Narrator: On August 29, 2005, a catastrophic hurricane named Katrina made landfall on the Gulf Coast of the United States. When the skies finally cleared, the survival of a major American city hung in the balance.
For more than 200 years, that city had been an iconic feature on the national landscape — a vital port; a cosmopolitan mecca; a sensual, mysterious refuge. Now, the storm had laid it waste, and raised a stark and previously unthinkable question: what exactly would America be without New Orleans?
John Biguenet, Writer: We tend to look to New Orleans as a place where the past continues to live. But I think much more important for the United States America is this is the place where the future is visible.
John Scott, Artist: For one thing, it's the cultural cradle of this country. I don't care what New York says. This whole country was founded on the principle of the so-called melting pot and the blending of cultures. We've shown American how to do it.
Irvin Mayfield, Jazz Musician: The Constitution resides somewhere else, but the constitution of music resides here. The constitution of food resides here. The constitution of art resides here.
Tom Piazza, Writer: You do learn very quickly with New Orleans that if you're going to love it you have to love it with its flaws. It suffers from terrible poverty, terrible crime, but if you love something, you love it for what it is, not for what you wish it would be.
Ari Kelman, Historian: New Orleans is such an alluring place. The city really has become kind of embedded in the American imagination as something that's wholly different from the rest of this country but at the same time representative of some of the best of what we are and some of the worst of what we are.
Irvin Mayfield, Jazz Musician: New Orleans is a very old city, with a lot of tradition, a lot of culture that is born out of ceremony. You can find history anywhere, but in New Orleans, it's kind of like we are always living the history. The history is being lived on a daily basis. People don't tell history, they do history.
John Scott, Writer: There is so much history and cultural richness in that city that it oozes up out of the sidewalk. You know, it's hard to be there and really be there and not begin to absorb that. Of all the places I've been in the world, New Orleans is the only place I've ever been, where if you listen, sidewalks will speak to you.
Narrator: When wealthy travelers set out to see America in the nineteenth century, only a handful of cities were considered essential stops on the itinerary — and of those, none inspired more fascination than New Orleans.
"On arriving ... in the morning," one visitor remarked in 1819, "New Orleans has ... a very imposing and handsome appearance ... Everything has an odd look ... and I confess that ... it was impossible not to stare at a sight wholly new even to one who has traveled much in Europe and America."
Situated at a crescent-shaped bend in the Mississippi, about one hundred miles from its mouth, New Orleans was perched atop the river's natural levee — a ribbon of high ground that sloped gently down from the water's edge for a mile or two, then gave way to dense, mosquito-infested Cypress swamp. Beyond the swamp to the north was Lake Pontchartrain, which led to the Gulf of Mexico. New Orleans was a city surrounded by water.
Peirce Lewis, Geographer: If you think about North America the whole interior is drained by one of two river systems. One is the St. Lawrence by way of the Great Lakes, and the other is the Mississippi-Ohio-Missouri and the way to control the Mississippi and by the way, merely the whole interior of North America, southern part of the interior, was New Orleans. There had to be a city there, even though the site was...was dicey.
Ari Kelman, Historian: On the one hand it's the worst place imaginable to put a city. A good portion of the city is below sea level. In some cases, as much as ten or fifteen feet below sea level. It's a terrible disease environment; they've had horrible epidemics throughout their history. And of course they're on the path for these Gulf storms as they come up out of the Atlantic. On the other hand though, it's the best place imaginable to put a city, maybe the best place that you can imagine in the world to put a city.
Narrator: New Orleans had been founded as the capital of French Louisiana back in 1718, ceded to Spain and governed by her for nearly half a century, then briefly reclaimed by France — all before finally being sold to the United States, as part of the Louisiana Purchase, in 1803.
To that point, most of the native-born inhabitants of New Orleans had been French-speaking Roman Catholics, who called themselves Creoles. Unlike the Cajuns, the French-Canadian immigrants who had settled in the Louisiana countryside, the Creoles were primarily urban people — proudly Parisian in their manners and attitudes, and passionately devoted to the cultured enjoyment of life.
In the crowded colonial city, called the Vieux Carré — or old square — whites had lived side by side with blacks, among them Africans and people of mixed race, known variously as mulattoes, quadroons and octoroons.
Some of them were slaves; others the so-called "free people of color" — many of them refugees from a bloody slave revolt in the former French colony of Haiti. Entitled to own property and operate their own businesses, the free people of color were by far the most prosperous black community in the United States.
Ari Kelman, Historian: The free people of color have their own cultural institutions. They have their own community. But at the same time they interact quite easily with the white power structure in the city. The kinds of clear separation that exist in other places in the United States just aren't present in New Orleans.
Raphael Cassimere, Jr., Historian: The amalgamation of the Africans and whites created basically one culture where everybody was accepted, belonged. It worked well because people kind of understood class structure. I mean even though you lived next door to somebody didn't necessarily mean that you are socially their equal. But free blacks as well as slaves had a place in society.
Narrator: Into this century-old city of some 7,000 people had come the Americans — English-speaking, Protestant and accustomed to a rigid line between black and white. They had come pouring south from the eastern seaboard and the Kentucky hill country — most of them bent on making money, and doing so in the American way.
Lawrence N. Powell, Historian: We came in and we wanted to impose our ways on an alternative European civilization. We wanted to impose the English language. We wanted to get rid of the local culture. So there was this struggle for the soul of New Orleans.
Narrator: By 1820, the Americans' commercial connections had made New Orleans a bustling entry port for bananas and coffee from Latin America; cotton, sugar, rice and tobacco from the plantations of the South; tens of thousands of slaves from Virginia.
Kalamu ya Salaam, Writer: New Orleans was the major international port in the South. It was the entry point for much of the traffic coming from Europe. It was the easiest way to export grain, and heavy manufactured goods, most of which were coming out of the Midwest and all of them end up passing New Orleans.
Narrator: "In a few years," one observer concluded, "this will be an American town ... and everything French will in time disappear." It was a prediction that never quite came true.
John Biguenet, Writer: The Americans were not given very serious regard. That prejudice persisted so long that my grandfather you know, 200 years after the Louisiana Purchase still called tourists the Americans, the Americans came every summer, he said.
Narrator: The Creoles' refusal to assimilate was so staunch that in the end, it would be etched into the map of the growing city.
Decades after the Americans' arrival, the Vieux Carré remained the nearly-exclusive territory of the Creoles. The newcomers were settled farther upriver, with their own business district, called the "American sector," and a neighborhood of stately homes that would come to be known the Garden District.
Street names changed as they crossed Canal, the so-called "neutral ground" between the French city and the American one — and what was Chartres on one side became Camp on the other. Each side had its own opera house and its own churches, its own shipping canals, reservoirs and levees. And each had its own ruling class — a small, select elite comprised of those who were both wealthy and white.
Meanwhile, as the port prospered, New Orleans lured immigrants from all over the world — from France and the French colonies in the West Indies; from China and the Philippines, Ireland, Germany and Sicily.
By the middle of the nineteenth century, New Orleans would be home to some one hundred thousand people, forty percent of them foreign-born and more of mixed racial ancestry than anywhere else in the United States.
Ari Kelman, Historian: New Orleans is a place that never has a single truly dominant culture. You've got these French Creoles, this Creole elite in the city that doesn't want to lose power and you've got American newcomers who...who want power very, very badly. You've got again, slaves and free people of color. Then you've got people from all over the world and they all have to live sort of cheek by jowl. And it makes for a, a very, very complicated cultural dynamic and in some cases, very exciting cultural dynamic but one that also can be very, very explosive.
Narrator: Over the century to come, the many and varied peoples of New Orleans would struggle to live together — contending with one another to sink roots in unstable soil. Along the way, they would make their city the site of a radical experiment in American democracy, one that would test whether diversity would prove a dangerous liability or a vital, creative force.
