NEW ORLEANS — New Orleans resident Raynard Sanders can detail the many ways Black businesses and culture thrived under the canopy of oak trees along Claiborne Avenue: the Black insurance companies, the corner lot home to the Black musicians union, the church that held a funeral to bury slavery. And the Mardi Gras gatherings where families watched the Baby Dolls, the Batiste brothers and the Zulu parade.
“This was THE street. This is where everything happened. And this is where African Americans were welcomed and wanted,” Sanders said. “New Orleans was segregated. And they were not welcome and wanted in other parts of the city like they were here on Claiborne Avenue.”
As he spoke, cars and trucks roared overhead on the elevated freeway that was built directly on top of the avenue in the late 1960s — ripping up the oak trees and tearing apart a street sometimes called the “Main Street of Black New Orleans.”
Sanders and documentary filmmaker Katherine Cecil head the Claiborne Avenue History Project, a multimedia project started in 2014 that aims to document and publicize the history of a street that has become notorious as an example of how highway projects often sliced through Black neighborhoods — a practice sometimes referred to as “white roads through Black bedrooms.”
The street and its history gained renewed attention with President Joe Biden’s recently announced infrastructure proposal. Biden’s plan includes a $20 billion program to “reconnect neighborhoods cut off by historic investments” and specifically mentions Claiborne as such an example, although it doesn’t say specifically that money will go to tearing down the New Orleans freeway.
In an interview with The Grio last month, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg noted the history of road projects disrupting communities of color. “There is racism physically built into some of our highways,” he said.
The Claiborne Avenue History Project focuses on a 22-block stretch of Claiborne Avenue that goes through the Treme neighborhood — one of the oldest Black communities in America.
Using fire insurance maps and records from the city archives, they are trying to figure out who owned all the lots on the block and researching the property owners through newspaper archives, wills and other historical documents. They’ve also recorded oral history interviews with people connected to the avenue, such as the late chef and civil rights activist Leah Chase.
Greg Beaman, the collaborative’s director of research, said they aim to digitally recreate the neighborhood and get a sense of the “… vibrancy of that 1940s, ’50s, ’60s, Black New Orleans social life.” The ultimate goal is to build a website where visitors can click an address and get a deep perspective on the decades of residents or businesses there.
Beaman said documenting the history and vibrancy of the street before the expressway rose above it is important because it highlights the scope of the injustice that was done. The number of registered businesses along the street went from a high of 132 in 1960 to just 35 in 2000, according to a 2010 report.
The avenue’s significance in the city’s musical history through things like Houston’s School of Music and the numerous music clubs that used to be there make it even more important to remember, Beaman said.
Through their research, Beaman said they’ve come across some stories largely forgotten such as the tale of a church on Claiborne where participants held a service to bury slavery in 1865. The lot later became the Acme Life Insurance Co. — one of the major Black-owned insurance companies along Claiborne.
They have tracked down information that some of the oak trees removed from Claiborne when the freeway went up were replanted in another area of town and Beaman is trying to find information on how the land — specifically the on- and off-ramps — was expropriated.
Clifford Ellis, professor emeritus at Clemson University who co-wrote the book “Changing Lanes: Visions and Histories of Urban Freeways,” said that when these freeway projects went up in the ‘50s and ’60s they were often portrayed as clearing slums or blighted areas and that it was acceptable to sacrifice African American neighborhoods for what was viewed as a larger public benefit. The roads also facilitated white residents’ move into the suburbs, where they could commute into the city for jobs — often spreading pollution through African American neighborhoods as they drove.
Amy Stelly lives a block and a half from the expressway and has seen the pollution first hand — soot from the cars that sticks to houses, the constant noise and vibrations from the heavy trucks. As one of the founders of the Claiborne Avenue Alliance, she’s been pushing to remove the expressway in large part because of the environmental havoc it has wrought.
And she points out that the expressway, as with many other major infrastructure projects of that era, is at the end of its lifespan and would need huge investment to keep it operational.
“I think we’re going to have to remove it,” she said, adding that, with the president specifically naming the project in his infrastructure plans, she feels momentum is on her side.
The Claiborne Avenue History Project isn’t taking a formal stand on whether to remove the elevated highway although personally Sanders, who calls it the “villainous monstrosity,” would like it gone.
Whatever happens to the expressway, Sanders and Cecil want the Black community’s place there respected and included — something they hope their history project can facilitate.
“I think that this initiative by Biden will result in a good community conversation, an authentic community conversation that really lets the community …. address the question of taking it down or not,” Sanders said.
Follow Santana on Twitter @ruskygal.