Excerpt: Stories from the 9th Ward

This is the final excerpt from the Neighborhood Story Project, a writing program that documents and celebrates life in New Orleans -- the good, the bad and everything in between -- prior to Hurricane Katrina.

In Where Would the World Be Without Women: Stories from the 9th Ward, Waukesha Jackson writes about the frequent role of women as caretakers of the community -- in their homes, social clubs, barrooms, and churches. She focuses on the tough times and victories of her family and neighborhs.

"Women in My Neighborhood"

I live in the biggest neighborhood in New Orleans, the Ninth Ward, which is way down from the city, at the bottom. It used to be a cypress swamp until the early part of the 1900s when the railroad tracks started to cut through the area. In the 1920s, the Industrial Canal was built through the neighborhood and the power part is now called the Lower Ninth, or the CTC, which can stand for Cross the Canal or Cut Throat City. Driving around, you can see a lot of development and businesses related to that Canal.

In the 1940s, streets were created and public utilities expanded. The area was home to both white and black families. It was one part of the city where black people could buy houses. They felt safer from the world because most of the people were similar to them and living the same kind of lifestyle. For many years the Ninth Ward was a picture of stability, with strong black families in homes that many of them owned. In the 1950s, the Desire and Florida Public Housing Complexes opened, too, which provided low-income housing. People from all over the city started moving down to the Ninth Ward to lice in the complexes.

In the 1960s, New Orleans chose to begin public school desegregation in my part of the Ninth Ward at William Frantz Elementary. Many people have probably heard of the story of Ruby Bridges. She was the first black girl to attend that school. The white parents stated taking their children out of school because they didn't want them around her. They said that if black girl had to stay, then they wouldn't anymore. They spit on Ruby, threw stuff at her and she had to go to school with bodyguards. After awhile, some of the white parents started sending their children back to the school. But it didn't last long because they started moving away.

When I went to Frantz Elementary I was in the second grade. Ruby Bridges came back to pay a visit to the school. We all thanked her and said, "2,4,6,8. Who do we appreciate? Ruby! Ruby! We love you!" All of the children were saying that, but I don't think there were any white kids.

 A sign in the Walter's bar
A sign in the Walter's bar.

Today, the Ninth Ward is predominantly black. Families grow and learn about each other. The men join the military or do carpentry work. They work offshore and some of them are foremen and the riverfront. The women may sit with the elderly, do house cleaning and work at hotels. A lot of children try to move away from the Ninth Ward if they can, so there are a lot of older people here.

Women play a big part in the neighborhood. They communicate with each other by watching over everyone. They run barrooms that act as home bases, and go to church together, worshiping the same God. They organize Nights Out Against Crime, have participated in political organizations like the Black Panthers, and joined social clubs like the Nine Times Social and Pleasure Club. They take care of the community and each other while juggling their losses and responsibilities. These are some of their stories.

"Interview with Ms. Cecile Payne"

Ms. Cecile has taken over the Palm Tavern, a barroom on the corner of Clouet and Law, because her sister Mildred died. Before it was handed to Mildred, the bar was their father's and before him, it was his father's. So this bar is not just a hang out place, it's part of a tradition in their family. Everyone in the neighborhood calls it "Walters."

My grandma and grandpa have always hung out there since I was small. I've known Ms. Mildred since I was little, too. She was in love with me. Every time I saw her, she gave me money. As a child, I always wondered why she liked me so much. Every time we had parities she would always be there. She gave me a hug and a little bit of money. She always had that big smile with a cigarette and a drink, dancing to the music. After a while, I stopped seeing her. I didn't know what to think until my grandma told me that she died of diabetes.

Ms. Cecile is very nice, just like her sister Mildred. I didn't know what she'd think if I came to interview her. When I did ask her, she was happy to do it and that made me feel more comfortable. When I got there, she was waiting for me. I was surprised she was ready for the questions to be asked. She wanted to get the interview out of the way because a lot of her regular customers come in the morning. She invited me into a small room a couple of stairs higher from where the bar was. IT had two tables and a few chairs with posters of models with beers in their hand. She said she didn't want to talk about her sister, because they were very close, and it still made her upset to think about her not being her anymore. […]

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