TEDDY: The cemetery is a connection for the living to their past. It's like a touchstone. It has nothing to do with the dead; it has to do with the living. You know there is a tradition in New Orleans of giving picnics in the cemetery. And I don't know if other people do that, but it's done in New Orleans and its not considered unusual. You just bring a picnic basket, you go sit in the cemetery, and you have a picnic.
TEDDY: Cemeteries are open. Nobody bothers you. And you go visit, whether it's your family or somebody else's family. I've been asked to work on a tomb that's in poor condition that we want to bring up to a condition where it's weather tight.
TEDDY: This tomb, or at least this plaque, was made by a guy named Foyville Foy. He and his brother were freedmen of color who had distinguished themselves as tomb builders. They took great pride in their work. I'm working on this its like if I'm working on a piece of Tiffany jewelry, except on a larger scale. It's all about the respect for these pieces of antiquity. And that's just the way I think about it.
TEDDY: I know that when I'm done with this there will be thousands of people who will come through. And I've made a statement; I've given my piece back to my city. I feel like I'm assisting in telling the story of New Orleans and keeping it intact. Everywhere I walk past these tombs, it puts me in the continuum. I'm continuing a tradition. And I like being part of the continuum.
Narrator: It was mid-afternoon in New Orleans when the crowd began to gather at the foot of Canal Street. The date was February 25, 1873, and the city — like the rest of the American South — had yet to emerge from the long shadow of Civil War.
Captured by Union troops not long after the conflict began, New Orleans had endured three years of military occupation and a ruinous interruption of trade before the Confederates finally surrendered in 1865. The years since had been marked by unrelenting turmoil and steady economic decline -- and the city was now hovering on the brink of chaos.
To New Orleanians, it was an ideal moment for a party. By the time the sun went down on Canal Street, thousands of them had turned out to witness the procession of "Rex," the self-proclaimed King of Carnival and the official leader of the annual Mardi Gras parade.
Kalamu ya Salaam, Writer: It's Fat Tuesday. It's the last chance to fatten yourself up before Easter. And so it's a religious holiday with pagan roots that never caught on in the rest of the United States because the rest of the United States was Protestant and not Catholic.
Lawrence N. Powell, Historian: Carnival was something that came over from, from France and it began as a street celebration where people would mask and they'd have dances and balls so actually it percolated up from the streets, but the, the, the Carnival that a lot of people know today that's around these "krewes," these parades, these organized parades is something that was superimposed on Carnival.
George Schmidt, Painter: the Creoles celebrated it. And they celebrated it so well, that at a point, in the mid 19th century, the Americans in their, "We can do anything" attitude say, "Well, we are going to take it and improve it." "We are going to give it some shape, some order." So they decide they were going to put on a procession. And it was unbelievably popular.
Lawrence N. Powell, Historian: If you really begin to, peel away the layers of meaning and symbolism you have a, a governing group there that's never really felt entirely in control. They've tried to rule, but this has been a city too unruly to rule. The organized parade is something to kind of assert their primacy and to say, "Well, we can be arbiters of culture."
Narrator: The parade rolled on hour after hour, well into the night — a river of masked revelers and extravagant floats, jugglers and torch-bearers and marching bands. As New Orleanians liked to say, it was by far "the greatest free show on earth."
But for the spectators in 1873, the most vivid impression would be left by the last division, the members of a secret Carnival society — or krewe — called Comus, after the ancient god of mirth.
They emerged out of the gathering darkness, all wearing enormous papier-mÂché animal heads that poked fun at Charles Darwin's controversial theory of evolution by portraying well-known public figures as missing links in the chain. Benjamin Butler, the Union General responsible for the wartime occupation of New Orleans, appeared as a hyena; President Ulysses S. Grant, a man rarely seen without his cigar, a lowly tobacco grub. But the most pointed lampoon came late in the evening, during the exclusive Comus ball, with the crowning of the "The Gorilla" — a caricature of Oscar J. Dunn, who recently had served as Louisiana's lieutenant governor and had been the first black person elected to that office anywhere in the United States.
Harpers Weekly magazine hailed the Comus pageant as "irresistibly laughable." But the spectacle was hardly all in jest.
James Gill, Journalist: The intent was to mock Darwin's theory itself and also the absurdity that a black man should be at the apex of society. So you have an attack not just on the Darwin theories, but on the social disruption that they feared it might contribute to and which of course they thought was already happening in their view during the Reconstruction era.
Narrator: To the men behind the fanciful Comus masks, members of the secretive and socially-exclusive Pickwick Club, there were few words in the English language more loathsome than "reconstruction."
The term referred to an 1867 act of Congress that had subjected the states of the former Confederacy, including Louisiana, to federal military rule; but to the Pickwickians, it was synonymous with defeat and humiliation.
Before the Civil War, the men of the Pickwick Club had been the elite of New Orleans. In their dealings as prominent businessmen and bankers, professionals and politicians, they had considerable contact with blacks, especially with the free people of color. But such racial mixing always had taken place against the backdrop of an unquestioned social hierarchy: slaves on the bottom rung, free people of color in the middle, whites on top.
Reconstruction had changed all that. With Congress dictating the terms of Louisiana's readmission to the Union, and U.S. Army forces on hand to ensure compliance, blacks had been given rights previously unheard of anywhere in the United States. First, they had been made voters and officeholders. Then, in 1868, Louisiana had passed its Reconstruction Constitution, which granted to all citizens of the state — black and white — absolute equality under the law.
Lawrence N. Powell, Historian: The 1868 constitution was in racial terms the most radical and progressive constitution anywhere in America. And it was pushed by the free people of color in New Orleans who not only were wealthier but ... and more educated, but I think more politically sophisticated and self-confident. And they said, "Listen, equality isn't just legal, it doesn't mean we have the right to vote or the right to sit in juries. It means we have a right to equal standing in the public order."
Kalamu ya Salaam, Writer: The Constitution reflected the thinking of black people who had a stake in governing their lives in ways in which in other parts of the country black people had not yet achieved. You had blacks who were lawyers, who were doctors and what have you, who were bi and tri-lingual. And not just people who were ex-slaves. So these people have a different consciousness and it manifests itself in political terms.
Ari Kelman, Historian: And of course there's an entrenched white power structure that finds that abhorrent, distasteful, profoundly threatening, and those people do everything in their power to sort of turn back the clock.
Narrator: Inspired by the Ku Klux Klan, aggrieved Pickwickians now joined with other whites in New Orleans and formed a volunteer militia called the Crescent City White League. According to the League's published platform, their aim was to put an end to Reconstruction — and to what they called "the most absurd inversion of the relations of race."
On September 14, they took action. That morning, the leaders of the White League held a mass rally on Canal Street and urged the several thousand men in attendance to return to their homes, arm themselves and seize control of the state government.
During the tense hours that followed, White Leaguers marched on the Customs House, where Louisiana's governor was holed up in an office, and demanded his resignation. When he refused to step down, a force of several hundred White League members opened fire on the city's bi-racial police force, leaving eleven dead and sixty more wounded.
By the end of the day, the White League was in full control of New Orleans.
Lawrence N. Powell, Historian: Basically what they did was launch a coup d'etat. But President Grant and Republicans in Washington said no, this is too much of a defiance of legitimate order.
Narrator: Grant immediately dispatched federal troops — and within a week, the insurrection had been subdued. But the federal intervention would only fuel the resistance to Reconstruction.
James Gill, Journalist: You could look at that as the beginning of the end of the Reconstruction era because the White League remained strong, in fact was patrolling the streets in 1877 when the federals finally decided to withdraw and then once the federals went, then white society was free to undo what had been done in Reconstruction. So in fact the Confederates had lost the war but of course were about to win the peace.
Ari Kelman: New Orleans spends a lot of time trying to segregate itself socially and racially, trying to figure out who's white, who's black, who's American, who's Creole, and that's what happens with Carnival. There's all the very, very complicated racial and social dynamics that play out during carnival. The different krewes represent different segments of the city's socio-economic and racial makeup. People are trying very, very hard to identify clearly who they are by joining certain krewes at Carnival.
