Pontchartrain Park - How a new subdivision built in New Orleans in the mid 1950’s during the height of segregation brought momentous changes to the life of a black family
In 1955, during this era of segregation, a subdivision for middle class and affluent African Americans was built in New Orleans. It was the only one of its kind built in the city and one of the first in the nation.
This subdivision, Pontchartrain Park, consisted of a horse shaped 83 acre golf course and Park surrounded by modern single family ranch style homes. The impact on this development gave blacks the realization that they too could also have a place in the sun.
My name is Naomi Cannon Brown and with my husband, George, and our five children, lived at 5544 St. Ferdinand Drive in Pontchartrain Park. We lived in the park from 1959 through 2005. In that year, Hurricane Katrina and the ensuing flood waters completely destroyed the Pontchartrain Park subdivision and the majority of the city of New Orleans. Our home was later rebuilt but because of other significant problems, we never returned to the city to live, ever again.
To understand why the inception of this subdivision had such a profound impact on the lives of black families, there were many issues that interfered with our ability to escape from some of the evils of segregation.
In New Orleans and throughout the southern states of this nation, segregation was the law of the land. It affected the lives of blacks from the cradle to the grave, and even in graveyards and cemeteries, after death. Jim Crow laws prevailed and were treated as second class citizens.
Note: In the U. S. census of 1940 records and earlier, black was the designation used for race identification in the column indicated. The words, Negro or colored, were also used on census forms. The term, African American was not included in the lexicon until years later. I have therefore decided to use ”black” as the designation for my race as I write this story.
Black babies were born at home, often under less than sanitary conditions, or in a small segregated section of Charity Hospital. If the family had adequate financial resources, the baby may have been born in the black hospital, Flint-Goodridge Hospital of Dillard University with black doctors and black nurses in attendance. Black doctors could not practice in the city’s white hospitals. This is only the first of many indignities that this black infant would face during its lifetime.
When the parents brought the new baby home from the hospital, if they did not own an automobile, they had to use public transit and sit in the back of the streetcar or bus. And if the conveyance was crowded and a white person boarded and wanted to sit in the seats they occupied, the black parents were forced to stand and allow the white patron to have the seat.
They would arrive home to one of the areas where blacks were allowed to rent or buy houses. White homeowners often signed pledges (covenants) which forbade them from selling or renting their homes to blacks. Blacks were not welcome to live in the white sections of the city of New Orleans, no matter their status or ability to afford the associated expenses.
Many of the streets in black neighborhoods were substandard. In some cases, oyster shells were used to pave the streets. Each time more shells were added, the stench permeated the area for days.
You may or may not have had sidewalks in your neighborhood. Without sidewalks, you had to walk in the street. If there were sidewalks, more often than not, they were broken and in disrepair. In certain white neighborhoods, if you and a white person were walking on the sidewalk, blacks were expected to cross the street and walk on the other side.
Some homes did not have full baths, they had toilets, but no bathtubs. With no bathtubs, baths were taken in big galvanized tubs using water heated on the stove. Later, many houses did have bathtubs and gradually, hot water heaters! In some homes, blacks still had to use oil lamps for lighting if the home had no electricity.
In the summer, if the family had access to fans, they used them but they provided very little relief from the New Orleans heat. Otherwise, front and back doors were left open as were all windows. And in winter, in attempts to keep the house warm, the family had a choice of kerosene heaters, fireplaces or space heaters (small gas heaters). Standing in front of the heaters meant that the front of your body got very hot while your back was cold. The family used many blankets and quilts, which often were so heavy on your body that it was hard to turn over.
To replenish their food, cleaning supplies and other household necessities, blacks often had to use corner groceries. Many of the families in the black communities had no supermarkets nearby. The other option, corner stores were limited in their offerings, quantities or variety, little or no fresh fruits and vegetables and sparse selections of other foods and greatly inflated prices. Fresh meat was difficult to find and when available, its quality was dubious.
