Wednesday, January 17, 2018

A Distant Drum Beat

On the Trail of the Mardi Gras Indians
By Chris Rose, New Orleans Magazine

So many spectacles compete to overload the senses during Mardi Gras. So many sights, sounds, colors, costumes, parades, songs, rainbows, fever dreams, unicorns and pounds of flesh to behold, light the eyes, satisfy appetites and quench every thirst.

It takes effort to stand out amidst the glitter and gold, baubles and beads, spandex and spangles, flashing lights and fairy dust. It takes money, time and commitment. Serious commitment.

It takes the Mardi Gras Indians. Those singular, mythic, mysterious and inscrutable men, women and children of color who preserve and perform a sacred 19th century ritual borne of slavery, emancipation and masquerade.

It's quite a challenge to try to describe the Indians to the uninitiated. They are tight-knit, turf-conscious, prideful working class black folks dressed up in flamboyant, meticulously hand-sewn, ceremonial Native American costumes, face paint and feathers, stalking each other through New Orleans back streets in some sort of concrete jungle war game. But instead of pretending to kill their rivals, they face-off in a ritualistic preening, drumming, dancing, chanting show-down, taunting each other and arguing over who is...prettiest.

What's not to understand about that?

How the Mardi Gras Indians came to be is a subject of much academic - and barroom - debate. It's all folklore, legend, history, mythology and braggadocio.

Are they a living tribute to local Native American tribes who sheltered their fugitive forbears from the indignities of lives waged in the fields of Confederate perdition? Or are they, as popular notion goes, a spin-off of Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show from the late 19th Century? Or are they just a bunch of rowdy, ostentatious, over-the-top, half-cocked revelers who take this Mardi Gras thing...Way. Too. Seriously.

Collectively, they are the proverbial golden needle in the messy Carnival haystack. The Wild Tchoupitoulas, Wild Magnolias, Flaming Arrows, Uptown Hunters, Yellow Pocahontas, Burning Spears, Congo Nation, Guardians of the Flame, Creole Osceola, Fi-Y-Yi, Louisiana Star Choctaws and dozens more. From near extinction just four decades ago, Mardi Gras Indian culture has exploded in the new century, with new tribes forming every year to preserve this most elite, quixotic and exotic tradition.

On Mardi Gras morning, gangs of chiefs, spy boys, flag boys and wild men debut their new costumes, a year-long labor sewing, stitching and beading, memorialized in the song "New Suit," by legendary New Orleans composer Willie Tee:

Every year for Carnival Time, we make a new suit
Red, yellow, green, purple or blue, we make a new suit
They shine like diamonds and stars
Gotta be sure we’re together
‘Cause we the soul of Mardi Gras
Indeed, they are the heart, the soul and the beat of the street. I remember the first time my kids ever saw an Indian, one Fat Tuesday afternoon many years ago, when we were driving back Uptown after spending the morning basking in the colorful revelry of the Marigny and French Quarter.

He was alone, turned out in Bimini lime feathers and mint green rhinestones, staggering erratically on the Broad Street overpass, a chief who seemed to have lost his way – and his tribe! He stumbled in front of my car, I swerved wide around him and watched from my rearview mirror as my kids asked: “Daddy, what was that?

How do you tell someone?

Over the years, it became our Fat Tuesday tradition: We would not park down near the Quarter until we found an Indian gang wandering around the streets of the 6th, 7th or 8th Wards. And we always did.

The last time I saw a Mardi Gras Indian was last March, on St. Joseph’s night, when the gangs and thousands of spectators annually pack the streets of Central City for intimate neighborhood rituals far from the wide prying eyes and intrusive cell phones of visitors and tourists. This was a young man, junior member of his tribe, splayed out on the sidewalk with a gunshot wound to the thigh.

I heard the shot. I joined the crowd of previously joyous observers now looking on in wonder, fear and despair. Everyone wondered: What happened. Who is he? Why was he shot? And: Who the hell shoots an Indian?

 Another mystery of this town. It will build you up and tear you down. It’s the ecstasy and the agony. It’s the beauty and the beast. It’s laughter and forgetting.

