Just to the Northwest of the French Quarter lies a neighborhood that few tourists visit, and many have never heard of, called Faubourg Tremé. Much of the area now appears bleak with Interstate Highway 10 bisecting it, industrial yards, and boarded up buildings. But it’s one of the most important neighborhoods in American history, and still has meaning for today. There are efforts to restore Faubourg Tremé and to learn what it has to tell us.
A recent, award-winning documentary tells the fascinating story, made all the more compelling by relating it to the life of a young reporter for the Times-Picauyune. The film is Faubourg Tremé: The Untold Story of Black New Orleans. Reporter Lolis Eric Elie leads us in his discoveries about his own city. He and director Dawn Logsdon show the relation between the city’s present and its rich past, enlivened throughout by music, including Derrick Hodge’s original jazz score, the Tremé Song by John Boutté, and a century of New Orleans music.
Viewers also meet Irving Trevigne, Elie’s seventy-five year old Creole carpenter, who descends from over two hundred years of skilled craftsmen, as well as Paul Trevigne, editor of L’Union, the first black newspaper in the US. L’Union and later, the Tribune, were strong advocates for the abolition of slavery, but beyond that, for full citizenship and social equality for all blacks, something most northern abolitionists shied away from. They hear from Louisiana Poet Laureate Brenda Marie Osbey, musician Glen David Andrews, and historians John Hope Franklin and Eric Foner as well.
Faubourg Tremé was home to the largest community of free black people in the Deep South during slavery, where they published poetry and wrote and conducted symphonies. It was a racially-integrated community, a model for our own future. It as also possibly the oldest black neighborhood in America, the home of the Civil Rights movement and the birthplace of jazz. (See Congo Square to the right.)
Long before Rosa Parks, Tremé residents organized sit-ins on streetcars leading to their eventual desegregation. But on June 7, 1892, Homer Plessy from Tremé deliberately challenged the Louisiana 1890 Separate Car Act, by insisting on sitting in a whites-only car on a commuter train. He was arrested, tried, and convicted and eventually lost in the infamous Supreme Court decision of Plessy v. Ferguson. The resulting “separate-but-equal” decision legitimized segregation throughout the US for the next 62 years, and was a major blow to Tremé.
Following later assaults from urban renewal, Interstate Highway 10, and then Hurricane Katrina, it’s surprising that anything remains in Tremé. But one thing that has survived is a sense of history, embedded deep in the music, dance, architecture, social relations, and stories of the community. It is this history which holds a promise for the renewal of Tremé and perhaps of the larger US Society.
The film is a must-see, telling a story that is simultaneously informative, uplifting, and disturbing.