If you turn east on Renwick Street off of Highway 165 in Monroe, Louisiana, you will soon come to the intersection of Griffin Street, where you will notice a massive, two-story building that resembles a school gymnasium more than anything else. A sign outside announces that it is the Elite Lounge, and a closer look reveals that the complex of buildings is truly massive, including what appears to be a motel as well. Although it has been closed for many years now, the Elite Lounge at 1207 Griffin Street is a part of a forgotten part of Monroe history. Built as Cain’s Lounge and Motel,opened by Willie and Edna Cain, it was one of the city’s biggest night life spots, often serving as the site of performances by local singing star Toussaint McCall, and other singers and bands, and the adjacent motel met a need during the dark days of segregation when white-owned motels were closed to Black people, no matter how wealthy or famous. Later it became the Elite Lounge, serving as the center of a thriving blues and southern soul scene in Monroe. Unfortunately, Monroe became wild and violent in the 1980’s and 1990’s, and eventually the woman that owned the building chose to shut it down. However, the building doesn’t seem quite abandoned, as there are cars about, and it seems that a least of couple of people might be living in the old motel. The owner’s request for a city liquor license earlier this year led to speculation that the historic lounge might reopen. But so far, that remains merely a wish.
After breakfast at the Who Dat Coffee Cafe, I was already in the general vicinity of the Lower 9th Ward, so I decided to drive around that area and see if there was anything worthy of being photographed, and actually there was a lot. Of course, the Lower 9th Ward had been devastated by the flooding of Hurricane Katrina. Cut off from the rest of New Orleans by the Industrial Canal, the neighborhood is surrounded by water on three sides, and for many years was the home of two notorious housing projects, the Florida Projects and the Desire Projects, the latter of which was once said to be the largest public housing project in America. Both projects were wrecked by Katrina, and neither were rebuilt, at least not as housing projects. Mixed income developments are being built on the site. Business areas in the northern portion of the neighborhood were also devastated, and since people have not returned in large numbers, none of these shopping centers have been rebuilt. They are still ruins, covered with gang graffiti. But nearby, at a playground called Sampson Park, I came upon a beautiful mural done by something called “Project Future for the Youth”, containing a lot of wonderful and inspiring slogans and quotes, presumably painted and conceived by young people from the neighborhood, possibly even before the storm. The various tiles within the mural call for peace and an end to violence, and emphasize brotherhood, peace and even music. One section of the mural states, poignantly, “I know they watching…Ancestors watching.” Perhaps nothing more accurately sums up the unique culture of New Orleans, particularly the city’s Black neighborhoods…traditions that have died out in many other cities last years longer in New Orleans, perhaps because the young people know they are being watched by those who have gone on before.
In another part of the neighborhood was an attractively colorful building which proved to be a bike shop. All kids love bikes, but bikes are not just for kids in New Orleans, which is a bike-friendly city in the extreme. Young people in inner-city neighborhoods even have customized bikes, sometimes rigged with lighting and sound systems.
Down on Claiborne Avenue, I came across a tire shop that has evidently had a problem with neighborhood crime, and decided to deal with it through a blunt sign: “No cat selling, No crack selling, No loitering…NOPD Will Be Called.” It’s hard to imagine anyone trying to sell drugs or love at the neighborhood tire shop, but evidently someone did. Nearby, a recently poured sidewalk gave a group of 9th Ward kids an opportunity to immortalize their names in concrete. They listed their names along with their ward, and the designation “The Crew”. Here’s hoping that they and their peers in the 9th Ward have a bright future ahead.