It’s the prettiest thing I’ve ever seen. With an ever-present menacing drumbeat out there in the distance.

And so it goes.

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

63-year-old slave descendent begins college as a Georgetown University freshman

Georgetown president meets slave descendents
By Katy Reckdahl, New Orleans Advocate
A few weeks ago, at the unlikely age of 63, Melisande Short-Colomb packed her possessions into boxes at her New Orleans home on Upperline Street and sent them to Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. She began classes there Wednesday as a freshman.
But her story is remarkable for much more than her age.
In 1838, facing bankruptcy, the Jesuit priests who established Georgetown kept the school afloat by selling 272 slaves from their tobacco fields in Maryland to a pair of Louisiana plantation owners.
Among those slaves were Short-Colomb’s great-great-grandparents, Abraham Mahoney and Mary Ellen Queen.
Thanks to student protests and the work of dogged genealogists, about 3,000 people like Short-Colomb, many in New Orleans and the surrounding region, have discovered the intimate and troubled connection between the suffering of their ancestors and the financial survival of one of the country’s premier universities.
Georgetown two years ago began an effort to confront the school’s past and atone for the sale, one of the largest slave sales in U.S. history. One step was to offer descendants like Short-Colomb so-called “legacy status,” putting them on the same footing as the children of alumni in the admissions process.
“It’s a key moment in Georgetown’s history,” said Karran Harper Royal, a longtime education advocate in New Orleans whose own family can trace its lineage to the Georgetown sale.
As leader of a group called the GU272 Descendants Association, Harper Royal estimates there are more than 800 descendants of the sale living in the New Orleans area.
When Short-Colomb applied to Georgetown earlier this year, she was a little skeptical. “You can’t trust anyone who sold your family,” she said.
Yet somehow, going back to college felt like the right move for Short-Colomb, a retired chef and widow whose four children are grown. Since Hurricane Katrina, she said, she’s found herself restless and peripatetic, leaving town for long stints in Texas, Ghana and the Virgin Islands.
Now, through her work-study job in the campus library, which includes the newly created Georgetown Slavery Archive, Short-Colomb will help connect families torn apart during slavery.
She made her own connections in April, when she met a group of newfound relatives in Maryland. From them, she heard that an enslaved cousin named Louisa, tipped off by a priest, had avoided the trip by hiding in the woods for three or four days. “All she knew was that they were taken to somewhere known as Algiers,” Short-Colomb said.
Short-Colomb’s education has long been caught up in the question of race.
“My mother was holding me in her arms when the U.S. Supreme Court handed down the Brown v. Board decision,” said Short-Colomb, referencing the landmark 1954 ruling Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, in which the court found that segregated schools for black and white children were unconstitutional.
Enforcement of that decision did not come quickly in New Orleans. When she attended McDonogh No. 6 Elementary School on Chestnut Street, it was still an all-black school. And she still worshiped at the all-black Church of the Blessed Sacrament.
Finally, in the sixth grade, her parents enrolled her at Sophie B. Wright Junior High, where nearly all of her teachers and many of her classmates were white. Bomb threats were common for the first few months of school, she said.
Suddenly, her world was no longer confined to the protective, tightly knit black community she’d known. “It was the first time I had teachers who didn’t know my name,” she said.
One thing that hadn’t changed was the pride that came with her name and her family’s deep roots in New Orleans.
Two public schools and the chapel at Dillard University bore the name of her mother’s uncle, the Rev. Alfred Lawless, a trailblazer for the education of black students in the city. Another public school was named for the Rev. Henderson Dunn, an educator who wrote about religion and schools for The Times-Picayune and was related to her by marriage.
Short-Colomb also knew she was descended from Abraham Mahoney and Mary Ellen Queen, of Lafourche Parish, because her grandmother, Geneva Ruby Taylor Lawless, was emphatic about making her recite the family oral history. “I called that ‘the begats,’ ” she said, referring to the term used in biblical genealogies.
She had been told that her Queen-family ancestors had sued their owners for their freedom in court, because their great-grandmother was an indentured servant who should have been let go once her period of indenture was over. As borne out by court records, their lawyer was none other than Francis Scott Key, who wrote the words to "The Star-Spangled Banner."
She learned that her grandparents, lured by the possibility of farmland, had traveled by ship to New Orleans before the Civil War, then traveled to Terrebonne Parish on a river flatboat — “followed by alligators.”
“I knew all of my history,” Short-Colomb said.
So when genealogist Judy Riffel texted last year, asking if she was related to a Mahoney family from Baton Rouge, Short-Colomb responded with a long message.
“I sent her my whole pedigree,” said Short-Colomb, who then discovered something she didn’t know — that her branch of the Queen family had been unable to win their freedom and had been part of the 1838 sale. They had traveled to Terrebonne by flatboat, she said, but as someone else’s property.
“I knew everything about my family from 1838 to 2017. But I didn’t know enough about 1704 to 1838,” she said.
In the coming four years, she said, she hopes to discover more about those missing years, perhaps from some of the 200 boxes of records that remain to be digitized for the Slavery Archive. Over the next few years, all the documents in those boxes will be scanned and indexed by the names of those who were shipped to Louisiana as human cargo in 1838.
Along with the increasing use of DNA to find enslaved ancestors, this type of research promises to create another shift in the country’s racial landscape, by providing a deeper awareness of how slavery kept wealthy owners afloat while severing enslaved families.
“She is there (at Georgetown) to find out more about all of our families,” Harper Royal said. “Her journey is for all of us.”
ast week, before Georgetown’s convocation for new students, Short-Colomb choked back tears as academic marshal John Q. Pierce briefly stopped the faculty procession at her aisle and doffed his academic cap in her direction, a gesture “intended as a sign of respect for her and a recognition of the special status of all the descendants of the 272,” he later explained.
During the same convocation, Short-Colomb was invited to receive the Georgetown College banner, which she carried high, with her ancestors and her GU272 friends in mind, she said. 
Then, on Wednesday, as she walked to class amid a sea of 18-year-olds, Short-Colomb thought back to her childhood, when her grandmother, with much relish, would sit her down in the family house on Zimpel Street and make her recite “the begats.”
It was that woman, Geneva Ruby Taylor Lawless, who put her granddaughter on the path that ended up at Georgetown, Short-Colomb said. “She is the reason I have a story.”