Mother: Rex has always been a part of our family. Growing up, having a grandfather who was king. My grandparents, my parents, my uncles, my aunts were involved. They've been very active in the organization.
Queen: You see the queens and the kings every year when you watch the parade and you know its just, its just weird to think that its me this year. It's such an honor
Coach: We're going to do entrance to the ball but were not going to be able to walk the whole way. Remember stretch your arm out. Up. Walk in. Project to your audience. Good. Come on the floor. Y'all stand for a second. Good. Look at Rex, boss him around. Ok, Good. Good.
Mother: It's going to be a beautiful ball. It's all gold. And she's just going to come out with a big old smile on her face and just brighten up the whole room.
Coach: Out. Move your hands all the way around. End up looking at your pages.
Mother: It's just going to be beautiful.
Flag Man: Well, we have the royal flag here. I'd like to present this flag to you.
Mother: Holy Mackerel. I didn't realize it was this big.
Flag Man: This is yours. From the organization.
Dresser: Are you ready? Gee, I've never actually done this.
Mother: She knows all the cues and they have their signals, and she knows when to change her scepter from her right hand to her left hand, and she knows when to bow. And of course she's a little nervous, but she's got the stamina and she's got the poise that she'll handle it just beautifully. Look at her, doesn't she look gorgeous?
Father: It is a beautiful shawl. It really sparkles in the light too. You're such a pretty girl.
Queen: Aw, thank you.
Mother: The minute the monarchs step out on the floor, it is just breathtaking. Truly it's a play. They know the cues and they have their signals. And it's a beautiful set. They have fountains going, and the women are all dressed up all so pretty. And the men are all so handsome. And it's a big wow for anybody who's never seen it. Rex is the soul of our city. This is what makes it so unique and so charming. We're and old city. We've got these traditions that haven't gone away. Evidently they work.
Narrator: On the first of September 1891, eighteen prominent New Orleanians assembled at the French Quarter offices of The Crusader, the city's black weekly newspaper, to discuss a looming crisis.
Fourteen years had passed since federal Reconstruction had come to an end — and in that time, the once-buoyant hopes of black Americans had been swamped by savage violence. Over the previous year alone, more than a hundred black southerners had been lynched — an average of two each week.
Racial discrimination, meanwhile, had begun to be written into law. In Louisiana, the legislature recently had passed the Separate Car Act, requiring railroad companies to provide separate accommodations for white and black passengers, and similar laws already were pending in five other states across the South.
Rebecca Scott, Historian: Equal but separate, that was the phrase and what was happening in that moment of equal but separate had to do with much more than the first-class railway car. It had to do with the state of Louisiana saying to its population of color, you are different. You are to be excluded.
Narrator: Now, The Crusader's chief editorial contributor, Rodolphe Desdunes, had called upon the elite in New Orleans' black community to spearhead the resistance. This "law is unconstitutional," Desdunes argued. "It is like a slap in the face of every member of the black race."
Like most of those present at The Crusader meeting, Desdunes was a so-called "Creole of color" and hailed from the community of blacks who had been free before the Civil War.
Born in 1849 to a Haitian father and a Cuban mother, he had grown up in the Vieux Carré, where many people of color were so light-skinned as to be indistinguishable from whites; where French was spoken in the streets; and where the ideals of the French Revolution -- liberté, fraternité and egalité — could be easily recited by any school-aged child. [alt: liberty, fraternity, equality]
Too young to have participated in the equal rights struggles during Reconstruction, Desdunes was instead their beneficiary — and had come of age in the most integrated city in the South.
Kalamu ya Salaam, Writer: Here you have people who had been living free for years and years — doctors, lawyers, craftspeople, etc. And all of a sudden you're in a society where they had to have a separate car for people of color and a separate car for whites. They fought against it.
Raphael Cassimere, Jr., Historian: These people believed that it was illegal to impose racial segregation in public places. They were confident if they got this to court, the courts were going to rule that the state does not have the right to force passengers to sit in certain cars.
Narrator: Calling themselves the Citizens Committee, Desdunes and his fellow activists began to meet in secret at The Crusader's offices — and over the next several months, their plan took shape.
A person of color would be sent to board a whites-only railroad car. When the conductor directed him to the car for blacks, he would refuse to go. Once he had been arrested and charged, the Citizens Committee legal team would use his case to challenge the Separate Car Act in the courts.
The man selected to act the part of the passenger was a fellow New Orleanian, a shoemaker named Homer Plessy. By his own accounting, Plessy was seven-eighths white — and the African blood, he noted, was "not discernible."
Lawrence N. Powell, Historian: What they wanted to show is if you couldn't tell the difference between a black person and a white person isn't any line of racial differentiation by definition arbitrary and capricious? I mean how ... if you can't tell the difference, how can you make a law saying that people should be separated?
Narrator: In November 1892, in a session of the Louisiana Criminal Court, Judge John Howard Ferguson held Homer Plessy guilty of violating the Separate Car Act.
The Citizens Committee would appeal the ruling, all the way to the Supreme Court of the United States. As Desdunes explained to those who criticized the move as too aggressive: "We believe that it is ... more noble and worthy to fight than to show oneself passive and resigned."
Rebecca Scott, Historian: Rodolphe Desdunes was fighting this one to win it. But he was also fighting this one for the record. So that if anyone claimed that what forced racial segregation was simply a customary means of southern life, there would be an indisputable record that this group of people had fought it tooth and nail.
Narrator: It took more than four years for Plessy v. Ferguson to work its way through the courts. Meanwhile, the segregation laws on Louisiana's books multiplied.
Then came the U.S. Supreme Court ruling on Plessy. In May 1896, with only one Justice dissenting, the Court upheld the right of states to segregate people on the basis of race. Among those rendering the majority opinion was Justice Edward Douglas White, member of the New Orleans Pickwick Club, formerly Private White, Company E, Crescent City White League. Desdunes and his fellow activists were crushed. "Notwithstanding this decision," they wrote, "we, as freemen, still believe that we were right."
Rebecca Scott, Historian: When we think back on this moment, and the lost opportunity, it is extraordinarily poignant. I think part of what makes it so painful, is to realize that when they lost in 1896, it meant that the entire country lost an opportunity to really embody the new birth of freedom that the Civil War had been meant to create. And it opened up the space for something very different to be built. And once that edifice of white supremacy was built it would be impossible to dismantle, by normal political means.
Narrator: Soon after the decision, The Crusader ceased publication and the Citizens Committee disbanded.
Over the next several years, under so-called Jim Crow statutes, blacks in New Orleans and throughout the South would be deprived of the right to vote, and relegated to separate facilities that, in most cases, were decidedly unequal. By World War I, even the Catholic Churches would impose the color line.
But statutes alone could not unravel the racial complexity of New Orleans. Just before Jim Crow was to take effect on the city's streetcars in 1902, the president of one company complained that the new law imposed an unfair burden.
James Gill, Journalist: The company made a statement and I can't remember it verbatim, but the effect was ... we picked ... our conductors are intelligent, educated men and they're competent and can do a reasonable job, but no one can tell the difference between blacks and whites in this place.
Narrator: As if to prove to the point, in 1921, long after blacks had been barred from the polls, Homer Plessy would fill out a voter registration card — and list his race as "white."
Leah Chase: On August the 29th, I'll never forget that day, Dooky Chase really took a whipping. We had five feet of water. Five feet of water on the bar, about three feet in the dining rooms. My whole restaurant is gone. It is gutted all out. I have nowhere to start, nothing.
Leah Chase: Oh, this is a disaster. This was once my beautiful dining room. HA. That was just there. We had to rip out that wall because you see they tell you, you rip out a foot or a couple of feet over where the water stop, and the water stopped along here like two feet. I worked the kitchen seven days a week from eight o'clock until we close at night. And that can get a bit weird. And you wonder how you did it or how you'd do it again if you have to do it. But I'd like to be doing it again.
