His Name, But Our Power: Cierra Chenier reflects on the impact of Tremé on New Orleans culture


N. Rampart, Claiborne, Orleans, N. Broad, Esplanade. 6th Ward. New Orleans would not be New Orleans without the Tremé. The oldest Black neighborhood in the nation, Tremé is the seed from which New Orleans’ most renowned traditions were able to grow. The original city of New Orleans consisted of the French Quarter with swampland on the outskirts. The city expanded as more Americans moved to New Orleans after the Louisiana Purchase. Enslaved Africans began to drain the swamps with their bare hands, clearing the land that would become the historic Tremé neighborhood.

Claude Tremé, a hat maker from France, married a freedwoman named Julie Moreau. Julie gained possession of the plantation that she was once bound to and through their marriage, Claude conveniently acquired that plantation. He and Julie subdivided the property and by 1812, the Faubourg Treme neighborhood was incorporated. Claude not only married a freed slave and owned slaves, but also killed an enslaved man that he believed was going to rob him. Much like many other places in the South, the Tremé neighborhood was named after a racist. However, it was the Black Tremé residents that monumentalized the neighborhood in history.

St. Augustine Church, credit: Cierra Chenier

Free people of color were prominent citizens in Tremé. They were able to purchase and own land, a practice unheard of in Southern cities beyond New Orleans. St. Augustine Church, the oldest Black church in the nation, was founded on land owned by free people of color. Before owned by FPC, the churchyard was the former site of the Tremé plantation. Long before the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s, Black residents of Tremé were demanding and establishing their own civil rights. They created the civil rights group Comité des Citoyens, known widely for its sponsorship of St. Augustine parishioner, Homer Plessy, of the historic 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson Supreme Court decision. Charles Louise Roudanez, a free man of color founded the New Orleans Tribune, the oldest daily, Black newspaper in America in 1864. Philanthropist, Thomy Lafon was another of several notable Tremé residents. He founded schools that educated Black children across New Orleans, helped to fund the Underground Railroad, Anti-Slavery Society, and made major contributions to Charity Hospital and Sisters of the Holy Family.

“Under the Bridge” credit: Cierra Chenier

The boundaries of Tremé extend from North Rampart to North Claiborne, commonly known, since the interstate’s construction, as under the bridge. “Under the bridge” is where Tremé meets the historic 7th Ward and where the Black-owned Circle Food Store has stood at the corner of St. Bernard and Claiborne for 80 years. During Jim Crow, Black New Orleanians were not allowed to shop at the white-owned stores on Canal Street. In result, residents created a Black-owned business district up and down Tremé’s Claiborne Avenue. This business district included insurance companies, pharmacies, restaurants, and theaters. The Circle Food Store, “the Circle” as we call it, provided groceries, a dentist, chiropractor, check cashing, and school uniform store upstairs. Before there were painted columns “under the bridge,” Claiborne was a strip of large oak trees where Black families would congregate and where Mardi Gras Indian traditions flourished.

However, in 1969 the city approved the construction of the I-10 on Claiborne despite disapproval from the Tremé community. The interstate dismantled the once Black-owned district, displaced residents, and removed the oaks that once united the neighborhood. Over on North Prieur Street stands St. Peter Claver school and church. Named after St. Peter Claver, the patron saint of slaves and African American ministry, both the Tremé school and church has educated and served the Black New Orleanians for decades.

The Lafitte Housing Project is another staple of Tremé. Constructed in 1941, the Lafitte was the first housing project in the city built for Black residents and was considered one of the best low-rent projects in the South. Just across the Lafitte stands one of the most legendary spots in New Orleans: Dooky Chase’s Restaurant. What started out as a po-boy shop, turned into a sit-down restaurant by Edgar “Dooky” Chase II and his wife, Leah Chase. Mrs. Chase’s Creole cooking became as infectious as her spirit and her gumbo as warm as her heart. She opened her doors to the same Black people that were being denied service at upscale establishments and welcomed Civil Rights leaders to hold meetings in her restaurant. Dr. Martin Luther King and the Freedom Bus Riders once held a secret meeting in Dooky Chase’s, then over 50 years later, Mrs. Chase fed the nation’s first Black president, Barack Obama.

Everything Is At Stake

Tremé Sidewalk Steppers Second Line 2019, credit: Cierra Chenier

Tremé gave New Orleans its heartbeat — from the spiritual and celebratory gatherings of free and enslaved people on Sundays in Congo Square; to the distinct, Creole architecture given to us by the African, Haitian, and French people that resided there. Jazz music was birthed in Treme. Corner bars with live music were just a block away and jazz funerals and second lines were normalities. Tremé became the hub of Black New Orleans’ cultural, historical, and political traditions. Tremé’s residents have been protesting oppression, preserving Black culture, and protecting Black livelihood since its inception. In the face of the rapid gentrification of New Orleans since Hurricane Katrina, the Black residents of Tremé continue this protest, preservation, and protection through their mere existence.

While gentrification gradually takes over nearly every Black neighborhood in New Orleans, the speed of gentrification in Tremé has been a slap to the face. Due to Tremé’s close proximity to the French Quarter, the neighborhood has become a gold mine for developers, transplants, and tourists. As short-term vacation rentals come in, Black Tremé families are being pushed out. When white-owned businesses begin to pop up, historic Black-owned businesses struggle to keep their doors open. The way of life that has molded Tremé is often diminished by white out of towners that just don’t seem to get it.

The iconic, Black-owned Circle Food Store recently had to close its doors indefinitely. The Lafitte Projects has been redeveloped since Katrina as “mixed income” housing and St. Peter Claver School announced that it would be closing its doors at the end of the 2019 school year. As a city, we brag on Tremé. It is the soul of New Orleans, THE oldest Black neighborhood in the country. But what do we have to show for it now, when the Black families that molded this community are being displaced? How do we provide walking tours of what used to be without making a deliberate effort to hold on to what it was?

While the rest of the country celebrated Super Bowl Sunday, the people of my city instead celebrated each other with ‘Boycott Bowl’ events and the Tremé Sidewalk Steppers Second Line. Tremé residents, both current and displaced, and the rest of Black New Orleans came out in the masses. Traditions created by enslaved and free ancestors are still being carried out in the 6th Ward to this day.Tremé residents took what was once a plantation and made that land theirs. This neighborhood has always set an example and carried out acts of resistance as solutions to acts of oppression. The gentrification of Tremé puts all of New Orleans at stake, but when I hear a Black woman on Dumaine speaking in Haitian-Creole, Black children playing across from a white-owned business on St. Philip, and hear the faint sound of drums outside of Congo Square on a Sunday; I am reminded that the people, neighborhood, and culture of this community will live on forever.



*photographs and cover graphic by Cierra Chenier