New Orleans Social Clubs Work to Maintain Ties

Steve Inskeep tours the flooded Ninth Ward with Ronald Lewis, president of a social club called The Big Nine. These kinds of organizations are hallmarks of New Orleans' African-American community. Since Katrina, they've tried to keep scattered members in touch and regain their voice as their city considers its future.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne in Washington.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And I'm Steve Inskeep in New Orleans.

Ever since he was evacuated from this city, Ronald Lewis has been on the telephone.

(Soundbite of phone ringing)

Mr. RONALD LEWIS (President, Big Nine): That's my hotline.

INSKEEP: Lewis can't move back to the city where he was born and raised, yet he's trying to keep in touch with a social network that has spread across several states.

Mr. LEWIS: Oh, what this is, huh?

INSKEEP: We contacted Ronald Lewis to find out how some New Orleans residents are keeping their neighborhood together, even though it's ripped apart. Lewis lived in the Ninth Ward, until it was devastated by floods. He agreed to drive there with us as the Army pumped out the last of the water and helicopters rumbled overhead.

Mr. LEWIS: It's unbelievable. A part of your community just completely washed away.

INSKEEP: We will have to zigzag to go around this house...

Mr. LEWIS: Yeah.

INSKEEP: ...that is now in the middle of the street.

Mr. LEWIS: Yeah.

INSKEEP: Back when these houses were still on their foundations, Lewis started the Big Nine(ph). It's one of the social clubs spread through the New Orleans black community. As we arrived at his childhood home, a member of his club was dialing in from Austin, Texas.

(Soundbite of phone ringing)

Mr. LEWIS: Hello. Yeah, I'm right here, Defalon and Johnson Street by...

INSKEEP: Just behind Lewis was a wall of rock where engineers repaired a breech in the levee. Just in front of him was a concrete porch, the only thing left of the house where he was born.

Mr. LEWIS: I tell you what. Our family house--all those new houses they built on Defalon, they're gone. You know, like gone-gone. Not no rubble, no nothing.

INSKEEP: New Orleans will be making many decisions about its future. One of them is whether to rebuild this area. Those decisions will be made while many residents are absent. What the far-flung evacuees have left are their social organizations. Between phone calls, Ronald Lewis took us to the tiny museum he built in honor of his own.

(Soundbite of Lewis among rubble)

Mr. LEWIS: Oh, there. This is my museum.

INSKEEP: The building still stands, though floodwater's destroyed almost everything in sight. Lewis used to be active as one of the Mardi Gras Indians. They dress up like Native Americans for the carnival parade wearing outrageous feathery outfits of yellow, red and blue. They're honoring Indians who once helped runaway slaves.

Mr. LEWIS: In the 1800s when Mardi Gras was first started and blacks were not included in the original Mardi Gras, some of the black community created their own Mardi Gras.

INSKEEP: And in addition to Mardi Gras?

Mr. LEWIS: We have parades every week.

INSKEEP: Social clubs, like the Big Nine, organize small processions, Sunday after Sunday, and strange as it may seem to outsiders, the memory of all those Sundays is what holds them together now.

Mr. LEWIS: It's a family. The Mardi Gras Indian and associated pleasure clubs is the true black history here in New Orleans. I'm not leaving my home. This is home. Only way I won't be here is I'm forced out of here. But other than that, I'm going to be one of the people who going to champion the cause of my community. You know, I have good relationship with my senator, council aide and state representative.

INSKEEP: Since people aren't here, since they're scattered all across the country, what is it going to take for people in this community to have a voice in what happens to the city?

Mr. LEWIS: Well, it's going to take organizing within the black community from our leaders, our church leader, our civic leaders and everything. And under those circumstances, we might be OK.

INSKEEP: The other day, Ronald Lewis received a phone call from a Mardi Gras Indian queen. The queen was in exile in South Carolina. She's part of a group that is trying to represent evacuated residents in the debates that lie ahead.

Mr. LEWIS: What do you say? What?

INSKEEP: Just before Lewis left New Orleans' Ninth Ward, a car pulled up. It happened to carry another member of his social club.

Unidentified Man: That water can't be--that water just took us out, man.

Mr. LEWIS: ...(Unintelligible).

INSKEEP: They were still talking when yet another member called in on the phone.

(Soundbite of phone ringing)

Mr. LEWIS: Yeah. Hello.

INSKEEP: One shred of New Orleans social network was restored, if only for a moment.

Mr. LEWIS: Yeah. All right. I'm going to call you.

Unidentified Man: All right.

Mr. LEWIS: OK.

Unidentified Man: Good night.

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