“Bayous, Baby Dolls & Barrettes”:
Black Girlhood, Community Building & Identity Formation in 20th Century New Orleans
A Research Prospectus Presented
TABLE OF CONTENTS
Tentative Research Schedule
How did Black girls that resided in the all-Black community of Tremé negotiate with ideas of citizenship and girlhood based on the confines of their environment?
How did these girls interact with cultural icons such as The Baby Dolls and Mardi Gras Indians despite restrictions based on age and gender?
How did the community of Tremé prioritize the growth and development of Black girls in the neighborhood
Bayous, Baby Dolls and Barrettes: Black Girlhood, Community Building, & Identity Formation in 20th Century New Orleans, investigates what was it like to grow up Black, young and female in the city of New Orleans, LA and specifically in the neighborhood of Tremé during the 20th century. While this research explores Black girl’s relationships to and within Tremé’s Mardi Gras Krewes and the Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA), it also seeks to highlight the roles Black girls played within the community building efforts of the historically Black neighborhood. By charting the varied approaches to, and spaces of understanding for Black girls, this research explores how these young women understood themselves during this time period under the constraints of oppression and the confines of segregation.
At the dawn of the twentieth century, Faubourg Tremé became the oldest Black neighborhood in the United States, laying the foundation for several prominent and thriving all-Black neighborhoods that would appear in the near future. As city members scurried to create a residential community that would support the needs, wants, and concerns of Black occupants, violent segregation laws kept Black residents confined within this close-knit neighborhood. As they sought out ways to expand and monopolize within their community, they also had to demonstrate numerous organizing efforts in order to ensure that they avoided the vitriol impacts of red lining laws, white flight and gentrification. Due to their efforts, New Orleans saw the construction of the YWCA’s Claiborne Branch in the 1930s and the Lafitte Housing Projects in 1940. The YWCA, located on the intersection of Claiborne Avenue and Canal Street, was created to serve Black girls in the community by providing services and extracurricular activities including dance classes, community service engagement efforts, swim lessons, and other social programming. As Tremé’s economic expansion efforts thrived, niche cultural celebrations were crafted within the neighborhood as community members began to create their own traditions in response to segregation laws. Black New Orleanians were actively segregated from white, mainstream celebratory practices, thus prompting them to engage in their own creative rituals. While this quaint neighborhood birthed both jazz music and civil rights activism in New Orleans, it was also the cite of New Orleans’ most enticing Mardi Gras celebrations. Second Line Parades of Tremé began “under the bridge”, a phrase used to reference the meeting space under the I-10 bridge between Basin Street and St. Bernard. Parades featured various Mardi Gras Krewes including the Mardi Gras Indians and The Baby Dolls, two groups that often led many of the most popular celebrations.
During the height of the 1950s & 60s civil rights movement, Tremé served as an epicenter for many organizing efforts that occurred within the city. As the community grew, it quickly became known for being the prime hosting location for many Black celebrations, while also supporting and cultivating a culture that prioritized the advancement and success of Black people and Black-owned businesses. These businesses included the first Black grocery store in New Orleans, the first Black Catholic parish in the United States, the Dooky Chase restaurant where Black students organized during civil rights sit-ins, and a plethora of other sites and services. While the community businesses expanded, social movements and community organizations grew in popularity, as residents continued to organize into various groups in order to contribute to the neighborhoods specific needs in the ways they deemed necessary. While many of these organizations maintained an increased commitment to bettering the community, they were often patriarchal in their foundation and failed to address problems concerning Black women and girls.
Understanding the foundations and operations of social movements and community organizations, is essential to analyzing the ways that community building efforts and identity formation happened for and around Black girls that were positioned alongside New Orleans’ cultural iconography. Their relationship to the people of the city is often politicized through these social movements and organizations. Therefore, by closely examining the ways that Black girls interacted with their community, in conjunction with how the community responded to their needs and wants, many stories of community building, identity formation and exploration emerge amongst themes of sexual violence, racial discrimination/segregation and exploitation.