For clothing, shoes, furniture and other items, blacks who lived uptown in the city often shopped in stores on Dryades Street in the inner city.Items sold at these stores were much more costly than at other stores and were poorly made. At one large store on Dryades Street, the white sales people would follow each black customer around as if they thought that blacks might want to steal their shoddy merchandise. Shopping at larger department stores on Canal Street also had huge drawbacks. Merchandise sold there was of a much higher quality, with a wider selection offered and the prices were more reasonable. In most of the stores, blacks were not allowed to try on clothing or shoes. If the store had a policy where clothing could be returned, some blacks would buy clothing, try them on at home, then if it did not fit or was not desirable, return the item to the store. There, the item was closely examined for signs of wear or soil before it was accepted for return. Buying shoes often created other obstacles. In some instances, blacks had to go to stores with cardboard cutouts of their feet in order to get the right fit.
In those days, in many churches, ladies were required to wear hats. However, they were not allowed to try on hats in the stores. It was felt that oils used in dressing the hair of black women and girls would soil the merchandise.
Not far from our home on Napoleon Avenue there were two playgrounds directly across the street from each other. These were equipped with swings, merry-go-rounds, and sliding boards. These two small parks were designated for use by the white population. A sign on another uptown park bore the sign, “For Whites Only, No Dogs Allowed”. Even City Park, one of our nation’s largest urban parks, banned blacks. Another gigantic and spacious park in the city, Audubon Park, was the home of Audubon Zoo, a golf course, fully equipped play areas for children, and an olympic size swimming pool. Blacks were allowed to visit the zoo but could not play on the beautiful grounds or swim in the pool. In the uptown area of the city, a much smaller park, reserved for blacks, was located. This was Shakespeare Park and it contained no play apparatus for children except maybe a basketball goal with damaged nets and a baseball diamond without bases. A very small swimming pool was provided in which the number of children allowed to swim at any one time was extremely limited. Often, other children could be seen in alone, awaiting their turns.
In New Orleans, there was only one public library for black citizens even though their taxes helped to support the public libraries. The library was located in an old building on Jackson Avenue near the black YMCA. Every book in the library was used or damaged and many had pages missing.
At the elementary school for black children, the children are packed in like sardines. There were almost fifty children for each teacher with no teacher assistants to help. There were not enough books for each child. The children had to sit close enough together so that they could share books. The books were those that had been used by white children in their modern schools. When new books were issued, they were given to the white schools and their discards were then sent to the black schools. The books were outdated and did not reflect new information contained in later editions.
And Jim Crow laws still prevailed in just about all aspects of life for members of the black population. Blacks could not be served in white restaurants. Some had small windows through blacks could purchase food for take out but were not welcome inside. How gracious of them! Movie theaters were segregated, too. In rare instances, blacks could go into theaters if they used a separate entrance and then sat in one of the four very top rows. Train and bus stations, and even churches followed the Jim Crow laws. Even restrooms and water fountains carried signs, “For Whites Only” or “For Colored Only”. And be assured, disobeying the law could result in immediate arrest and immediate incarceration.
White privilege was apparent, even in employment opportunities open to them but not to blacks. Jobs such as firemen, policemen, streetcar or bus drivers, street cleaners or even garbage men were too good for blacks; probably because of the benefits that these jobs offered. Only jobs at the bottom of the totem pole were open to blacks. They were hired as longshoremen to do the heavy lifting. These jobs paid well but the work was back breaking. Federal jobs were an option for blacks as a way to improve their standard of living. If they were able to pass examinations, they could improve their lives and probably move up to middle class status. Even with those who went to college and obtained degrees, they were not assured of obtaining jobs with the city. Options existed of becoming a teacher, a nurse, or if they obtained an advanced degree, a social worker. Or if the family was able to provide money for more education, one might become a medical doctor, a lawyer or a scientist. When positions in the federal government became open and examinations were scheduled, often there was not enough room for all applicants
Now, I can finally get back to the subject of the Pontchartrain Park subdivision and the ways in which it impacted the lives of my family and me.
The construction and opening of the Pontchartrain Park subdivision was in no way a panacea for all the ills fostered by segregation in the city of New Orleans or elsewhere. But just being in this subdivision and away from others sections of the city made us feel that we were not second class citizens. We felt elevated to some degree and on par with our white counterparts. The subdivision’s first houses were built and ready for occupancy in 1955 and the Civil Rights Act was not signed by President Lyndon Johnson until 1964. And even then, cities and states fought tooth and nail against its enforcement.
When I first saw the ads for homes in Pontchartrain Park, I saw billboards of little black children playing in parks with all types of play equipment and black men and women playing golf. Black people playing golf on a golf course designed and built by a black man, Joseph Bartholomew, Sr.
