A Great Documentary about a Little-Known Piece of American History
The Faubourg Tremé District of New Orleans is usually called Tremé by its residents and, in newscasts describing levee failure and flooding by Hurricane Katrina, the Sixth Ward. Although adjacent to the French Quarter, is considered a dangerous place and is not frequented by tourists. A French-English dictionary (the Compact Oxford Hachette French Dictionary of 1995) defines faubourg as a "working class area (on the outskirts)", an accurate statement of the district's historical status. In Louisiana French, the final "g" in Faubourg is spoken and Tremé has two syllables "trey-may". Tremé is the name of the man who originally owned and developed the swampy land as New Orleans expanded in the Eighteenth Century.
These details are of more than academic interest because they suggest Tremé's unique situation. It has always been a black neighborhood but its population, in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries, was made up primarily of free blacks, some of them slave owners. There are old houses that, though they may not be as grand as the mansions of the Garden District, are ornate enough to both display the elevated statuses of their owners and provide an architectural gift to passers-by. It was possible, in ante bellum New Orleans, for slaves to earn money and buy their freedom. According to the film, white Southerners from outside the city were sometimes shocked by the extent of social integration between blacks and "Latin" whites.
The film portrays New Orleans, after the Civil War, as a Reconstruction success (though historical websites document continual and violent conflicts between white Southerners and blacks and their white Republican allies). In 1868, the Reconstruction State Legislature passed a constitution that, according to the Louisiana State Museum Website (http://lsm.crt.state.la.us/cabildo/cab11.htm), "extended voting and other civil rights to black males, established an integrated, free public school system, and guaranteed blacks equal access to public accommodations." Among the artifacts shown in the film are integrated photographs of public school classes from 1868.
This relatively enlightened situation, which would probably have been impossible in most of the post bellum South, was not to last. Tremé residents, along with other Louisiana blacks who asserted their rights, were under continual attack Whites who opposed black equality used both legal mechanisms and terrorism to defeat it. With the withdrawal of federal troops in 1877, segregation of schools and public accommodations became the law in Louisiana and other southern states. Tremé, however, retained at least some of its character. Homer Plessy of Plessy v. Ferguson, the 1896 Supreme Court decision that established the head-in-the clouds doctrine of "separate but equal", was the plaintiff in the case and a Tremé resident. The district is considered, quite literally, to be the birthplace of jazz.
Toward the end, the film shows footage of heavily flooded Tremé after Katrina. To some extent, the images resemble the brutal pictures of Iraq that are avoided by American network television (though not in the Errol Morris movie, Standard Operating Procedure). Things look bad bad bad, worse than we like to think can happen in the USA. There is reason for hope, however, and the community, and its struggle, continues.
The excellence of Faubourg Tremé as a documentary should also be noted. Interviews, historical images, and current-day footage are carefully and effectively integrated. Viewers are privileged to have a vivid and stimulating introduction of a little-known, but important, piece of American history.
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