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50 Years/50 Collections: Real Life New Orleans History in the Green Photograph and Film Collection

Women remove their masks for a smoke break at a Carnival ball, 1960s

Home movies can provide a wonderful glimpse into everyday life. They record events and traditions often seen as so commonplace at the time they are taken that they have been overlooked in the more formal documentation of history. Looking back, however, these moments can become a treasured time capsule of a bygone era. The Robert S. and Lillie Mae Green Photograph and Film Collection at Amistad is a small window into New Orleans life in the mid-twentieth century.

Children ride on a float in a parade, 1956

Robert Sylvester Green was an amateur photographer in New Orleans. He spent many decades photographing life in the city, both in still photographs and in moving images. After his passing, his widow, Lillie Mae Green, donated the material to Amistad in order to preserve his work for future generations. In a letter to Amistad dated 1999, Mrs. Green describes the material, saying “Some of the negatives [date] back to 1940 up to 1981, in the New Orleans area and the suburbs… They consist of some of the following events: Carnival Balls, Carnival parades, [debutante] presentations, football games, school concerts, Picnics, [church] programs, funerals, Political Conventions, [Graduations], Boy Scout programs, and [construction] of special [buildings] and such important events.” While some photographic prints are included, the bulk of the still images in the collection are 65mm black and white negatives. The moving images are a mixture of black and white and color, on both 8mm and 16mm film.

Costumed dancers at a ball, 1955

When viewing the collection, it is interesting to examine how New Orleans life has changed over the years, along with what has stayed the same. The football footage, for instance, includes images of the teams from Dillard and Xavier Universities in the 1950s, two historically black universities whose football programs are now defunct. However, images of marching bands and the homecoming court entering the field would look familiar to anyone who has attended a college homecoming game. Picnics and Christmas parties continue today in much the same fashion, although styles of clothing and decorations have changed.

A woman is escorted by a devil into the “Satan’s Inferno” ball, 1955

It is the films related to the Carnival balls and social organizations, however, that have received the most attention from researchers. This could be explained by the fact that everyone loves a good party, but it may also have to do with the secretive nature of many organizations. Carnival balls have traditionally been private affairs, closed to outsiders. Film of an African American club in particular is an even rarer visual record, and many such groups are no longer in existence. Bon Temps members, along with the Knights of Peter Claver and possibly other groups, can be seen in the films dancing, parading, and celebrating in wild costumes. The footage is exceptional in many regards, but will seem quite familiar to anyone who has participated in New Orleans’ costuming culture.

A man limbos at the Bon Temps “Caribbean Holiday” ball, 1960s

Over the last two years, Amistad has been working to expand access to the Green collection. With the help of two grants from the National Film Preservation Foundation, the Center has been able to preserve and digitize three of the Carnival films from the collection. It is our hope that with additional funds, further preservation work can be completed on the collection and new access copies can be created for all nineteen of the films. Please contact us if you would be interested in donating to this process.

Images from the Robert S. and Lillie Mae Green collection. Images from the Amistad’s website, newsletters, and blogs cannot be reproduced without permission.

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