He was a black man who had designed and built golf courses in City Park and the New Orleans Country Club, a country club which he could never join and golf courses on which he could never play! And this was a golf course designed and built by him, in the middle of a subdivision built exclusively for blacks. Absolutely Unbelievable! Even now, when I think about it, it gives me chills and I think about the song by Hot Chocolate, “You Sexy Thing (I Believe In Miracles)”. And with this new subdivision, we saw a miracle unfolding right before our very eyes! We Believed!
With things as they are today, the coming of a subdivision built especially for blacks, it would be received with a sense of outrage. In fact, a subdivision with its focus on homes for one race of people, would never be built or tolerated. Thus, the need for the background and introductory information. This gives one the opportunity to make a comparison of what was the case in inner cities and beyond in the 1950’s and how Pontchartrain Park promised to make such a vast difference in the lives of black people. It did not fail to fulfill its promise.
My husband was a letter carrier employed by the United States Postal Service and I was a beginning teacher with the New Orleans Public Schools. We thought that we might be considered middle class. Neither of us were making fabulous salaries, probably less than five thousand dollars a year with our salaries combined. So we entertained serious doubts that we could ever afford a home in Pontchartrain Park. After noticing that many of our friends and acquaintances in similar financial situations were buying homes, we gained the courage to at least check it out. Off we went, from our little rental house down to Chef Menteur Highway then down Press Drive, through the white subdivision of Gentilly Woods. This was a subdivision built more than twenty years prior to Pontchartrain Park. Because of the laws of segregation, blacks were not permitted to buy homes in the Gentilly Woods subdivision. Seems like we had driven for hours (we hadn’t), when finally we arrived at the new subdivision built for black people in the city of New Orleans.
We could not believe our eyes. The first thing that struck us as we arrived at this amazing new subdivision was the realization that all of the streets were paved. No oyster shells here! We entered the modest sales office for the subdivision where we met salesman, John Ross, who would later become our next door neighbor. He took us on a walking tour of some of the model homes. We saw some with large picture windows overlooking expansive well-manicured lawns adorned with beautiful landscaping. . None of the homes in our neighborhoods uptown could ever measure up.
We went into several of the homes where we saw the kitchens, some tiny and others quite large. We were impressed with the beautiful counter tops and abundant kitchen cabinets. The tile floors were bright and shiny and unlike any in the home that we were presently occupying. There was an alcove for the washer and clothes dryer in the kitchen area. Clothes dryers? No longer a need for clotheslines or clothespins. Wow! I think I like it !
You could just imagine our daughters and sons baking cookies or helping to prepare delicious meals in the kitchen. In your mind’s eye, you could also see your family gathered around the table in the kitchen enjoying the delectable food.
As we ventured further into the houses, we were surprised to see the huge attic fans which cooled the entire house. We saw a large wall heater in the hall which had an added vent in every room to provide heat in the winter. We would no longer need to keep doors and windows wide open in summer and no need to attempt to warm the entire house with one space heater! What progress!
In the hall, there was a large closet with room for hanging clothes as well shelves to store items. Our present home did not have one closet, not even in the bedrooms.
The next room that we visited was the bathroom. It contained a large bathtub which was bright and sparkling. Immaculate new toilets had large medicine cabinets above and vanities with storage cabinets underneath, also graced the room. The porcelain fixtures (tubs, toilets) in each home were of different hues of pink, yellow, blue, etc. The bathrooms also contained large linen closets with lots of room to store towels, sheets and any needed bathroom supplies.
Back into the hall we went and there we opened a door to expose a large gas water heater. There would never be a shortage of hot water in these houses.
We next visited the master bedroom with a double closet, with room enough for our entire wardrobes and more. Double windows on one wall provided an abundance of light. All of the bedrooms had ample closet space. The rooms, even in the smaller houses appeared to be roomy enough for beds, dressers and any furniture that one might use to enhance these beautiful rooms.
A very spacious living room appeared in each home and we could imagine ways in which this large area could be tastefully decorated.
We next went outside where we observed that even the single carports were wide and roomy. No fear of scraping the sides of your car as you drive into this carport.
Enclosed storage sheds were attached to each carport. There was plenty of room to store lawn equipment and garden furniture.
