fashion boutique and held “court” as social belles. (An aside: I noticed that diversity in New Orleans was not so much about the presence of and/or inclusiveness of the federally recognized racial and/or ethnic groups. Racial and cultural diversity seemed to be about being white or being Creole. Hmm – something to dig into a little deeper.)

The building with its imported “charm” gate, bestowing charm on anyone who touches it, was now a restaurant run by two brothers. Serving brunch from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. and then open again for dinner, the restaurant had a buffet that was an extensive offering of fresh, visually appealing and tasty items. Our servers Marlon and John were funny, attentive and knowledgeable about the menu items and their ingredients. Marlon’s recommendation of the New Orleans seafood omelet with shrimp, prawns and crabmeat was a winner. Peeling shrimp was no problem as finger bowls were offered with warm water and lemon wedges for getting rid of those shrimpy juices and smells before we rejoined the window shoppers on Royal Street. Notes from the soothing, mellow jazz tunes performed by the trio of bass guitar, banjo and clarinet enveloped us, subtly enhancing the dining experience.

Next stop on the list was the New Orleans Civil Rights Museum at the Esplanade. Getting our bearings with a quick review of the map, we saw that Preservation Jazz Hall was only a few blocks away. So we made a quick detour to Bourbon and St. Peter Streets. The building was closed, grilled, gated. A notice to beware of the biting cat was prominent. Sticking my hand in between the slats of the grill I snapped a picture of the original Preservation Hall Band.

Original Preservation Hall Jazz Band.

The afternoon

Attempting to get back on track, we saw a store advertising African American memorabilia. In we went. A male, self-described as Filipino, introduced himself as a post-Katrina transplant from Houston who was working in the store, owned for the past 44 years by a man from Pakistan. There were photographs of athletes from back in the day. There were posters of jazz singers and musicians. There were quotes – highly motivational – from famous African Americans. So, thinking he might know about tours by, and/or about, African American history in New Orleans, we asked him and got the spiel about one history. Thanking him, we moved on.

By now we were way off our intended route to the Esplanade, closer to the Louis Armstrong Park with Congo Square and the Mahalia Jackson Performing Arts Center. Directly across the street stood a two-story building, with laundry services provided on the ground floor. There were two markers on the building: It was the 1944-56 home of J&M Records where records by Ray Charles, Little Richard and Fats Domino were produced. The Louis Armstrong Park was still reeling from Katrina’s devastation. Workers were extremely busy with refurbishment efforts.

Ropes help stabilize Louis Satchmo Armstrong's statute that is being restored.

Again we retraced our steps to get to the Civil Rights Museum. It was sweltering hot. We were not seeing those familiar corner stores or supermarkets to get bottled water. We did see a multi-level CVS Pharmacy that sold liquor. We saw a bus going in the direction we wanted to go, so we made a split-second decision to get on. A single ride was $1.25, but $3 gave us unlimited rides for the day. We told the driver we were heading to the museum and settled in to enjoy the ride. He turned on Esplanade, but away from our planned destination. Not knowing where to go if we got off then, we stayed on the bus to the New Orleans Museum of Art and got a beautiful surprise. One of the exhibits was the Ancestors of Congo Square with artifacts from the early African dynasties.

A quick stop in the Museum Café introduced me to basil lemonade. It was so refreshing. I’ve decided to add fresh basil leaves to my water whenever possible. After taking the Canal Street trolley to the Riverfront Marketplace and walking to the Esplanade, we arrived 15 minutes too late to catch the museum open. Oh well. We then sauntered through the French Market that began as a Native American trading post and has a central open-air structure that was designed in 1870 by black architect Joseph Abeilard.

The evening

We remembered a conversation with a young lady from Milwaukee, WI, who was a member of Xavier University’s class of 2006. A chemistry major, she and her sister sat behind us at the riverfront watching the fireworks on Monday. We talked about that school having the highest number of graduates going on to and completing medical school. It would be great to see the campus. The New Orleans Rapid Transit Authority was extremely responsive to riders’ questions. In fact the number is listed at each streetcar and bus stop. A representative quickly answered the telephone and gave us the directions to get there by bus.

Xavier University of Louisiana.

Twenty minutes later we were on the campus of the country’s only Catholic historically black college. Fortunately for us we ran into Joyce F. Gillie Cruse, director of the Office of Black Catholic Ministries for the Archdiocese of New Orleans as she drove up to teach her class in the Black Catholic Studies. This program is the country’s only black catholic graduate program in pastoral theology.

An overcast sky sent us running to the bus back into the city. We transferred to the street car that took us back to the Convention Center Blvd line near our hotel. But, we looked up and saw that the ferry to Algiers, the West Bank of the Mississippi River, was free to pedestrians. So we embarked on one last adventure for the evening. The final surprise was seeing Louis Armstrong’s statute in the harbor with a plaque stating that he and several other jazz musicians were born in Algiers. By then it was dark, so we had wine, cheese, bread, hummus and pita chips at the Vine-Dine before getting back on the ferry to the East Bank.

It was definitely a full day.

***

Click here to read the other posts from Jennifer’s Black History Tour.

2 Comments

  1. Jennifer,
    You have written such a delightful and thoughtful journal. You have chronicled your journey with so much passion and clarity.
    Thanks

    • Thanks for taking the journey with us David. Traveling by train is so relaxing, and it is so easy to begin conversations with other riders. I’ve learned so much about the Civil Rights Movement on this trip.

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