Monday, September 4, 2017

1913 invention revolutionized New Orleans' water management

The Times-Picayune is marking the tricentennial of New Orleans with its ongoing 300 for 300 project, running through 2018 and highlighting the moments and people that connect and inspire us. Today, the series continues with the hiring of A. Baldwin Wood, a New Orleans-born, Tulane-educated engineer who designed pumps that proved key to the city's expansion.
THEN: In 1899, A. Baldwin Wood, a freshly minted Tulane University graduate with a degree in mechanical engineering, was hired by the New Orleans Sewerage & Water Board to improve the drainage of the flood-prone city. Among the devices he developed were flap gates, which let water exit a channel without flowing back, and his crowning achievement, the screw pump, which is capable of moving great quantities of water up an incline and over levees into Lake Pontchartrain. As a result of those inventions, new areas of the city could be drained and settled, dramatically expanding the city's footprint.
NOW: Wood's inventions remain an important part of the Sewerage & Water Board's weaponry against rising water. After Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005, pump operator Kevin Martin told The New York Times that Wood's original pumps at Pump Station No. 1 kept doing their thing throughout the storm. "The two new pumps (built in the 1990s) went out right away," Martin said. "They're the most powerful. They sound like freight trains. Four of the old ones kept going all night. The original two pumps (from 1913), those are the most reliable. I'd use those two before I'd use any of the others."
  • Wood acquired 38 patents for his inventions. His first screw pump, which he invented in 1913, was a 12-foot pump. He later designed a 14-foot pump.
  • There was lagniappe: Disease rates fell because fetid floodwater could be pumped out faster before mosquitoes had a chance to breed there and spread infections. The pumps also improved the quality of New Orleans' water supply.
  • There also has been a down side: Draining the city's swamps made the ground subside, and the newly dry areas of the city were as much as 10 feet below sea level, making them vulnerable to rising water and, as a result, dependent on the system of levees, outfall canals and pumps to fight rising water.
  • Wood's pumps have been installed in India, China, Egypt and the Netherlands. He also designed drainage, sewerage and pumping systems for other cities, including Chicago, Milwaukee, Baltimore and San Francisco.
  • In a 1974 ceremony at Pumping Station No. 1, the American Society of Mechanical Engineers hailed Wood's screw pump system as a National Historic Mechanical Engineering Landmark.
  • Wood was an avid sailor who died of a heart attack on his sloop, the Nydia, in 1956. In his will, he left money to Tulane but on the condition that the university care for the boat for at least 99 years.
  • The Nydia stayed on display in a climate-controlled case on the Uptown campus until 2004, when it was moved to Belle Chasse, home of Tulane's F. Edward Hebert Research Center, because the nearby University Center was being renovated. Wood's heirs sued, claiming Tulane wasn't living up to its obligation. The suit was settled out of court, and the Nydia was moved to the Maritime & Seafood Industry Museum in Biloxi, Miss.
It is impossible to imagine New Orleans' development during the 20thcentury without Wood's screw pump, which made whole swaths of the city habitable, including nearly everything between the lake and the Metairie and Gentilly ridges. "With this invention, the city had entered an era of land reclamation that would revolution its geography, and nothing would ever be quite the same again," wrote Joan B. Garvey and Mary Lou Widmer in their 1982 book "Beautiful Crescent."
John Pope, contributing writer
Sources: The Times-Picayune,, "Beautiful Crescent," by Joan B. Garvey and Mary Lou Widmer, staff research