We then walked into the large backyards where children could safely play. You could install a basketball goal, if desired. You knew exactly where the play set, with swings and sliding board could be placed. This would be like paradise for your children.
We walked on the bright newly paved sidewalks and got into our car to drive around the golf course. As we drove, we saw play spots for little kids outfitted with slides, merry-go-rounds, swings and monkey bars that could provide for hours of entertainment for any child. No “For Whites Only” signs here. There were no restrictions to remind us that we were still in the segregated south. We would have access to everything we saw.
In other locations in the park, we saw basketball courts, tennis courts, running tracks and a picnic area plus a large baseball stadium. We also observed an inviting club house on the site. The large, luscious green golf course appeared like a phoenix rising from the ashes. It seemed to be asking you to come and play.
It was difficult to discern what we were seeing in this new Pontchartrain Park subdivision. Not one sign appeared reading “For Whites Only”. We were still in the throes of a segregated city, but here it seemed as though we were in a different world.
We saw a beautiful new, fully equipped elementary school, Mary Dora Coghill, which was close enough for the kids to walk to alone, if we so desired. We walked inside and were surprised to see the pretty, new textbooks and individual cubby holes where children could store their supplies
With a bit of trepidation, we went back into the sales office to see if we could qualify for any of the beautiful homes. We went over the requirements with our salesman. We were excited that a veteran could use the benefits of the G.I. Bill for a guaranteed government insured loan. George was a veteran, having joined the navy when he was only seventeen. It required no money down and we would have low closing costs. After a review of our income taxes and proof of income, we were told, with credit permitting, we were qualified for almost any home in Pontchartrain Park. Shocking!
Being extremely cautious, we decided to discuss the possibility of buying one of the smaller homes. What frightened us, being the parents of three little children at the time, was the possibility of becoming first-time home owners. Additionally, the thought of incurring a debt of $89.31 a month for thirty years sent shivers down our spines. Were we flirting with failure?
What the heck, we dove in with both feet. After signing our lives away, we left the sales office on cloud nine, while we silently hoped that everything would go our way.
We returned to our little two bedroom creole cottage in uptown New Orleans, a home without closets or cabinets, with a tiny little bathroom and a crowded kitchen, to wait for the results of our application. The children were sitting on the little front porch with no knowledge of the change that their lives was about to take.
Today we received the good news and began packing immediately. Never have we looked more forward to a move than we did that day. The children were still enrolled in a school in uptown section of the city, my school assignment was uptown and George worked at a post office that was also uptown. Of course, George had to report to the post office extremely early. We had not yet worked out logistics of how we would each get where each of us needed to be, at the arrival times each required.
Finally we moved into our new home and were getting settled. It was summer so there was no problem with transportation. George had a co-worker who lived very close to the site we selected for our home. Problem solved.
Once we moved in, we could see that Pontchartrain Park was the ideal place to raise our children. They easily found other children of their ages right there on the same block. The children were excited by everything they saw. We, as parents, felt comforted by the fact that our children could safely play outside.
We also realized that our home was the ideal place to entertain our friends and extended families. On holidays, birthdays and also for no special occasions, our home could be filled with the joy and laughter of delighted groups of people.
There was a large supermarket, Schwegmann’s, a short distance away on Old Gentilly Road. It contained many types of foods, with an abundance of fresh fruits and vegetables (some of which were unfamiliar), and any household items that you could wish for. This was a far cry from the offerings at the little corner grocery that was in our neighborhood.
On the highway were a couple of department stores, Sears and Maison Blanche, and other little stores. The department stores sold clothing of excellent quality, great furniture, and household goods in these stores. The merchandise was all reasonably priced and was of high quality. A few of the black residents of Pontchartrain Park (PP) were employed in the store, first as members of the cleaning crew, then later as sales personnel. Laws of segregation still applied and would continue until 1964 but here, the stores were seemed a bit more relaxed and blacks were allowed to try on shoes and clothing.
In the beginning, there were no buses running to our area. Walking to the highway to make purchases at nearby stores or to get buses to go into other areas of the city, people in the PP were often picked up by other residents just to assist them. When buses began to run on Press Drive, it was the black citizens from PP who used the service. They did not have to get up to give a white person a seat since the white occupants of the Gentilly Woods subdivision did not ride on the buses. Of course, on the other bus lines, blacks had to return to the backs of the buses heading into the inner city
Life was good and we began to appreciate the move that we made, more and more.