Civil rights, women’s rights and other popular movements were increasingly prevalent throughout New Orleans’ history, but often at the expense of Black adolescent girls. Popular narratives either omitted girls from these conversations that directly impacted them, or forced them to participate in various forms of adult labor that stripped them of their childhood status. The responses from community members during the aftermath of various events generally illustrated the multitude of factors that motivated and shaped the nuanced experiences of Black girls in New Orleans during the 20th century. Then, by giving special attention to cultural icons, entities, organizations, material artifacts, and their relationship to the general history of the city, this research aims to examine the inner most daily lives of Black American girls who lived in New Orleans, Louisiana during the 20th century. By juxtaposing various social organizations and movements, this work aims to highlight the structurally omitted contributions of Black girls to the neighborhood of Tremé and to Black New Orleanian culture as a whole. To combat the multitude of social and political challenges that plagued their communities, African American adults organized various programs, services and initiatives and Black girls were consistently present in these spaces as both leaders and contributors. Archival presence shows Black girls during this time period to be both politically involved and culturally engaged, actions that are often overlapped in practice.
Darlene Clark Hine’s ‘culture of dissemblance’ has analyzed an ever-present theme of silence as a strategic method of protection within the lives of Black women and girls and this theory remains relevant when searching for the stories of Black girls in the community of Tremé. Their impact, their stories and their voices are present within the spaces they occupied and with the people they know, but their moments of silence within archives can be read as an intentional act of safety and self-preservation, as scholars tend to prioritize amplified voices. Black girls refusal to answer certain questions during interviews, hesitance to engage in specific dialogues, or reluctance to appear in various spaces may have been tied to structural regimes or can be read as political statements enacted by the girls themselves. The stories of these girls are not entirely lost, they’re simply untapped as they have not been prioritized and privileged. My research will fill in this gap by utilizing various archival resources in the city of New Orleans as a means to uncover the previously overlooked accounts of Black girls in Tremé. Tulane University’s Amistad Research Center Archives features files on the Claiborne Avenue YWCA branch, the Alpha Beta Omega chapter of Alpha Kappa Alpha, Sorority, Inc., Louisiana Weekly Photograph collections, and the Tremé Oral History Project collection. Each of these files includes information on correspondence, program/initiative information, children’s activities, club activities, and other operations of each entity. While these files will undoubtedly yield a wealth of information, the girls in these pages will likely have been reduced to statistics or nameless faces in photos and reports from the organizations. However, the small, close-knit nature of Tremé/New Orleans makes it extremely possible for the subjects of these files or relatives of these subjects to be directly contacted in an effort to conduct oral histories so as to humanize these girls and reclaim their unspoken narratives.
When researching the 20th century in New Orleans, Louisiana through the lens of Black girls, it is crucial that special attention is given to the numerous factors that impacted their lives, as many of these elements directly influenced the ways in which these girls came to understand the intersections of their identities. Over time, the construction and meaning of Black girlhood shifted in response to the major economic, environmental, social, and cultural changes that occurred in the city of New Orleans, as the neighborhood of Tremé was also directly impacted by segregation and racial biases. Consequently, parents and community member’s growing anxieties about the ways in which world and community events were impacting girls, directly affected the ways that girls maneuvered throughout their lives and the spaces around them. And so, when viewing girls as both a product of culture as well as cultural influencers themselves, the layers of their experiences begin to unfold in a way that seems to demand an intersectional approach to understanding and contextualizing their experiences. And still, if society is to ever be made fair and equal, a critical and thorough consideration must be given to the role these young Black girls played in influencing and adopting the culture around them. Unlike Black boys who face discrimination on the basis of race and white girls who face sexual violence on the basis of gender, Black girls have been made particularly vulnerable due to the base level intersections of their identity: the combination of their Blackness and their girlhood. With this realization, this research becomes increasingly relevant. A thorough examination of the numerous ways Black girls’ were involved with the community of Tremé will demonstrate the breadth of their impact, while critiquing the culture of academia and socialization that disregards their contributions in favor of popular narratives.