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Girls learn to walk the walk

Charlene Buckner wakes up at 4:30 a.m. to go to work at Lil Dizzy’s Cafe from 6 a.m. until 3 p.m. and perpetually felt tired. She had sensed “something was going on” with her body, but “didn’t connect weight with fatigue.”

But over the past three years, Buckner has lost 130 pounds, first by changing her eating habits and then pledging to walk 30 minutes a day as a member of GirlTrek. When she first began exercising, Buckner was unable to scale the incline of the Lower Ninth Ward levee. “Now, I run up and down,” she bragged.

“I’m in love with my levee. It’s so soothing and motivating. It’s stuff I can’t really pay for.”

 GirlTrek, a national organization of more than 35,000 Black women, aims to re-establish walking as a tradition, healing bodies, inspiring daughters and reclaiming neighborhood streets. The nonprofit’s three-year goal is to inspire 1 million women to walk every Saturday morning and 250,000 to walk daily.

Buckner not only changed her own life, but became one of 10 GirlTrek neighborhood captains mentoring other women wanting to make lifestyle change.

“I’ve learned so much about food and am teaching women what I’ve learned. We eat a bunch of food that clogs our arteries,” Buckner said.

GirlTrek City Captain Onika Jervis started the New Orleans chapter after moving from New York where she was a marathon runner. Everyone can’t race, but the GirlTrek goal is just to get women up and moving, she said.

“Black women are traditionally caregivers, caring for families and working multiple jobs, Jervis said. “We know we need to exercise and be fit, but just don’t have time.”

“Exercise has become so technically advanced with pilates and spinning that it’s intimidating and seems expensive, but there’s a park and there’s streets,” said Jervis, emphasizing the importance of accessibility.

GirlTrek is a grassroots movement, which partners with churches, schools, community organizations and local companies, to address an unprecedented health crisis. More than 80 percent of Black women are overweight and 59 percent are obese, dying younger and at higher rates of preventable disease than any group of American women. Members recruit other women one-to-one and provide support to succeed via Facebook, Twitter and texting.

GirlTrek’s mission is not about recreation, however, but a campaign for healing grounded in civil rights history and principles. In March, for example, 65 New Orleans members met up with nine other groups to walk 54 miles from Selma to Montgomery, Ala.

“That really ignited New Orleans,” Jervis said about reliving Martin Luther King’s historic march.

The New Orleans chapter conducted a tour of the historic African-American neighborhood of Treme from Congo Square to St. Augustine Catholic Church, and in September, 200 members attended GirlTrek Mountaintop organizer retreat in Denver. Coincidentally, U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy unveiled “Step It Up,” a call to action, encouraging walking and walkable communities. Daily walking reduces the risk of heart disease by 50 percent and diabetes by 58 percent, as well as significantly improving mental health.

