Much of the speculation heading into last week’s Mardi Gras celebration in New Orleans centered on an ethical question. Should the city hold the festival merely six months after the Hurricane Katrina disaster?
Some claimed that considering all that has transpired in the city, a party and parade would be at the bottom of everyone’s agenda. Others countered that a celebration is just what was needed to inspire the emotionally torn community, with hundreds of thousands residents still displaced.
While not quite the turn out of year’s past, this year’s Mardi Gras tradition has continued.
It’s not a surprise given that New Orleans has been a Mecca for exemplified African-American strength for nearly two centuries.
Those examples are the subject of the “Soul of the City” exhibit, currently running at the Peace Museum, located at 100 N. Central Park at Garfield Park’s Golden Dome. The exhibit, which runs until April and opened on ‘Fat Tuesday’ on Feb. 28, celebrates New Orleans’ history and culture, told through the photographs of husband and wife photographers Chandra McCormick and Keith Calhoun.
“They lived in the Lower 9th Ward and they’ve documented everyday life in New Orleans for the past 25 years,” said Melissa McGuire, program director of the museum. “Much of their life’s work was destroyed in the flood, but they were able to salvage many of their valuable negatives that tell the story of a vanishing culture that, for all intensive purposes, may never return to the Crescent City.”
McCormick, Calhoun and their sons were forced to flee their home and studio, which was lost in the flood. They were able to return in time to salvage materials they would later use to document the damage in the wake of Katrina.
The black and white photos in the exhibit showcase much of the historical grandeur of the Big Easy and its residents. Accompanying essays by writers such as Kalamu Ya Salaam, a former resident of New Orleans, provide a native’s perspective on the city. His poetry and assorted muses about the city give a first hand account of city, from attending church in the lower 7th ward, to a New Orleans voodoo priestess invoking the spirits, to attending a “Jazz Funeral”.
A “Jazz Funeral” is where participants play jazz music, laugh and celebrate the life of the deceased.
One gripping photo shows a casket being led through a parade of on-lookers, many of whom are making celebratory jesters.
The exhibit also includes photographs from the Treme community, a town named after Claude Treme, a hat maker and real estate developer who migrated to New Orleans from Sauvigny in Burgundy, France in 1783.
This move foreshadowed major economic, cultural and political events that helped shape the black community following the abolishment of slavery in the south. Many Blacks chose to live in New Orleans, the Treme community in particular, after obtaining their freedom because it was only town where property ownership for blacks occurred regularly.
McGuire hopes the culture and identity of New Orleans is not washed away in favor of big business when rebuilding begins.
“There is such a rich history in this city and people should never forget what it was like before and after Katrina,” she said.