Back in the old days, I married into the restaurant. In '41 My mother in law lived next door. But you have to understand now, in '41, African Americans did not eat out. Well they had no place to eat out to begin with. They had no restaurants, as we know restaurants today. Everybody; Duke Ellington, as great as he was, there was no place for him to eat, he had to eat here. King Cole had to eat here. Everybody had to eat here.
Oh, mercy. These kettles, I'm glad nothing happened to them. See because the water didn't get up to maybe nine inches. But I can make 20 gallons of gumbo in here, and 30 gallons in here. So one lady say "You can't get rid of that stove. Some museum wants this stove. Look how many people you've cooked for on this stove." Well, I cooked for a lot of people. I cooked for Thurgood Marshall on this stove. I cooked for Big Daddy King on this stove. I cooked for everybody on this stove.
Leah Chase: But I think it's time for Leah to get another stove.
Leah Chase's Husband: I agree.
Leah Chase: Oh, Lord, he agrees. He agrees I get another stove.
Leah Chase: This is going to be a quick gumbo. You know the kitchen to me is what saves me. And that's the way it is in New Orleans. If you lose a member of your family, people start bringing you food. Food is like a healer to us. And when we give it to you, we feel we doing something great for you.
Leah Chase: We don't need to baptize. You know that's what the Creoles would say, you know. They make this giant pot of gumbo. Now you'd make a pot of gumbo, like that pot, in the average family. So when you got more guests, you know they say, oh Lord, here come more guests, we got to baptize the gumbo. So that meant you had to put a little bit more water in the gumbo.
Leah Chase: More people don't understand about my restaurant more than anything else, I had to build a whole community. People wonder why you do what you do, why you stay in the neighborhood. Well you stay where you're comfortable and you stay where you're needed. And I feel that we need to be here. We need to save our neighborhood.
John Biguenet, Writer: When you travel outside New Orleans, if you're a New Orleanian, you feel as if you're always in exile. People, in our experience, after we fled New Orleans, because of Katrina, could not have been more generous to us. Everywhere we went, we were offered the kindest hospitality. But every gesture of that hospitality reminded us we weren't home. The food was different, the accent was different, the coffee was weaker. Everything pushed us to come back, where we'd be among our friends and our community.
Narrator: In New Orleans, always and everywhere, there was music. And like the people who lived there at the turn of the century, it came from all over the world — French waltzes and Spanish habaneras, German polkas, Irish ballads and Italian arias, rhythms at once African and Cuban and Caribbean.
Tom Piazza, Writer: Every different strain in this city maintained its color and each of them brought with them a very vibrant musical culture. Also, New Orleans had a big tradition of street music. There were all these little groups of serenaders, who would go around, and they ... little string bands just like a mandolin and maybe a fiddle and a guitar.
And they'd just kind of rove the streets in the evening, and they might stop underneath your window and play you a little tune, and maybe you'd throw some money down for them. You'd also have something called spasm bands, which were just little groups, of usually of very young kids who might have like a kazoo and a washboard And this was constant.
George Schmidt, Painter: I can remember, everything was vended off the street. And so a lot of the vendors would have a chant, "I got bananas. I got watermelons. I got bananas. I have a watermelon." You know, they would come down the street. In a cart. In a big wagon pulled by a mule, you know, and that was all over the place.
Narrator: There were dozens of brass bands in town, and they played wherever New Orleanians gathered — at picnics and political rallies, backyard birthday parties, dance halls and saloons. And in a city where, as a visitor once observed, "no hour of the day was immune from a parade," they often brought the music right into the streets — providing accompaniment for everything from Mardi Gras and lodge celebrations to funeral processions.
The sound seemed to ricochet all over town. "It was like a phenomenon, like the Aurora Borealis," one New Orleanian recalled, "... that music could come on any time."
Kalamu ya Salaam, Writer: New Orleans is an outside culture. New Orleans, unlike most of the rest of the United States, has the procession as part and parcel of cultural daily life so that things move through the community rather than the community going to one spot.
Tom Piazza, Writer: If you are sitting in your living room or parlor and a parade comes down the street, you're likely to hear it and to want to come out and check it out the way all your neighbors are doing. It encourages a kind of communal celebration to, to occur almost continually, in the neighborhoods.
John Scott, Artist: There is a kind of intimacy of living in New Orleans that's a little bit different than other places. Even under segregation, neighborhoods were basically mixed. I mean people had to experience each other.
Ari Kelman, Historian: Rich, poor, white, non-white, people all live on top of each other. It's not a matter of choice, you know the city's not so utopian as all that, it's just necessity. There's nowhere else to go. The city's confined to this narrow swath of land that, that, that shadows the river so that leads to a kind of, really, unusual cultural mixing in New Orleans.
Narrator: As one Afro-Creole remembered it: "We always swapped platters of our best cooking with the French and Italians next door. ... Whenever we had dinner ... it was just over the fence."
George Schmidt, Painter: I like to use the word "various, variety." We have a, a variety of customs here. And they are not "diverse" in the sense you draw a line between you and me. What it means is, is that the culture is transmittable. It transmits. It transfers. It doesn't depend upon your race.
Narrator: So it was that in the mid-1890's, all of New Orleans heard what some would later call "the big noise." It came from way uptown, from a neighborhood of Irish, German and African-American laborers, many of the blacks recent migrants from the Mississippi Delta. It had echoes of the improvised music those new arrivals brought with them — the spirituals of the Baptist church and the blues. But it was set to the syncopated rhythms of ragtime, which was fast becoming the most popular dance music in America.
The sound — which someone dubbed the "hot blues" — was unlike anything New Orleanians had ever heard, and they were mad for it. Wherever the hot bands played, the crowds followed. They jammed the honky-tonks and the dance halls, cheering and stomping and slow dancing -- sometimes until sunrise. "We had to change," one local player recalled, "we couldn't make a living otherwise."
Soon, musicians all over town, black and white, were riffing on the style — and playing fresh, off-the-cuff variations on the standards. Even classically trained Afro-Creoles had to admit the black musicians uptown were on to something. "I don't know how they do it," one Creole violinist marveled. "But goddamn, they'll do it. Can't tell you what's on the paper, but just play the hell out of it."
John Scott, Artist: We have never separated so-called folk art, fine art. The umbilical of our culture, folk and fine has never been cut. So one respects the other. That's not true, in European culture. I think once the folk rises to the certain level, there is a cutoff, and it becomes something different. Ownership changes. With us, there is no change in ownership. So things that develop in the street, are absorbed, and constantly refined, even by the so-called fine artists.
Narrator: By the dawn of the 20th century, the unique, hybrid culture of New Orleans had spawned a distinctive new style of music: a swinging fusion of African rhythm and European harmony, of bold improvisation and technical virtuosity — "Not spirituals or the blues or ragtime," said one musician, "but everything all at once, each one putting something over on the other."
Tom Piazza: What New Orleans really offered at that extraordinary time in its history was a working model of democracy at its most ideal. You had a real melding of all the different kinds of musical forms you couldn't really take out the French element or the African element or the Caribbean element, without unraveling the entire fabric. It wouldn't be the same thing.
Narrator: As yet, few outside of New Orleans had heard the new sound. But in the years to come, scores of musicians would pack up their instruments and hop aboard steamboats and railcars headed north -- among them Nick LaRocca and Sidney Bechet, Kid Ory, Joe Oliver and Jelly Roll Morton, and a one-time hustler turned trumpeting sensation named Louis Armstrong. Within a generation or two, their music would be heard all around the world.
By then, no one is sure just how, the New Orleans sound had come to be known as jazz.
John Scott, Artist: I think jazz is probably the only original American cultural contribution to the world that didn't come from somewhere else. You know Jazz was born in the streets of New Orleans. And it's amazing that that little bitty place exported this product that literally changed world culture.
Irvin Mayfield, Jazz Musician: The jazz story is not only a musical story, it's an American story of a way of life. You have to have people wanting to participate with one another. You know we can think of cities all around this country that have had many years of having all kind of cultures living with one another, but if they don't participate in a certain way, if they don't celebrate together, if they don't come and marry these traditions, you're not going to birth anything significant like jazz. And I think the city of New Orleans did it because of that participation.