"We are facing an explosion of chronic illnesses. Seven out of ten deaths can be prevented by lifestyle changes including physical activity such as walking,” Murthy said.

Sheila Collins who attended the leadership conference, had suffered from Spinal Stenosis characterized by degenerating vertebral discs. In February, after surgery, she began walking to rebuild muscles and reduce her pain. Now a neighborhood leader, she often sends text messages to keep others going.

“It’s more enjoyable when you can walk with somebody - you can talk. It’s even better in a group,” Collins said. “I love the camaraderie and sisterhood.”

Saturday, August 22, 2015

Kids vie for social dancing championships

Lyons Recreation Center was lit up like a music hall with cars parked helter-skelter along Louisiana Avenue’s neutral ground. No, the free event was not a local audition for “So You Think You Can Dance,” but a competition featuring elementary and middle-school students performing traditional salsa, waltz, tango, merengue and swing dance. The Second Annual MindSteppers Dance Championship showcased public and private school children who have diligently been practicing social dance techniques as an extracurricular activity.

“I did not expect that all the kids could be so excited,” said Claire Couvreur, a teacher-instructor at Lycée Francais.

The competition is the culmination of the MindSteppers Teacher-Training Program at six schools - Joshua Butler Elementary School in Westwego, Gretna No. 2 Academy for Advanced Studies, Immaculate Conception School in Marrero, International School of Louisiana in the Lower Garden District, Lycée Francais de la Nouvelle Orleans in Uptown and Harriet Tubman Charter School in Algiers. Nathalie Gomes Adams, 

MindSteppers’ co-director, says partner dancing yields many benefits, including improving children’s behavior, building self-confidence and teaching social and life skills such as good communication, etiquette, and tolerance.

Owner of Dance Quarter and a champion swing dancer, Adams was also an instructor with Dancing Classroom, which was featured in the documentary, “Mad Hot Ballroom,” about New York City public school children learning to social dance. After moving to New Orleans, Adams created a similar program in 29 Jefferson Parish schools.

Friday night, she supervised the contest among 165 students. Competitors, dressed in fancy costumes, sat expectantly waiting their turns in the spotlight. Judges were already in place. The stage was set with golden trophies to award top dancers while parents and friends assembled in bleacher seats ready to be dazzled.

“They’ve been practicing a month strong,” said Mabel Ray, mother of La’Jae Todd, a fifth-grader at Harriet Tubman. “It’s all she’s been talking about lately.”

First-graders from several schools - girls in red tutus and boys in red suspenders - started swinging to “Frogman” Henry’s anthem, “Ain’t Got No Home.” Swoons to the tune of “Fernando’s Hideaway” elicited audience gasps and shimmies brought a burst of applause.

A first-grade trio from Hope Stone New Orleans rocked out to the Jackson 5’s “ABC” with pantomimed assistance from the sidelines. Every first grader got a prize.

By second and third grade, finalists demonstrated real panache, causing salsa judges to circulate for closer looks.

“I’m loving that they’re doing this with the kids - teaching them other cultures with dancing,” said Leontine Benoit, grandmother to Sanai Benoit who waltzed for Gretna No. 2.

To learn the dances, nine teacher coaches participated in monthly workshops at Dance Quarter, not only to get the steps, but how to be both leader and follower. Maria “Pepa” Lopez had already been a swing dance student herself at Dance Quarter.

“The hardest part is to recruit the boys - they don’t want to touch,” said Lopez, a Spanish teacher at Gretna No. 2. “It takes a month to get them to dance together.”

Her student, Ashley Sutherland, won a prize for salsa. “I love how I could express myself while dancing,” Ashley said.

Krista Rae Szaflarski, who heads Harriet Tubman’s after-school enrichment programs, used the school motto of “courage and grit” to encourage students’ commitment to dancing. Five Tubman couples placed in the competition. 

“The kids were better dancers than myself by the end,” Szaflarski admitted.

“I expected them to like it, but didn’t expect them to fall in love with salsa and merengue!”