Children made friends with other children in the neighborhood. Parents knew where to find their children and the other children with whom they associated, when they were at play. The neighbors knew the children in the community and the kids knew the adults. The area inspired confidence.
There were sports teams for both the boys and girls. New Orleans Recreation Department (N O R D) offered a wide variety of services to the area for the children. Parents served as volunteers and coaches for the teams. Fundraising activities were held to ensure that the quality of the programs continued. We could often be found with our red station wagon loaded with children as we ushered them to other areas to play ball.
The adults made friends with other adults in the area. Our block on St. Ferdinand Drive contained about twenty- one homes with ten of the parents holding post office jobs, either as letter carriers, clerks or supervisors. Others were public school teachers or held professional jobs elsewhere. From this, you can see the impact decent jobs and the opportunity for decent housing can make on a family’s standard of living, health and mental well being. Some of the mothers stayed at home to take care of the kids.
Close relationships were forged and the friends formed social clubs. They went out together socially and often planned activities for the children, such as Easter Egg Hunts, Trick or Treat and Halloween activities, picnics, visits to the bowling alley on Chef Menteur Highway, and parties for teenagers or little kids. PP gave us a chance to help our children engage in a large range of activities which were limited by the lack of access to parks and safe play areas. There were no bowling alleys in our former neighborhoods. Additionally, games played by teams from St Augustine High School and talent shows were always looked forward to by the teens from Pontchartrain Park. Many of the park’s high school boys attended St. Augustine and were members of one of its teams while other PP residents took part in the talent shows. As the older teenagers began to drive, they escorted younger ones safely to these events.
When the Saints arrived in New Orleans, football games gave both parents and children the ability to engage with other people from the neighborhood in larger social settings. Together, they not only attended Saints games at Tulane Stadium and later at the New Orleans Superdome. These games helped to foster even closer relationships with members of the community. As a group, they also met in each other’s homes to dance, play cards, listen to music, and watch the games when the Saints were out of town. We sometimes traveled to sites in other states to watch the Saints. The social activities by the adults were expanded immensely just by living in the PP neighborhood.
In Pontchartrain Park at the very beginning, there were no churches in the subdivision. At the edge of the subdivision area, on a tiny strip of land, there was an old Baptist church on “Madman Street”. It had been there for years. PP soon acquired that piece of property and incorporated it into the subdivision. (This area is behind what is now Southern University). I am not aware of any of the new residents of PP who attended the tiny church. The little church relocated to another section of the city. There was a large section in the Park reserved for the Methodist church. Until Bethany United Methodist Church began building on its site, it was able to temporarily hold services at Dillard University. Today, Bethany has a beautiful edifice on its land. The church members became, and are still viable and contributing of the community. Holy Cross Lutheran Church, still located on Press Drive in the subdivision was organized in 1960. It offered an opportunity to black members of its congregation a place to attend worship services near their homes.
Additionally, a large plot of land was reserved by the Archdiocese of New Orleans to build a church to serve black Catholics. The black Catholic Church has never been built and eventually more homes were built on that land. Since segregation was still the prevailing law, churches were still required to follow it. There was a large Catholic Church, St. Gabriel the Archangel Church, located in the white subdivision in nearby Gentilly Woods subdivision. There was also an elementary school on the property. Blacks were welcome to attend the church but were required to sit in the back. After a few years, the laws of segregation were mainly ignored as blacks began to sit wherever they pleased. Most blacks, rather than follow laws as to where they should sit in church, opted to continue attending the churches in the parishes where they had formerly lived.
Laws forbade black children from attending this or any other white school. Some parents who wanted to continue their children’s parochial school education, decided to return them to their former schools. Our children continued to attend Holy Ghost Catholic School which was in uptown New Orleans. They sometimes used public transit going to and from school, sometimes taking almost an hour, traveling each way back and forth. Prior to 1964 and the passage of the Civil Rights Act, St. Gabriel school personnel slowly began to admit small numbers of black students. They did this quietly and without fanfare. They gradually increased the numbers of black children enrolled in St. Gabriel School in Gentilly Woods. The school was integrated slowly with no public announcements and it therefore avoided some of the problems that would later occur when the two public schools, William Frantz and McDonogh #19 elementary schools were later integrated, On those occasions, there was rioting by the white parents with lots of pushing and shoving. Federal marshals had to be called to escort the children to and from the schools. Our two younger children attended St. Gabriel from kindergarten to their graduation and movement to high school.
