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Preserving the Sounds of Treme

Leah Chase in the kitchen with musician Hannibal Lokumbe.

In 1993, the Amistad Research Center took on a project documenting one of New Orleans’ most vibrant and historic neighborhoods. Cheryl Q.W. Cramer and Clarence Jones, Jr. gathered community leaders together, and asked them to talk about the culture of their neighborhood in their own words. The result is the Treme Oral History Project collection. The project was funded by the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Foundation with the purpose of documenting the musical heritage of Treme.

The Treme neighborhood was home to free people of color in New Orleans as early as the 18th century, making it one of the nation’s oldest African American neighborhoods as well as one of the first integrated communities in the United States. The Treme Oral History Project pulls together a variety of speakers from the neighborhood, including Chef Leah Chase, drug store owner Emile LaBranche Jr., and funeral director Louis Charbonnet. Speakers discuss local businesses, music and culture, benevolent societies, jazz funerals and second lines, and – of course – the often contested geographic boundaries of the neighborhood. Unsurprisingly, there are nearly as many answers to the question of what the boundaries are as there are interviewees.

Emile LaBranche Jr. took over the family drug store business after the death of his father, Emile LaBranche Sr. (pictured here).

If there is a single quality shared by the occupants of the neighborhood, it is a love of music. Historically, Treme has been home to brass bands, jazz, and Mardi Gras Indians. Congo Square, traditionally considered the birthplace of jazz music, can be found in Treme. Residents interviewed are non-musicians, but they all stress the importance of musical culture to their lives and home.

Some of the concerns raised in these 1990s interviews will sound familiar to current residents. Laments over gentrification and the battle against live music in the neighborhood crop up repeatedly in the interviews, predating the post-Katrina timeframe to which these problems are often attributed. Like all communities, Treme continues to grow and evolve. It is, however, a community that values its roots.

The Treme Oral History Project collection was recently digitized. Interviewees are Louis Charbonnet III, Leah Chase, Ronald Chisom, Jim Hayes, Jerry Haynes, Collins Lewis, Lavinia Warren Lewis Hickman, Collins Lewis, Emile J. LaBranche Jr., Austin Leslie, and Norman Smith. Contact the Amistad Research Center reference desk to arrange an appointment to listen.

Images from the Hannibal Lokumbe collection and the Emile LeBranche Sr. papers. Images from Amistad’s website, newsletters, and blogs cannot be reproduced without permission.

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