In her 2015 book Crescent City Girls: The Lives of Young Black Women in Segregated New Orleans, professor/scholar Lakisha Simmons explores similar issues by combining geographical theories with an analysis of sexuality and violence to fill the archival void associated with studying children. Simmons’ work found that positioning New Orleans’ neighborhoods and various institutions from the perspective of young Black girls maneuvering throughout their communities, accurately demonstrated how the color line impacted Black girls in the city of New Orleans during the era of Jim Crow. As girls traveled across town, they were greeted with “whites only” and “colored only” signs that restricted their involvement with certain public spaces and in turn, moved them to craft their own safe spaces and meanings of citizenship. Her work recovers Black girl’s daily experiences with racialized sexual violence and presents them via a collection of primary sources including oral histories, case studies, police/school reports, autobiographies, works of fiction, periodicals and other primary sources. She places these pieces in conversation with each other in order to argue that legalized segregation, sexual violence and “ideologies of respectability were strictures influencing young women’s personhood and subjectivity. They were the two lenses through which girls came to understand themselves and their place in the world.” (4–5). Like Simmons, my research seeks to locate girls in spaces where they have been previously underrepresented and by using geographical theories to position girls within the community of Tremé and on Claiborne Avenue, my work explores the effects of what Simmons calls the “double bind”, in order to explain the web of gender and racial power in Tremé during the 20th century. Simmons prioritizes many of New Orleans most culturally significant organizations by positioning Black girls within the crux of these spaces in order to discuss how their experiences with segregation impacted their experience with certain cultural icons. Simmons explores the idea of the “make-believe” in chapter six of her book and directly analyzes the ways in which Black girls overlapping engagement with the Claiborne branch of the YWCA, and Mardi Gras parades and pleasure clubs (krewes), allowed these girls to explore the “make-believe”, a sort of fantasy land that offered them the chance to be viewed as children or to present as a white Mardi Gras masker. Notably, she writes that:
“During masking, Black girls’ everyday bodies were hidden, destabilizing the segregated body. Within their Mardi Gras performances, Black girls might develop new ways of being next to whites on the parade route, and of moving in space. Sometimes costumes could transform a Black girl or woman into something entirely new – a new race, a new look, a new body…most of the Black women are Baby Dolls with blonde wigs and white faces.” (200)
Black girls’ experience with Mardi Gras during the early-mid 20th century was heavily defined by segregation laws and cultural creations. Costuming as a key form of cultural capital during this time, led many Black children to explore possibilities for parade participation despite not always having immediate access to beading, sewing and clothing materials to craft the elaborately embellished outfits. The “pleasure culture of Mardi Gras” (202) engages children and adults in many ways, often through their “landscape, body and imagination” (202), and thus pushes them to engage with their community in ways that even segregation could not defy.
In-depth archival research at various archives across the city of New Orleans will provide me with access to newspapers, journals, program files, and other important documents that will directly contribute to the crafting a complete narrative of Black girlhood. Future research will include interviews with members of the Baby Dolls and Mardi Gras Indians in order to establish a deeper understanding of the organizational operations as they pertained to the involvement of young Black girls.
TENTATIVE RESEARCH SCHEDULE
June – July 2018
For the month of June, I will prepare for my early July trip to archives in New Orleans, Louisiana. Most of my preparation will include reading more literature (listed in the bibliography) on related topics and identifying someone at Tulane University to engage with once I arrive. Materials for my visit have been requested and will be available to me once I arrive at the center. One the 15th of June and July I will submit my appropriate updates to the Mellon Mays director so that my progress can be assessed.
In sum, the months of June and July are dedicated to collecting more primary sources. My introduction will rely heavily on material collected at the Amistad Research Center so it is crucial that my work there is fruitful and yields substantial results.
During the months of August and September, I will begin crafting my senior thesis and final Mellon conference presentation. While these two works are due at very different times during the year, they both will show the progress of my research. As the school year begins, I aim to have a strong and cohesive draft of my introduction and full chapter that covers the role of Black girls in the community of Tremé. As I work to complete graduate school applications this fall, I will work closely with my advisor, Dr. Jonathan Fenderson to ensure that the remaining months are carefully planned and balanced so that they may be productive.
