The Creole Roots of Los Angeles ; New Orleans Diaspora Brought Food, Music and Culture to California

By Chideya, Farai | International New York Times, January 23, 2016 | Go to article overview

The Creole Roots of Los Angeles ; New Orleans Diaspora Brought Food, Music and Culture to California


Chideya, Farai, International New York Times


A writer retraces the migration by railroad of black and Creole families from New Orleans.

The pulse of the train on the tracks sets a rhythm as its passenger cars seem to skim over Lake Pontchartrain in New Orleans. These six miles of nothing but sky above and water below are the gateway into the city by rail. Next come the cemeteries at the edge of New Orleans, and all of a sudden, a day and a half of travel ends at the Amtrak terminal in the business district. I had just completed the first leg of my cross-country journey by sleeper train, starting in New York, and was beginning the second: a foray into the cultural ties between the Crescent City and California.

This trip had been inspired partly by the travel writer and blogger Greg Gross, who grew up in New Orleans and California. "I had a great-uncle who ran away at 15 to become a Pullman porter," he said. These black men served a predominately white customer base as sleeping-car porters, often simply called "George" by their customers. Their union became a powerful force during the civil rights movement. Mr. Gross's great-uncle Ellis Pearson worked on the Sunset Limited train from New Orleans to Los Angeles.

He was something like an usher for Mr. Gross's family, which is full of cross-country transplants, including his parents and a deceased uncle who played jazz trumpet. When black New Orleans families like his moved to California, "They brought their food with them, their music," he said. "They brought an energy, an attitude with them. 'We survived there; we can make it here.' They brought it to their churches and their neighbors." It's a refrain I hear many times as I speak to members of this diaspora.

The Grosses weren't the only ones. The migration of black and Creole families moving to California from Louisiana began as a trickle in 1927, after that year's great flood, and grew to a mass migration from the 1930s to 1960, years that encompassed the Depression, World War II and the growth of employment opportunities for blacks, and Jim Crow. While many families went from the South to the North, the train lines led many in New Orleans to the West instead. The better part of a century after its start, some migrants resettled in California after Hurricane Katrina. I wanted to follow the path that others had, to trace a thread of our cultural lineage, however faint. I wanted to see both cities through a black Bayou and Creole lens.

I would start my trip in New Orleans, among some of the families who made the westward migration. Kalaamu ya Salaam, an activist and writer, whose aunt moved to Los Angeles from the Lower Ninth Ward when he was young, took me to the artfully decorated Cafe Rose Nicaud on hip Frenchmen Street, filled with daytime revelers.

"Parts of this area remind me of SoHo," he said. "You could be in Manhattan. That is what New Orleans has become."

In the post-Katrina, post-recession era, a new New Orleans is experiencing a construction and real estate investment boom that has left out many locals, though it has plenty of charm. The night before my meeting with Mr. Salaam, I'd gone to the Frenchmen Art Market just down the street -- an open-air bazaar strung with lights and filled with artisan wares, with music wafting through the warm air from street performers and nearby clubs. But like many thriving places, it seems geared more to new residents than to longtime locals.

To balance my picture of New Orleans, Mr. Salaam pointed me to a different kind of landmark nearby: the Tomb of the Unknown Slave at St. Augustine Catholic Church. "Enslaved Africans and free people of color, they paid for it and built it," he said. "By the church there's a cross made of chains, which marks the grave of the unknown enslaved person."

The sculpture of a cross made of marine chains is at a diagonal, like a man who's propped himself up powerfully on one arm and refuses to fall.

The segregation that was a vestige of slavery caused many to leave. …

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