The children continued to enjoy life in PP as they attended school with children from their own neighborhood. When living in uptown New Orleans, it was difficult to find more than one or two children who attended the same school. In the park, it was quite easy to find groups of children around the same age and who attended the same schools.
As the children grew older, they participated in social activities with their peers without leaving the community. Many of their social interactions occurred within PP subdivision, where most of the children knew each other.
In 1959, the state opened a university, Southern University of New Orleans in the subdivision. With Louisiana State University in New Orleans, (LSUNO, later University of New Orleans, or UNO), was one which did not and, by law, could not admit black students. The university was relatively close to Pontchartrain Park because of its location in the lakefront area of Gentilly. Because of segregation laws, blacks could not attend that school until after 1964.
Until SUNO opened, the closest state school that blacks could attend was in Baton Rouge, ninety miles away. The other option for these students to attend college was at one of the private universities for blacks, Dillard University, or the black Catholic university, Xavier University of Louisiana both, HBCU schools. Tuition at these two schools was not extremely expensive but was not easily affordable by many of the prospective students. This sometimes nullified the ability of some black students to obtain that desired college degree. SUNO’s location in the PP subdivision was a boost for all black students in New Orleans. Students from all over the city happily enrolled in this newly opened university. Students living in the subdivision could walk back and forth to school. Laws of segregation were still rigidly being enforced. Our oldest daughter is a graduate of SUNO.
Though she was born in 1952, she never attended an integrated school from kindergarten through high school. By contrast, our youngest daughter, born in 1956 did not attend a segregated school between her entrance into kindergarten through her graduation from high school. She then enrolled in Xavier University of Louisiana.
Our three sons all attended a prestigious private Catholic high school designed to provide a first class college preparatory high school for young black male students. That school is St. Augustine High School (St. Aug) and it is still providing quality education to young black males who can now attend any of the high schools in the city. Many still opt to attend St. Aug to become members of the Purple Knights as members of clubs, sports or debate teams or members of the Marching One Hundred.
The roster of St. Augustine alumnus reads like a who’s who of men of distinction. The roster of men and women who grew up in the Pontchartrain Park subdivision who have risen to new heights of achievement in all fields of endeavor is also a very impressive list. Two former New Orleans mayors, Ernest (Dutch) Morial, and his son, Mark Morial, renown musician Dave Bartholomew, noted educator Delores Aaron, accomplished actor Wendell Pierce, former district attorney Eddie Jordan, and Lisa Perez Jackson, EPA administrator during the Obama administration. The list also includes a multitude of other prominent New Orleanians, too numerous to mention.
After living in Pontchartrain Park for forty-six years, more than half of my life, it took only one storm to completely devastate my home and city that I loved.
We left the city in advance of Hurricane Katrina after hearing forecasts of its path and the fact that the city would probably feel its effects. From a hotel room in Memphis, Tenn., we were paralyzed with shock as we saw the levees around the city breached. We literally could not move as flood waters enveloped the city, destroying Pontchartrain Park and much of our beloved city.
All of our children were grown and living in other states, we had to decide the best outcome for my husband and me. My husband had major health issues and we observed that hospitals and medical personnel were slow to return.
After weeks of turmoil and many deliberations, we sadly made the decision to relocate to Weston, a city in South Florida with our youngest daughter. The city is beautiful and so is our home here in Weston. But it is not New Orleans. Both my husband and I had been born in New Orleans and lived in the city all of our lives up to the point of our displacement by Hurricane Katrina.
While I enjoy living close to her and my grand daughter, Weston is a far cry from PP and the city in which we had spent over seventy-five years of our lives. I miss my former life terribly but I still have many fond memories. My years in Pontchartrain Park and the wonderful childhood of my five children were all a part of a dream come true. As stated earlier, I believe in magic and Pontchartrain Park is a part of that magic. I shall always cherish my days in Pontchartrain Park and all the lifelong friends we made. They will always occupy a special place in my heart.