Lawrence N. Powell, Historian: Well, New Orleans seems to have the strongest local attachment of any place I've ever lived in. I think almost eighty percent of the people who live there were born there.
George Schmidt, Painter: In New Orleans you didn't feel as if you had to leave it. There was no, you didn't say, "Oh, I, I could find something better elsewhere." People here were convinced [LAUGHS] that this was place was the center of, of the, of the universe.
Rick Bragg, Writer: When you walk down the streets and you hear a 12 year old kid blowing his heart out on a battered trumpet, yeah you can get trumpets anywhere, but there's something about the sound of it here, in the air, you know, the land shifts under your feet here. It makes no sense at all to want to own a piece of it. Yet, you know a lot of us do.
Narrator: The rain began to fall on New Orleans sometime during the early morning hours of April 15th, 1927, Good Friday. Already since January, there had been four storms more severe than any in the previous decade. But this one would be the worst. Over the next eighteen hours, some fifteen inches of rain would fall — more in one day than New Orleans typically got in its wettest month.
Uptown, in one of the grand homes that lined St. Charles Avenue, James Pierce Butler Jr. woke to the sound of the rain, lashing against his windows. Butler cut an imposing figure. Six-foot-five, driven and notoriously aloof, he headed up New Orleans' Canal Bank, the only one in the South to rank among the world's largest, and served as President of the Boston Club, a group that revered wealth and power every bit as much as the Pickwickians. He was also one of just six private citizens to sit on the Board of Liquidation of the City Debt, the agency that held the key to the municipal coffers.
John Barry, Writer: It was a private organization, made up almost exclusively of the most important bankers and lawyers of the city. They had lifetime appointments, like the supreme court. But when one of them died or left, they named the next person to succeed them. They weren't named by the governor or the mayor. And the city couldn't issue bonds for schools or roads or anything else, without the approval of this board of self-appointed bankers.
Narrator: In years past, a man of Butler's position might have been alarmed by the downpour outside. To a city situated largely below sea level, heavy rain meant floods, floods meant chaos, and chaos was never good for business. But for now anyway, Butler was not troubled by the storm. The Wood pump would take care of that.
Lawrence N. Powell, Historian: the Wood pump was invented by a Tulane engineer, A. Baldwin Wood, who worked for the Sewage and Water Board. And he came up with a pump, a screw pump that had enough power, enough, propulsive power to, to not only lift up the water but then to push it out over the levees. And once you had that hydrology in place so much becomes possible.
Narrator: The Wood pump had been the cornerstone of an ambitious, turn-of-the-century effort to shore up the city's economy, which had been faltering ever since the Civil War. Goods that once had floated to market along the Mississippi — and through the port of New Orleans — now increasingly went by rail, and anxious businessmen had pressed for large-scale civic improvements in hope of making their city more hospitable to commerce.
For much of its history, New Orleans had suffered a reputation as the most unsanitary city in the country. As late as the turn of the century, when the population had topped a quarter million, there still had been no comprehensive sewage system. Drinking water had come mainly from mosquito-infested cisterns, or else directly from the murky river, which also served as the dumping ground for most of the city's waste. And then, there was the so-called back swamp, the cypress wetlands that stood between the natural levee and the shore of Lake Pontchartrain.
Peirce Lewis, Geographer: It was known as the quarter of the damned. Because the consistency of the back swamp is something between oh, let's say over cooked pea soup and warm Jell-O. And in that climate, it's mosquito ridden. There were yellow fever epidemics periodically but they could do something in New Orleans, thanks to the Wood pumps, that they had never done before and that was to pump out the water in the back swamp.
Narrator: By 1914, the city's new drainage system consisted of seven pumping stations and seventy miles of canals, and the back swamp was all but dry.
The impact was revolutionary. Average life expectancy, which in 1880 had been fewer than 46 years, soared. And for the first time in its history, New Orleans was freed from the natural levee. As then Mayor Martin Behrman put it: "Land, before worthless, became at once available for agriculture and city development." Older neighborhoods soon stretched north toward the lake, and brand new neighborhoods sprang up along its shores — the most desirable of them reserved exclusively for whites.
Meanwhile, artificial levees were raised, new shipping canals built, the port modernized. By 1920, construction in the newly-drained areas had more than doubled the city's property tax assessments and business was once again booming.
Lawrence N. Powell, Historian: This was a time in a lot of these cities- you know New York City, and Philadelphia, and Baltimore are upgrading their infrastructure in major ways. And New Orleans was part of that. It was one of these great kind of civil engineering, almost promethean civil engineering projects. And we really were on the forefront of that.
Narrator: Now, on Good Friday 1927, all that would be jeopardized by a bolt of lightning that knocked out the central power station and cut off electricity to the Wood pumps. By the time James Butler woke that morning, New Orleans had already begun to fill with water. At sundown, more than four feet stood in the city's streets.
Ari Kelman, Historian: The interesting thing about that Good Friday flood is that there's a huge river flood slowly bearing down on the city; one of the biggest floods in the nation's history. The 1927 flood is, is moving slowly and inexorably toward New Orleans and so when the city fills with water, it has nothing to do with the Mississippi River at all, it's just a big rainstorm.
But the national press corps is in New Orleans already, because it's covering this huge river flood and their photographers just take pictures of a flooded city. And they juxtaposed those images with stories of this horrendous river flood and so it fuels panic.
Narrator: Although the Mississippi posed no immediate threat to New Orleans, the mere prospect of a river flood had sent the city into a tailspin. Local wholesalers already had slashed their prices in a desperate effort to unload inventories. Anxious residents, meanwhile, were building boats, withdrawing huge sums from the banks, scrambling to get out of town.
The storm and the pump failure had served only to ratchet up the hysteria — and now, the city's investors were getting jumpy. By the close of business on Good Friday, most of the bankers in town, including Butler, had received urgent wires from New York and elsewhere demanding assurances as to the city's safety.
Ari Kelman, Historian: So they decide that they've got to do something drastic. They've got to demonstrate to investors that their money is safe. They've got to demonstrate to themselves, to the city of New Orleans that they are safe, that they're not going to be washed away in this river flood that's moving toward them. So they decide to blow up the levee below the city.
John Barry, Writer: Dynamiting the levee would allow the river water to escape like pulling a plug out of a bathtub. The Corps of Engineers violently opposed the move. They understood how weak the entire flood control system was and that that system was going to break hundreds of miles above New Orleans. So that water was going to spread out over its natural flood plain and never get to the city. But Butler and the rest of the people in his group were determined they were going to dynamite the levee and they were going to use their political power to make it happen.
Narrator: They chose a site beyond the city limits, thirteen miles downriver from Canal Street, at a place called Poydras. Dynamiting the levee there would inundate all of St. Bernard Parish and part of Plaquemines Parish — an area of interlocking wetlands that was home to some 12,000 people, most of them just barely scraping by as fur trappers or fisherman. All were now slated to be refugees.
Within a week of the Good Friday Flood, Butler and his allies had organized themselves into the ad hoc Citizens Flood Relief Committee, and had manipulated the state's high-ranking elected officials into signing off on the plan to blow the Poydras levee.
Ari Kelman, Historian: They ask for the, the right to blow up the levee below the city, and they get it, because of who they are. To say no to them is politically suicidal.
Narrator: On Wednesday, April 27th, residents of the soon-to-be-flooded parishes evacuated their homes, amid promises that they would be compensated for their losses. Butler, meanwhile, composed a wire destined for banks and investors all across the country. "[D]ecision... to cut levee... has removed all danger to city," he wrote, "Business and all other activities are moving along in a normal manner. New Orleans never has been flooded by Mississippi River and in our judgment never will be."
Two days later, with spectators jamming the road that ran south to St. Bernard Parish and the families of St. Charles Avenue watching from their yachts in the river, the charges were set at Poydras.