While walking back to my car, I spied this interesting chair on a porch in Treme. The text on the top of the chair says it is a throne of St. Expedite (St. Expeditus), a Catholic saint who is extremely popular in New Orleans and amongst practitioners of voodoo in the city. The rest of the chair is covered with “veves”, drawn symbols that represent the spirits (or “loas”) of voodoo. The names of two of the voodoo loa, Baron Samedi (the lord of the cemetery), and Legba (the guardian of the crossroads) are emblazoned on the seat and legs of the chair. The cult of St. Expeditus in New Orleans is interesting in its own right. Tradition says that Saint Expeditus was a Roman soldier killed by the Roman Empire for converting to Christ. Supposedly, when he decided to become a Christian, Satan tried to deter him in the form of a crow, which called out “Cras, cras”, which is the Latin word for “Tomorrow.” Expeditus is said to have replied, “No, I’ll become a Christian today”, and threw the crow to the ground, stomping it to death. Much of the iconography of St. Expeditus pictures him saying “Hodie” (“Today!”) while crushing the crow beneath his feet as it is saying “Cras!” (“Tomorrow!’). But how Expeditus made his way to New Orleans is less clear. The best (and funniest) story is that during the French colonial period of New Orleans, some statues of saints were shipped to a church in New Orleans, perhaps Our Lady of Guadeloupe. Most of the crates were labeled with the name of the saint whose statue was within, but the last one was stamped only with the French word “Expedite” (literally “Rush!”). According to this story, the people at the church assumed that Expedite was the name of the saint whose statue was within the box, and it was set up in the church with that name! At any rate, St. Expedite soon became a favorite saint with the older Marie Laveau, the voodoo queen of New Orleans. When she fixed love potions, or perhaps cast spells or curses, she taught her followers that prayers to St. Expedite would make everything happen sooner! And I’m reliably told that Expedite is much beloved in the Black Spiritual churches of New Orleans too.
It was Satchmo Summer Fest weekend in New Orleans, and my friends in the To Be Continued Brass Band, or TBC, had invited me to spend the afternoon with them going around to their various gigs. They had already played several gigs before I got to New Orleans and caught up with them in the Treme neighborhood around 3:30 in the afternoon. I quickly learned that there’s really no better way to get a crash course in the unique culture of New Orleans than to spend a day with one of the city’s brass bands. During the rest of the afternoon and evening, I rolled with the TBC from a repast in Treme to a memorial block party in honor of someone who had died recently in Gert Town, to a birthday in another part of Gert Town, to a wedding in New Orleans East, to the Divine Ladies Ball at the Mardi Gras Ballroom of the Landmark Hotel in Metairie before winding things down at the Sportsmen’s Ladies event at the Autocrat Social Aid and Pleasure Club on St. Bernard Avenue in the Seventh Ward. Along the way I saw much of the unique “buck-jumping” dance of New Orleans second-lining, members of various social aid and pleasure clubs, and even a few of the Indians in their elaborate hand-sewn regalia, all accompanied by the festive music of one of New Orleans’ best brass bands. The long day of music and celebration ended at 1:30 AM, as the band members and I all headed our separate ways for some badly-needed rest.
Our whole goal for the afternoon had been to make it to Indianola for lunch, but we were in for a disappointment, because when we got there, we found that the Blue Biscuit, where we had intended to eat, was not open for lunch on Wednesdays. So we went across the street to the Gin Mill Grill instead, and then over to Church Street, which was the traditional street for juke joints in Indianola. We found that the walls of the Blues Corner Cafe (or Cozy Corner Cafe) were painted with interesting murals full of wit, wisdom and portraits of Delta life and blues legends. The murals were also found on the adjacent White Rose Cafe, which is now the Motor Mouse Motorcycle Club, and even included a 2Pac portrait with the words “Thug Life” and “Only God Can Judge Me.” A banner in a nearby vacant lot promoted the Church Street Festival, which is being held on Saturday June 28th, as a way of celebrating the historic Black neighborhood’s legacy. The event is being organized by Charles McLaurin, a former Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and COFO leader, and perhaps not coincidentally will take place during the 50th Anniversary of the Mississippi Summer Project.
