The Backstreet Cultural Museum is a showplace for artifacts of the city’s African-American parading traditions, and a base of activity in the cultural community. The Backstreet was established by Sylvester Francis, a longtime follower and documenter of second lines, jazz funerals, Mardi Gras Indians, Baby Dolls, and Skull and Bone gangs, whose collection of artifacts has been displayed here since 1999, in what used to be the Blandin Funeral Home.
The museum displays several Mardi Gras Indian suits, offering visitors a chance to see their beadwork up close. There are a variety of other objects, too, like sashes from social aid and pleasure clubs and programs from jazz funerals. The collection also includes walls of photographs and an extensive video library of street processions. Francis drew from his collection to curate exhibitions at the Essence Festival and Jazz Fest every year.
Francis’ work is especially valuable considering that, for years, depictions of these parading and masking rituals were created and disseminated by people from outside the community of practitioners. Artists were not always compensated for their contributions, and could find their sacred practices misrepresented to the outside world. Francis, though, was known and respected by these tradition bearers, who donated artifacts to the museum and trusted him to present their rituals with care. Francis became a cultural ambassador, educating visitors about the social context of the spectacles that might otherwise go unexplained. Though he passed away in 2020, his daughter Dominique Dilling Francis keeps the tradition alive today.
The Backstreet is a popular destination on Mardi Gras Day, when crowds gather to witness visits from Mardi Gras Indians, Baby Dolls, and the North Side Skull and Bone Gang. As the Treme undergoes post-Katrina gentrification, the Backstreet remains an anchor for the city’s Black parading traditions in their historic cradle near Congo Square.
The museum is open Tuesday — Saturday from 10 a.m. until 4 p.m. Admission is $10, cash only. To learn more, including how to support the Backstreet, visit backstreetmuseum.org.
Located directly across North Rampart Street from the French Quarter, Treme is arguably the oldest Black neighborhood in the country, and one of the most influential in shaping popular American music. As early as 1726, free people of color lived along Bayou Road and enslaved Africans practiced sacred traditions of music and dance in a nearby commons. The area was subdivided as an urban neighborhood in the 1810s, leaving a square block of the commons, Congo Square, as greenspace (gatherings of enslaved people continued there, under increasing regulation, through the mid-19th century).
Treme became fairly diverse later in the 1800s as Sicilians and other European immigrants arrived, but the neighborhood was strongly associated with its French-speaking Afro Creole community. Historians Joseph Logsdon and Caryn Cosse Bell note that Creoles of color, among other distinctions, were known for embracing “dance, music, … ritualized festivals, and marching bands.” Music venues in the 19th century included churches and meeting halls of the benevolent societies that were integral to social life here.
While Treme doesn’t stand alone as the “Birthplace of Jazz”—the artform developed across the city—a high concentration of its pioneers lived here. These include the Tio family, influential clarinet players and teachers; Armand Piron, violinist and popular bandleader; Freddie Keppard, the “cornet king” after the legendary Buddy Bolden; and Alphonse Picou, clarinet ace and manager of a bar in the neighborhood. Others, including Bolden, Sidney Bechet, and Kid Ory, came to Treme to perform at dance halls in the early 1900s.
The streets themselves were often full of music. The density of benevolent societies along with funeral homes and cemeteries in the area made brass band parades and jazz funerals common. Young people played homemade instruments on street corners, and early jazz bands promoted gigs by playing on flatbeds pulled through the neighborhood. On Mardi Gras, Black Masking Indians (also known as Mardi Gras Indians) and Baby Dolls rolled with musical accompaniment, often gathering under the canopy of live oaks on North Claiborne Avenue.
In the middle of the 20th century, segregation intensified across New Orleans and Treme became increasingly Black. Neighborhood bars and nightclubs emerged as venues for the remnants of Black vaudeville acts and big bands, then, after World War II, for the city’s brand of rhythm and blues. It’s no coincidence that some of the greatest drummers of the R&B era—including Earl Palmer, Smokey Johnson, and James Black—grew up in Treme. “The difference is the bass drum,” Johnson told writer Bunny Matthews. “That comes from hearing them street parades, them marching bands.” Palmer brought the parade beat into J&M Studios, which faced Treme on Rampart Street, recording seminal R&B hits with Fats Domino, Little Richard, and others, giving rise to rock and roll.
In the late 1960s two public works projects transformed Treme. The construction of an elevated expressway along North Claiborne Avenue devastated what had been a corridor of Black businesses (including record labels, Houston’s School of Music, and the Black musicians’ union) and a tree-shaded promenade for parades. Shortly afterward, the demolition of 10 square blocks for an ill-conceived “cultural center” uprooted hundreds of low-income Black households (the cleared land eventually became Armstrong Park). Years of divestment followed.
Despite these losses—and, in part, in response to them—Treme was at the heart of a brass band and second line renaissance that began in the 1970s and gathered momentum through the 1990s. New generations of musical families like the Andrews infused brass band music with R&B, funk, and hip-hop, and a new wave of social aid and pleasure clubs (descendants of 19th century benevolent societies), Baby Dolls, and Skull and Bone gangs reinvigorated local parading traditions. At the same time, music programs in neighborhood schools produced scores of young artists including Mannie Fresh, the multiplatinum-selling producer for Cash Money Records, who brought the sounds of New Orleans streets back to the top of the national charts.
Following Hurricane Katrina in 2005, public policy once again forced a mass displacement from Treme. With renters largely ineligible for recovery assistance and public housing complexes demolished, many longtime residents were priced out of the neighborhood, which rapidly gentrified (it was 92% Black before the flood and 57% Black in 2018). Before the COVID-19 outbreak in 2020, the Candlelight Lounge was the last live music club in the area.
Today, if music no longer infuses daily life in Treme like it used to, culture bearers have a heightened sense of purpose in keeping local traditions alive. Events like second lines, funerals, and Mardi Gras parades continue to fill the streets as they have since the 19th century, and drum circles and festivals continue in Congo Square, now inside Armstrong Park.
Outside the Backstreet Cultural Museum on Mardi Gras Day, members of the White Cloud Hunters Mardi Gras Indians (Big Chief Charles Taylor, in face paint) and the North Side Skull & Bones Gang (including Bruce "Sunpie" Barnes) bust out 'Shoo Fly Don't Bother Me.'
Tootie's Last Suit by Lisa Katzman, with Executive Producers Randy Fertel and Alexa Georges. Buy the DVD.
From WWOZ's Tricentennial Moments: Skull and Bone Gang on the Street.
"Spirit Leads My Needle: The Big Chiefs of Carnival," a half-hour documentary from the Mardi Gras Indian Council.