Ari Kelman: They invite members of the press corps from throughout the United States and the world to go and view this. They do flyovers with military aircraft to make sure that the area is secure. And then at a certain moment they lower the plunger and there's this massive explosion and then nothing happens. It's a big dud. It turns out that the levee is better constructed than anyone thought.
Narrator: It would take ten days and 39 tons of dynamite to finally breach the levee. Before the job was finished, another levee upriver would give way, just as predicted.
Ari Kelman, Historian: There was never any real reason to blow up the levee and that's probably the most tragic element of the story. For St. Bernard and Plaquemines Parish and the people who live there it's a disaster. Makes them virtually uninhabitable for many, many months. The Citizens Flood Relief Committee promise that they're going to give them reparations. And they never make good on that promise.
John Barry, Writer: While these 12,000 refugees, created by the city of New Orleans were being housed in warehouses, Jim Butler and his colleagues decided that they would deduct the cost of feeding these people from any settlement that they gave them. They simply stiffed the victims. So what this flood did was wash away the surface and reveal what lay beneath. And what lay beneath was some pretty ruthless people who would use power for what they regarded as the best interest of the city.
John Scott, Artist: You have to be a strange kind of being to live in a place this dangerous by nature. I mean we live in a bowl, surrounded by water, on a flood plain. You can't bury people below ground, because in the heavy rain caskets will pop up. We've lived with yellow fever mosquitoes, and we keep going. Survival by improvisation.
Krewe Member 1: The original Mardi Gras beads were all made out of glass.
Krewe Member 2: So we have here a destroyed house, and we're going to have, this is Rita and that's Katrina, in bed together. It's been an interesting project because myself, and of course many other people in fact do live in flooded houses. And when we first came up with the idea I wasn't too keen on it. Interestingly as the month's gone on and we've kind of made jokes about destroyed houses and everything, it's actually had a healing process for many of us.
Krewe Member 3: The concept is that since we're having so much trouble getting the federal government to take care of responsibilities of building things back, maybe the French will do better. So by ... we're asking the French within the Louisiana Purchase to buy back Louisiana.
Krewe Member 4: Our theme this year is "there's no place like home." So we're going to drop a house on some really bad politicians.
Krewe Member 5: I know there was controversy about whether we should have Mardi Gras or not, when we have to do this sort of stuff, you know, to reenergize ourselves.
Krewe Member 6: Well, everybody's been making fun of the whole thing, because that's the only way you keep your sanity. We can't give this up, this is what we're made of.
Ari Kelman, Historian: There's something to be said for the fact that when New Orleans faces adversity, when it's dealing with tragedy, when it's down on its luck, New Orleans' answer always is to pop the corks and have a good meal and then go dancing.
Tom Piazza, Writer: One of the main things that you learn from New Orleans is how to participate in life as it unfolds. You learn to embrace the fact that you can't control everything in advance. We have just a little while to stay here, and if we are lucky enough to make it to the table again for one more meal, then that fact needs to be celebrated and fully experienced and lived to the hilt.
Narrator: The American novelist Sherwood Anderson once declared New Orleans "the most civilized spot in America" — the one city in the country, he said, where there "[is] time for a play of the imagination over the facts of life."
During the 1920's, that recommendation lured aspiring writers from all over the country — among them Hart Crane and Robert Penn Warren, Thornton Wilder, William Faulkner and Ezra Pound. By the end of the decade, New Orleans had become the literary capital of the American South.
Kenneth Holditch, Writer/Educator: Rent was cheap, food was very good and very inexpensive. Liquor was very inexpensive and readily available, even though it was illegal everywhere in the country. All of those elements I think combined, to create a place comfortable for the writer or the artist to be here and to be let alone.
Lawrence N. Powell, Historian: It's always been a special scene where you could... find some space... where you could expatriate without having to go to Paris, for example. And if you're marginal, if you know an exile from your own, own culture, this is a place I think where you can find some room to find ... to define who you are.
Narrator: Now, late on the night of December 26th, 1938, a bus from Memphis deposited another young writer on the dark, narrow streets of New Orleans.
Lugging a wind-up phonograph, a portable typewriter and a bound ledger he used as a journal, he made his way to a small hotel on St. Charles Avenue, and checked in for the night.
His name was Tom Williams — and he'd come to New Orleans the way the persecuted seek asylum. After months of living in his parents' home in St. Louis, and under the gaze of his disapproving father, Williams finally had had enough — and the morning after Christmas, he headed for New Orleans, "like a migratory bird," he later wrote, "going to a more congenial climate."
Less than forty-eight hours after he arrived, he confided to his journal: "Here surely is the place that I was made for if any place on this funny old world."
Rick Bragg, Writer: New Orleans offered homes to creative people and troubled people and people who didn't fit where they were so they came here to try to find some kind of acceptance and some kind of more than acceptance ... happiness, you know. You can find acceptance, but New Orleans gave you acceptance and happiness. It let you dance with people like you.
Narrator: Williams' first days in New Orleans were a revelation. He was mesmerized by the architecture, by the light, by the "rattletrap streetcars" as he called them — one named Cemeteries, another Desire.
But it was in the Vieux Carré — or old French Quarter — that Williams found New Orleans its most alluring. "This is the most fascinating place I've ever been," he wrote his mother. "I walk continually, there is so much to see. ... The Quarter is really quainter than anything I have seen abroad, alive with antique and curio shops."
Abandoned by white Creoles in the years after the Civil War, the Quarter since had been home mainly to Italian immigrants and poor blacks. By the turn of the century, it had been widely considered a slum. Then, in the 1920's, the literary crowd had arrived — and discovered in the neglect and decay a kind of romance, and a powerful source of inspiration. As Williams later put it, the French Quarter was "the last frontier of Bohemia. ... a place in love with life."
Rick Bragg, Writer: Williams found a home here. Life is more naked here. You hear smoke stacks and you hear streetcars, faith and ghosts and, death are all parts of this quilt here and its just, you know that's why writers can't resist it. It's just; it's never very far from you. Its hard to walk past life being lived here, you got to drop in on it.
John Scott, Artist: I think you go to a lot of cities, and people will dress up in the evening, to go to a cultural event. In New Orleans, you wake up in the morning, and you are in a cultural event.
Kenneth Holditch, Writer/Educator: You know, there's an old saying in New Orleans that the typical New Orleans meal is sitting around eating fine food, talking about what you had to eat yesterday and what you're going to eat tomorrow. And it's very tempting to just be constantly partying. And Williams was always fascinated by, by the people here and the sort of easygoing lifestyle.
Narrator: Williams quickly settled into a routine. In the mornings, he wrote — seated at a rickety old desk in his rented third-floor garret on Toulouse Street. Afternoons were spent with other artists who called the Quarter home, parked at a sidewalk table at the Café du Monde or Napoleon House — smoking cigarettes, debating politics, and watching the world go by. At night, he headed for the infamous stretch of Exchange Alley, where men gathered in dimly lit barrooms to meet other men.
Williams had had homosexual feelings before. But his upbringing had been so austere that he had not even recognized them for what they were. Now, for the first time, they could be openly acknowledged. "[The liberating effects of the city] gave me an inner security I didn't have before," he once said. "I was able to write better. I began to write with maturity."
Kenneth Holditch, Writer/Educator: He, he realized that he could live the lifestyle that he wanted to live, that he had been suppressing without being noticed very much. He said he found in New Orleans a freedom he had always needed and the shock of it against the Puritanism of his nature he said, gave him the material he'd be writing about for the rest of his life.
Narrator: About a month into his stay in New Orleans, Williams decided to enter a national drama contest, and submitted a collection of one-acts entitled American Blues. This piece he signed differently from all the others he had ever written — not as "Tom Williams," but as Tennessee Williams. In New Orleans, he had found not only his voice, but himself.
Late in his life, Williams would insist that more than half of his best work had been written in New Orleans. The city would provide the setting for six of his short stories, five short plays, and three full-length dramas, including the iconic A Streetcar Named Desire.