West Point, Mississippi is the northern point of what is commonly called the Golden Triangle (the other two points are Starkville and Columbus), and not a place that people would usually associate with the blues. Nor would the average music fan associate bluesman Howlin’ Wolf with West Point, since he first came to prominence in and around the Memphis area while living in West Memphis, Arkansas. But it just so happens that Chester “Howlin’ Wolf” Burnett was born in West Point, and the city has decided to make the most of it, with a cool mural in the downtown area, and an annual festival named for him held out at the abandoned college campus. As for the rest of the town, it is sleepy and historic, although it wasn’t always so. West Point was extremely turbulent in the 1960’s, and had a considerable amount of racial conflict, including the murder of a civil rights leader in cold blood, and the firebombing of the Clay County Courthouse in 1970, but somehow everything has calmed down nowadays.
Any second-line route is likely to pass by any number of churches, but what I had never noticed until last week was how many of those churches have “Mount” in their names. There is Mount Triumph, Mount Carmel, Mount Olive, and all of this in a city well below sea level! Also of interest to me is the fact that so many of them seem to be the “Second” Mount Carmel, or what have you. “First” churches are fairly common, but the proliferation of “seconds” in New Orleans is interesting and certainly worthy of further study. The popularity of the song “Flee As A Bird to the Mountains” among older brass bands suggests that mountain imagery played a role in early African-American Christianity in New Orleans, for reasons that remain obscure. Of course, a lot of African people came to New Orleans from Haiti after the Haitian revolution, and the mountains there had been a place of refuge from slavery. One wonders if the imagery was spread by former Haitians to other African-Americans, and thus became part of the city’s unique heritage.
The Citizens to Save Our Parks and other groups that want to retain Memphis park names that honor the Confederacy often accuse those of us who favor renaming the parks of wanting to “change history.” That approach has actually worked well for them to some extent, because it changes the debate from one of offending African-Americans and progressive whites to one of what constitutes history, which is after all the past and which cannot be changed, since what happened is what happened.
However, their argument falls flat when subjected to close scrutiny. There is a difference between commemoration and honoring. Many park names commemorate historic events which occurred on or near their location, and no one ever suggests renaming them. This would include places like Shiloh National Battlefield, Vicksburg National Military Park, Columbus-Belmont State Park or Fort Pillow State Park. These parks are places where history occurred, and having a park there commemorates the events that occurred, without supporting one side or the other.
The Memphis parks, by contrast, with one exception, are not the locations of history. No momentous battles occurred on the site of Forrest Park or Confederate Park. The part of the old Public Promenade that was renamed for former Confederate president Jefferson Davis was the site of a brief and unglorious battle in which the Confederates in the park were no match for Union gunboats from the Mississippi River. Such was the “Battle of Memphis.” But the park’s name does not commemorate the battle per se, which, of course, Jefferson Davis was not present at, and which he had little to do with.
Memphis’ park names were rather chosen to honor the Confederacy itself, and those who served its cause. In that regard, Memphis around the turn of the 19th Century into the 20th differed little from other places in the South. The triumph of Jim Crow segregation and the election of Southern Democrat Woodrow Wilson to the White House seemed to unleash a new round of pro-Confederate sentiment in the South, an era that culminated in the release of the pro-Ku-Klux-Klan movie Birth Of A Nation. In choosing to name parks “Confederate”, “Jefferson Davis” and “Nathan Bedford Forrest”, Memphians of the early 20th Century were expressing their approval of what the Confederacy stood for and the men who fought for it, not merely neutrally remembering the past. It is this reason that these parks are so offensive to the African-American community.
New Orleans had a similar park, commemorating the Battle of Liberty Place, in which a paramilitary terrorist group called the White League successfully defeated the Metropolitan Police and overthrew the duly elected government of the state of Louisiana to re-establish white supremacy. The controversial monument praised white supremacy and was eventually removed after years of complaints.
Nobody can change history. What happened in the past happened. But when parks are arbitrarily named to honor the Confederacy and Confederate leaders, despite the fact that no historic event occurred on those grounds to justify the name, we are left with the conclusion that the names were chosen not to commemorate but to show community approval of that cause. Here in 2013, the Confederacy is no longer a cause that a majority of Memphians approve of, nor should they. Therefore, the names should be changed.