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Evans, Freddi Williams. Congo Square: African Roots in New Orleans. University of Louisiana at Lafayette Press, 2011.Moore, Leonard Nathaniel. Black Rage in New Orleans: Police Brutality and African American Activism from World War II to Hurricane Katrina. Louisiana State University Press, 2015.Turner, Richard Brent. Jazz Religion, the Second Line, and Black New Orleans. Indiana University Press, 2009.Hermann, Bernard, and Jason Berry. The Good Times Rolled: Black New Orleans, 1979-1982. University of Louisiana at Lafayette Press, 2015.Bay, Mia. Toward an Intellectual History of Black Women. The University of North Carolina Press, 2015.Perry, Keisha-Khan Y. Black Women against the Land Grab the Fight for Racial Justice in Brazil. University of Minnesota Press, 2013.Hine, Darlene Clark. Hine Sight: Black Women and the Re-Construction of American History. Indiana University Press, 1998.Caldwell, Kia Lilly. Negras in Brazil: Re-Envisioning Black Women, Citizenship, and the Politics of Identity. Rutgers University Press, 2007.Photos
Gutmann, John. “Black Children’s Mardi Gras, New Orleans”. 1937. Photograph. Center for Creative Photography at the University of Arizona.Introduction
Michael E. Crutcher Jr. Treme: Race and Place in a New Orleans Neighborhood. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2010. Project MUSE
Fox, Kenneth and Lacho, Kenneth. An Analysis of an Inner-city Neighborhood: Tremé-Past, Present, and Future. University of New Orleans, 2005.
City of New Orleans Historic District Landmarks Commission, Treme Historic District, https://www.nola.gov/nola/media/HDLC/Historic%20Districts/Treme.pdf, May 2011
YWCA: Claiborne Branch, New Orleans, 1948-1967, Box 1, Folder 9 ; 10,Amistad Research Center at Tulane. New Orleans, Louisiana. April 4, 2018
Times-Picayune, 28 April 1952
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Hine, Darlene Clark. “Rape and the Inner Lives of Black Women in the Middle West: Preliminary Thoughts on the Culture of Dissemblance”, Summer 1989
Gutmann, John. “Black Children’s Mardi Gras, New Orleans”. 1937. Photograph. Center for Creative Photography at the University of Arizona.
Smith, Michael. “Mardi Gras Indians: Culture and Community Empowerment.” Folklife in Louisiana, 1988 Louisiana Folklife Festival Program Book., 1988, www.louisianafolklife.org/LT/Articles_Essays/creole_art_mardi_indians.html.
Cohen, Alina. “How the ‘Mardi Gras Indians’ Compete to Craft the Most Stunning Costumes.” Artsy, 12 Feb. 2018, www.artsy.net/article/artsy-editorial-mardi-gras-indians-compete-craft-stunning-costumes.
Taylor, Charles, and Traynell Mitchell. “Keeping It Alive: Mardi Gras Indian Costume Making.” Folklife in Louisiana, www.louisianafolklife.org/LT/Virtual_Books/Keeping_It/creole_book_keep_indian.html.
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“Louisiana Music: Mardi Gras Indians and Zulu.” Louisiana Travel, 21 Mar. 2018, www.louisianatravel.com/music/articles/louisiana-music-mardi-gras-indians-and-zulu.
Mahalia Jackson Papers, Amistad Research Center, Tulane University, New Orleans, Louisiana
Claiborne Avenue Branch, YWCA, Amistad Research Center, Tulane University, New Orleans, Louisiana
Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc. Community Engagement Papers, Amistad Research Papers, Tulane University, New Orleans, Louisiana
The Historic Faubourg Treme Association
Elie, Lolis Eric. Faubourg Treme: The Untold Story of Black New Orleans. Serendipity Films/Faubourg Treme: The Untold Story of Black New Orleans, Apr. 2008, distrify.com/videos/aun9eA-faubourg-treme-the-untold-story-of-black-new-orleans.