Rick Bragg, Writer: His writer's eye caught the menace. Caught that glittering menace in New Orleans. He saw every speck of dirt. I think he saw every speck of broken glass. And I think he shook those things up, like he shook them up in a potion, and poured it out in his writing.
Narrator: "New Orleans and the moon have always seemed to me to have an understanding between them," Williams later wrote, "An intimacy of sisters grown old together, no longer needing more than a speechless look to communicate their feelings to each other... this lunar atmosphere of the city draws me back whenever ... a time of recession is called for... each time I have felt some rather profound psychic wound, a loss or a failure, I have returned to [New Orleans]. At such periods I would seem to belong there and no place else in the country."
Amzie: Oh yes, what's up man. When I first came to French Quarter, I went "Oh my God. This is the best place I ever seen in my whole life." You and I want to be here right now, as long as I can be. It's like all the people who live around me are like musicians, and artists, and poets, painter, writers, and stuff. So you walk around within this environment. I think of it as kind of like a kid. And you know like when you have a kid in a playpen, and they're in an enriched environment. They're always growing, always learning, always alive, and their IQ goes up, everything, their motor skills grow up. Here I think is just a big playpen.
The Quarter was built by the people, by the French and Spanish, who understood architecture, and understood aesthetics, and understood beauty, and created a living environment for the people to be enriched in. And you can walk through the quarter at three in the morning on a January night and there's a full moon. And in New Orleans you've got freaks that have been here for 300 years. So its like, it's okay to be here. I always wonder, especially when I'm making a poster or a painting or something, I'm wondering what does someone who comes from somewhere else see when they first walk in here.
Tourists ... they come and they want to see what the real New Orleans is about. The sad part is that they come to Bourbon Street, they stay in hotel. They get drunk. They see some titty dancers, and then they go home and say "I don't what's the big deal about New Orleans is."
You think of New Orleans as, you know, like a place longitude and latitude on a map, on the earth. But in a sense, like, New Orleans to me is an address in the whole of the whole of the universe of existence. And if you match up with that address, if you're supposed to be here, then you'll feel it. You'll walk in here and you'll go "Whoa!"
Narrator: At mid-century, New Orleans had no native son more celebrated than the great jazz trumpeter Louis Armstrong.
Since leaving his hometown in 1922, he had performed all over the United States, made two tours of Europe, played on scores of hit records and appeared in a half-dozen Hollywood films, including one called New Orleans. "No band musician today on any instrument ... can get through 32 bars without musically admitting a debt to Armstrong," said the drummer Gene Krupa. "Louis did it all, and he did it first."
Now, in late February 1949, the 48-year-old New Orleanian was headed home, to the city where both he and jazz had been born. The occasion was Mardi Gras. New Orleans' premiere black Carnival krewe, the Zulu Social Aid and Pleasure Club, had invited Armstrong to reign as King in its annual parade — an event TIME magazine described as "a broad, dark satire on the expensive white goings-on in another part of town."
John Scott, Artist: Zulu was a parody. It was black people making fun by imitating white people imitating European royalty. So it was almost like a reverse minstrel show on the absurdity of Rex and Comas and those parades. They just took it to the extreme.
Lawrence N. Powell, Historian: If Rex came in the river and Rex was wearing a crown and a scepter, well Zulu would come down on a barge in the New Basin Canal wearing a lard can and waving a banana stalk or something. And they would wear black face, they were black people doing black face. To poke fun and say, you know you may ... making a lot of, a big to do about race, but here's what we think about it. It was a time for them to, to vocalize dissent when dissent had been pretty much closed down. And I think that's probably one of the things, sort of unstated about, about Louis Armstrong, why he, you know he was anxious to, to be part of it.
Narrator: Armstrong had grown up with Zulu. Most of the krewe's members were longshoremen from the Third Ward, the gritty district on the edge of the back swamp where Armstrong had lived as a boy. Like the rest of the kids in the neighborhood, he'd spent many a Mardi Gras trailing behind Zulu and its band, blowing on an old tin horn in the so-called second line — the boisterous swarm that spontaneously gathered around most every parade in New Orleans.
Interview: I know that you said in your interview with Time that you had one great ambition in life, and that was to be King Zulu, and after that, you could die. Is that right?
Armstrong: Yes, that's right. OK, well I don't want the lord to take me literally, but it ...
George Schmidt, Painter: My mother was a big Louis Armstrong fan. That's all she played, was Louis Armstrong, you know? [SINGS] "Someday, you'll be sorry. [HUMS] That it was wrong. [HUMS]" That's all we heard. I mean, it was like, you know ... it was constant.
And one day, well, you see, we were on the parade route. And it was 1949. And, we were standing in the yard. I am five years old. And this float goes past. And this man in — this man in Black face, with his big White lips, you know, and the crown comes past. And my mother bent down. She says, "George, that's Louis Armstrong." [LAUGHS]
Narrator: Armstrong spent most of the day on Zulu's float, downing champagne and tossing hand-painted coconuts into the cheering crowds. "People from all over the world — his fans — had come to see him," one musician in his band recalled. "I've never seen anything [so] beautiful in my life."
George Schmidt, Painter: The Zulu parade in those days, it just meandered all over town. There was no route. Although when Louis was the King, they brought it onto St. Charles Avenue, 'cause he was, he was so popular with people down here, Whites and Blacks.
Narrator: On Mardi Gras, New Orleans looked just as Armstrong remembered it: everyone mingling in the streets, people of every hue celebrating together in a spirit of mutual respect, if not perfect harmony. But on Ash Wednesday, the city returned to business as usual — and Armstrong could see just how much things had changed.
Some 570,000 people now lived in New Orleans — half-again as many as when he'd left town. What then had been cypress swamp now was mostly settled, the muck replaced by parks and golf courses, and California-style bungalows. And though blacks and whites continued to live side by side in many parts of the city, as they always had, some neighborhoods, like Armstrong's own Third Ward, were fast becoming predominantly black — as many of the white residents moved to new neighborhoods nearer to the lake.
Ari Kelman, Historian: The 1940s are a period in which you see radical cultural changes happening in New Orleans, as, as the old residential settlement patterns in the city disappear — the, the, the mixed housing patterns where rich and poor and black and white people are living right next-door to each other, that had so much to do with the city's culture and what made New Orleans New Orleans. And you see a new New Orleans emerge.
Narrator: Armstrong had come up in a time when Jim Crow was still novel enough to be flouted with some regularity — by both whites and blacks. Now, even in the neighborhoods that were still racially-mixed, segregation was a deeply-rooted feature of life in New Orleans — as pervasive and predictable as the humidity.
Raphael Cassimere, Jr., Historian: I could remember my mother riding to town, I guess you call it, going to Canal Street with one of our white neighbors. They would talk to each other at the bus stop, they would get on the bus, the neighbor would sit in front of the screen, my mother would sit behind the screen and they would talk. Segregation had become so traditional I don't even know if they understood the contradictions.
Lawrence N. Powell, Historian: Louis Armstrong understood this wasn't really the natural order of things, growing up in New Orleans. The person who gave him money for his first instrument was a Russian Jew named Karnovsky on Rampart Street, which was the black Jewish shopping district. And I mean that kind of tells you something. And he used to play in an Italian bar. And so when he came back and saw this city trying to be arch-segregated, I think he was deeply offended. I think he felt this really went against what he thought the true New Orleans was.
Narrator: Not even fame could spare Armstrong. He was celebrated enough to be given the key to the city — but he still had to stay in a Jim Crow hotel.
John Scott, Artist: Having sat down with royalty and all the rest of these people and had his humanity respected. Of course it was difficult to come back to a place where here it is you know you're on a first name basis with kings and some guy that owns a run down hotel is going to tell you go to the back door. Louis Armstrong didn't have to tolerate that.
