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Keeping history alive in the Lower 9

The Lower 9th Ward was arguably the epicenter of the massive flooding that followed the failure of the levees after Hurricane Katrina on Aug 29, 2005. While the neighborhood will forever be marked by that epic event, it's not all that identifies this  historic and intrinsic part of New Orleans. This week, in the first of a new "Voices" feature, NolaVie speaks with some of the residents of the Lower Nine, about their lives there, the people there, the community there. Today we talk to Brenda Robinson, the creator of “Black History, Our History: Lower Ninth Ward Notables,” a multi-volume book series documenting Lower Ninth Ward achievers through photos and brief biographies. 

Brenda Robinson, Café Dauphine. (Photo by: Hanna Rasanen)

Brenda Robinson (Photo by: Hanna Rasanen)

When Brenda Robinson moved from Washington D.C. to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina with her husband, Kirk, she admits she felt immediate culture shock. He’s from six generations of residents in the Lower Ninth Ward, but she didn’t immediately get the language or the culture.

“When I first starting coming down here, everybody called the Claiborne Bridge the New Bridge,” says Brenda. “So I asked when it was built. And they said in the 1950s. I said, really? And still it’s the New Bridge?”

Brenda, a writer and photographer, has since learned quite a bit about her new neighborhood. In some unexpected ways.

“We came down for a funeral,” she says. “Me being from the North, we don’t take pictures at funerals. But someone asked me to take photographs. And the more I attended funerals, the more I saw that taking photographs at funerals is a way of life here.”

Now Brenda goes to funerals regularly: She works as a professional memorial photographer, taking pictures of the service and the family, writing obituaries and putting together memory books, all under the auspices of her business, In Remembrance Memorial Photography.

Documenting people and milestones spawned another spontaneous venture not long after she arrived in New Orleans.

“I was speaking with my mother-in-law about a black history program at her church,” Brenda explains. “And she said she really got tired of hearing about the same people every year. So I asked her what she’d rather hear about instead. And she said, well, people around here. So I said, give me some names.”

Brenda started researching Lower Ninth Ward residents, with the idea of presenting their accomplishments at the next year’s black history program. But soon 10 names grew into hundreds, and a one-day talk blossomed into a book. The first volume of “Black History, Our History: Lower Ninth Ward Notables” documented 40 or 50 neighborhood achievers. A second volume followed last year, and a third is in the works.

“I just started printing the first one and giving it away,” Brenda says. “Then people started asking where they could buy one. So now, for every book I sell, I give one free to a child in the neighborhood. My goal is to have one in every household in the Lower Nine.”

The books are directed at a young audience, with each page devoted to photographs and a short biography of a notable Lower NinthWard resident from past or present. The layout is colorful and engaging, with a variety of fonts and styles making each write-up a sort of storyboard that’s as unique as the personality it documents.

“So many people here did so much,” Brenda says. “We had one of the first black marines, musicians like Fats Domino, restaurateurs, spiritual leaders, entrepreneurs, Civil Rights activists.”

"I learned about some of my own family members through her research," says Kirk. "I discovered we'd had a famous Negro League baseball player in the family. I love her for it. She has so much love and creativity."

Most of the bios are based on personal interviews. And they don’t lean toward dry facts and figures, but rather paint a short picture of something interesting about the person. Thus, instead of dwelling on the fact that Geraldine Amos was the first African-American female admitted to the New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, she recounts how the woman had to catch a bus a to Dillard to find a bathroom for blacks. Or the way that Mother Catherine Seals, who wore a smock with a hand-beaded black Jesus on it, was the first to allow brass horns to play in church. Or the fact that prize fighter Percy Pugh had an array of costumes, and always wore boots that matched his boxing trunks.

“When I interview people, I’ll get a bunch of relatives getting on the phone and the stories flow,” Brenda says.

She knows, too, what makes an interesting interviewee. Tessie Prevost, one of the McDonogh Three who integrated public schools in New Orleans in 1960, would seem an obvious choice. “But I want to interview Tessie’s mother,” Brenda says. “The ones with the courage were the parents.”

Between her photography and her writing, Brenda has become as much a Lower Ninth Ward aficionado as her husband. The two are well-known along neighborhood streets, where they often stroll with their Pomeranian puppy, Mikey, who they call “the mayor of the Lower Nine”  because everyone rushes to greet him.

The two agree that, post-Katrina, their neighborhood is in transition -- on the cusp of change, but anchored in tradition.

“One thing that makes New Orleans New Orleans is the blending of the cultures,” Brenda says. “The Lower Nine has always been diverse.

“But a lot of the activists around here are fighting for the same things now as they always have been. Better streets? My god, that was the '40,s the ‘50s, the ‘60s.”

Tomorrow on Voices of the Lower Ninth Ward: neighborhood elder Pete Ellis. Future Voices series will look at other New Orleans neighborhoods. Email comments and suggestions about this and other areas and people to cover to editor@ nolavie.com.

Renee Peck is editor of NolaVie. Email her at [email protected]