Narrator: Armstrong left New Orleans in disgust, vowing never to return. "Ain't it stupid," he would later say. "Jazz was born there, and I remember when it wasn't no crime for cats of any color to get together and blow ... I don't care if I never see the city again. Honestly, they treat me better all over the world than they do in my home town."
John Scott, Artist: Unless you understand the so called lack of contradiction in contradictory things in New Orleans, it's going to be difficult for you to understand New Orleans. Explained in the simplest way is, if you have ever seen a second line in New Orleans, you could have a thousand people in the street. Each one of those people are actually dancing, doing their own thing. Absolute diversity. But every last one of them, are dancing to the exact same beat. Complete unity. And it's harmonious. And it exists. It's the only city in the world that I know of, where you can have total unity, and absolute diversity, existing simultaneously, without contradiction.
Narrator: The news cameras were already rolling by the time six-year-old Ruby Bridges arrived at William J. Frantz Elementary School, on the morning of November 14th, 1960. This was, after all, no ordinary school day — and Bridges was no ordinary first grader. The instant she crossed the threshold, William J. Frantz became the first integrated public school in New Orleans.
Frantz Elementary was located in the Ninth Ward, a swampy, flood-prone district, downriver from the French Quarter. Long considered undesirable by wealthy New Orleanians, the area had first been settled by poor blacks and immigrant laborers at the turn-of-the-century — and, like some of the older neighborhoods in the city, it remained racially-mixed.
John Biguenet, Writer: Racism took a very particular form in New Orleans. On a personal level there may really have been a great deal of courtesy between whites and blacks but on the other hand, institutionally, in terms of the educational system, in terms of its wretched public housing, the effects of the institutionalized racism here were just as pernicious as they were anywhere else in the United States.
Narrator: For more than sixty years – ever since the Supreme Court ruling in Plessy v. Ferguson — most public schools in the United States had been strictly segregated.
In New Orleans, as in the rest of the country, those designated for African-Americans often had been shamefully neglected. But the ones in the Ninth Ward had been among the city's worst — dilapidated, unheated and so overcrowded that school board officials had resorted to holding two half-day sessions in order to accommodate all the black students.
Then, in 1955, the Supreme Court handed down its landmark decision in the case of Brown v. Board of Education — declaring "separate but equal" unconstitutional and demanding the speedy desegregation of schools throughout the United States.
Raphael Cassimere, Jr., Historian: I was in class and the telephone rang and my teacher was always serious but when she got off the phone, she was smiling and we knew it was something important and she tried to explain to us what had happened. Immediately I thought about the whites in my neighborhood. I lived in the lower Ninth Ward at that time and I wondered whether or not we're going to be going to school together. I mean, I didn't realize that it was really going to be the beginning of mass exodus of the whites out of the public school system.
Narrator: By the time little Ruby Bridges left Frantz Elementary at the end of her first day, a large crowd of angry whites had gathered outside, chanting racist slogans. Over the days that followed, the crowd grew larger and ever more vicious. Meanwhile, scores of white parents pulled their children out of school.
Interviewer: Did you just take your children out of school?
Mother: I did, I did.
Interviewer: Why did you do that?
Mother: Because they're not supposed to go with the negroes, that's why.
Interviewer: Why do you say that?
Mother: Why? Because they wasn't brought up to go with them. That's why.
Interviewer: What are you going to do about an education for your children now?
Mother: I work and go bring them to a private school. (cheers)
Narrator: For whites opposed to integration, the options were few. They could send their children to expensive parochial or private schools, as many wealthy New Orleanians already did. Or they could join the migration out to the suburbs — which by now was well under way.
Like their peers in Chicago and Detroit and Los Angeles, middle-class New Orleanians had been leaving the city in droves since the mid-1940's, following the direction of newly-completed highways and causeways into the surrounding parishes.
Now, desegregation would fuel that trend — and many Ninth Ward whites would head east to St. Bernard Parish, where they would find all-white neighborhoods and all-white schools.
Kalamu ya Salaamu, Writer: For survival's sake we've had to live together. Right. Together in the sense of next to each other, and if not accepting, at least tolerating each other. Come the 50's, the development of the expressways they find a way to live and not be together. And if you're not living next to each other you don't have to get along.
John Biguenet, Writer: New Orleans schools of course suffered enormously as whites fled, and the tax base with them. And the schools became predominantly black. So integration isn't really an accurate term for what happened, it was simply a different kind of segregation that took its place.
Narrator: Over the next several decades, urban blight struck New Orleans with a vengeance. As huge numbers of middle-class residents fled, the city increasingly fell victim to violent crime and corruption, its infrastructure crumbling beneath the weight of perpetual neglect, its decline further speeding the exodus. Between 1960 and 2000, more than a hundred-thousand New Orleanians — including some middle-class blacks and nearly two-thirds of the white population — decamped to the suburbs.
George Schmidt, Painter: With suburbanization What we lost, was the consensus. You know, you had segregation. But we all shared the same cultural basis. Everybody ate the same food. Everybody celebrated the same celebrations. They shared in the same experience.
John Biguenet: We had a culture that had been living shoulder to shoulder, pressed against the, the Mississippi River and we wound up with an isolation between families that didn't exist in the city. There was a rupture between a continuous life that had been lived for hundreds of years in this particular place and the way it flowed out into surrounding parishes.
Narrator: By the beginning of the 21st century, 67 percent of the city's nearly half-million people were black — and 28 percent of them were living below the poverty line.
Then, at the tail end of the summer 2005, came the storm that would change everything.
Reporter 1: The devastation that were seeing as we make our way towards the downtown New Orleans area is absolutely astonishing. Completely underwater, the entire residential area ...
Reporter 2: I am looking over a scene of utter devastation. An entire neighborhood and the water has come up to the eves of the houses, and I am told this is not the worst of it.
Mayor: The city of New Orleans is in a state of devastation. We probably have 80 percent of our city underwater.
Reporter 4: It is just unbelievable. I told you earlier today I didn't think this had turned out to be Armageddon. I was wrong.
Ari Kelman, Historian: In the immediate aftermath of Katrina some of the sadness and outrage I think was a byproduct of the fact that people throughout this country were seeing images of poverty and racism every night on their TV screens. Americans had to confront the fact that there is an African American underclass in this country that lives in harm's way. And that was very, very unsettling.
John Biguenet, Writer: People who were here took their own boats and went out and rescued people, neighbors from rooftops, they shared what little food and water they had, while we waited for the federal government to arrive. The federal government took five days. In the meantime, it was New Orleans that saved itself.
John Scott, Artist: We are the glue that keeps that city together. It's the love of the place. And maybe it's even a love/hate relationship between the people themselves that keeps that thing together, you know? Because there is polarization in New Orleans. That would be remiss if I said otherwise. But at the same time, you know, there are events and things there that bring people together, unlike anywhere else.
Tom Piazza, Writer: With all its problems, with all the corruption, with all the racism, with all the crime, with all the poverty New Orleans has kept its culture alive and kept its history alive with all these different elements that have come together, and have marinated together for hundreds of years. There is culture here that is very precious, beautiful, and unduplicatable.
Lawrence N. Powell, Historian: I'm not sure that, that we could understand American race relations today without reference to New Orleans. I'm not sure American culture would look the same. It's one of these cities, had you removed it from the national equation, I'm not sure America would be the same. And I don't think you can say that for many other places in the United States.
James Gill, Journalist: America needs New Orleans because it needs a place with a soul that you don't find elsewhere. This is a place where there is invention and, and innovation. America feeds off that, even if people aren't necessarily aware of it.
John Biguenet, Writer: We made music that came up out of the neighborhoods rather than being taught in conservatories. We took recipes that our grandparents had taught us and turned it into one of the great cuisines on Earth. So this was a place that allowed what was here to flower, rather than trying to turn it into something else. There are very few places that have made that choice.
John Scott, Artist: The promise of that city is the lesson that can be learned from that city. At its best, when the people are doing what they do naturally--blending a seamless culture it has a oneness about it that very few places in the rest of this country has. New Orleans' promise is we can teach America how to be America. If anybody's listening.