Used to be, if you weren’t from New Orleans you probably hadn’t heard of the Tremé. Nestled nearby the famous French Quarter, Faubourg Tremé is a community rich in culture, a diverse district steeped in history that does not share the recognition which its neighbor holds. “…arguably the oldest black neighborhood in America, the birthplace of the Civil Rights movement in the South and the home of jazz,” it is a shame on the part of our country that the history of the Tremé has not been better preserved or even acknowledged; indeed, if it weren’t for the residents themselves and the citizens of New Orleans, the important role this neighborhood played in the narrative of our nation would have been forgotten entirely. Tourists who roamed the cobbled streets of the Quarter had no idea just how close they were to a community older than the inception of America. Rarely did anyone ever hear of the Tremé.
Until recently, that is. With HBO’s recent hit series Treme, the neighborhood is now known worldwide. But perhaps a better way of putting it would be to say the name is known worldwide. What Tremé means, what her Creole cottages and curved balconies possess, the vibrant history that is her legacy as it is her descendants birthright, filled with joy as equally poignant as her sorrow: this cannot be known from a mere television drama. A name cannot encompass all this community represents, yet that is just the belief the TV series is garnering in its viewers. But all they have is a name, and saying you know someone just on the basis of their name is a lie.
Chronicling the lives of residents after Hurricane Katrina and their attempts to retain their city that they almost lost, Treme is certainly unlike most series on television, and by no means should it be taken lightly. You cannot help but respect those who conceived of the idea and brought the show into being, in their undertaking to remember and to honor the city of New Orleans and the suffering she endured. Yet there is another dimension. Though Treme isn’t a reality show in the sense that it is wholly dissimilar from series like Jersey Shore and The Real World, you cannot deny that this drama is purporting to be reality, or that it’s trying to emulate the city as accurately as possible. And that can be a problem.
If people had never heard of the Faubourg Tremé before the show premiered, then it’s only natural for them to assume that this TV series encapsulates what the Tremé is. Maybe not faithfully, or exactly, but certainly based upon the neighborhood. Though Treme has been hailed by many as being true to New Orleans, and indeed in many ways the show excels at this, on a fundamental level it fails the community whose name it takes. Those who watch Treme and are not from here feel as if they grasp a sense of the city, and they associate the neighborhood of Tremé with that feeling. To be sure, that spirit certainly imbues Tremé. But to believe that is all the Tremé stands for is to neglect the neighborhood’s dynamic, radical history whose roots are inextricably entwined with the city of New Orleans herself.
Tremé bears the name of a Frenchman, Claude Tremé, who once owned most of the property before it was turned into a neighborhood. Claude subdivided and sold most of this land by the end of the 18th century, and in 1810 the newly formed city of New Orleans bought what was left and continued to subdivide and sell the land. Most of the people who bought these properties were free and recently emancipated black men and women, though whites purchased land as well; Tremé has always been a mixed neighborhood. This was unheard of for the times. That such a racially mixed neighborhood existed more than fifty years before the Civil War is a feat in itself.
Yet free blacks had been living in the area long before Claude started selling the land. The earliest documented record of a free black owning land is from 1726. Tremé was a haven for black people in a time when blacks were being oppressed everywhere; if they lived in the Tremé, they had more rights than they would have elsewhere. More than 80% of the land now located between Dumaine and St. Bernard, from Rampart to Broad, had been owned and occupied by free blacks stretching as far back to the Spanish Colonial period (1762-1803). “Moreover, by the turn of the century, free black men and women constituted as much as 20 percent of the population and controlled something in excess of $10 million of the city’s economy. By 1830, free blacks were acting as independent speculators, investors, land brokers and developers and were buying, selling, and passing on to successive generations properties often valued at between $40,000 and $100,000…” Thirty years later, free blacks controlled about $20 million of the city’s economy, while the population continued to grow as immigrants from Haiti, Cuba, and other Caribbean islands entered the port of New Orleans.
Such freedom and power for blacks had no contemporary in those times, and it led to many interesting advancements that the history books have for the most part left out. The first school for free black children was founded in 1826 at the old site of Claude’s plantation by three free black women, who later also founded the first order of black nuns called the Sisters of Presentation. This “…group of pioneering free black women organized and administered half a dozen black schools, orphanages and rest homes for the ill and elderly.”
Tremé abounded with such free black philanthropists who devoted their lives to helping impoverished free blacks and slaves. There are far too many to list them all in this brief article. This strong sense of community led “…to literally hundreds of black self-help groups and sparked a tradition of mutual aid that would last well into the 1950’s and 60s.” These societies not only helped set up orphanages, schools, and nursing homes, but also challenged the legislative acts that curtailed their economic freedom and political power. They also purchased slaves in order to eventually free them. Though black self-help groups and mutual aid societies were not exclusive to New Orleans, the city stood out in that estimates before the 20th century place somewhere between 600-1000 mutual aid societies among free blacks, and most of these were located in the Tremé. Indeed, the earliest documented self-help society in America was founded in the Tremé in 1783.
Probably one of the most fascinating aspects of the history of Tremé is that the first black daily newspaper, L’Union, was founded there by a free black man named Paul Trévigne. L’Union, whose name was later changed to The Tribune, was at first written only French. This is interesting to note since during those times, most whites were not only unable to speak another language but were illiterate as well. Blacks, on the other hand, attempted to learn as much as they could for being educated could mean the difference between being a slave or being free.
This newspaper was founded during the middle of the Civil War, and it can be seen as the beginning of the Civil Rights movement in the South “…because it was vocal, because it was articulated, because it was written.” The staff of The Tribune was racially mixed, just like the neighborhood it grew from, and their ideas were revolutionary. Besides the abolishment of slavery, they demanded that black soldiers be admitted into the Union Army, that education and land were given to newly freed slaves, and full citizenship granted to blacks. The last was the most radical since not even advocates of anti-slavery in the North were sure that blacks should be allowed equal rights as whites.
The Reconstruction Era was, for the most part, a period of economic growth and progress for the free blacks of Tremé. After the General Emancipation act of 1865, Tremé’s population quadrupled. Black entrepreneurship flourished. Skilled laborers among free black men far outnumbered that of white immigrant workers; the census of 1850 shows that fewer than 10% of all free black men were unskilled laborers. “And while no figures are available for black women workers of the period, the tradition of wage labor and self-employment among black women clearly pre-dates that of their white counterparts.” Their cultural life also prospered; free blacks established theaters, a philharmonic, and organized dancing, singing, drinking, and gambling parties. They also initiated quite a few literary salons, and the first anthology of African-American poetry, Les Cenelles, was published in 1845 in Tremé.
In the realm of politics, the free blacks of Tremé weren’t successful in terms of affecting serious change within their city; however, two particular cases are of especial importance in that they can be seen as two of the first instances of the Civil Rights movement in America. The first is the Street-Car Controversy of 1867. Almost one hundred years before Rosa Parks, on a May weekend in 1867, the superintendent of the P.G.T. Beauregard’s New Orleans and Carrollton Railroad Company reported that “threats have been made by coloured persons that they intended to force themselves on the cars reserved for white persons…and that should the driver resist or refuse them passage, they would compel him to leave the car and take forcible possession themselves.” This culminated in “…an estimated five hundred colored protesters…in Congo Square, laying siege to every unfortunate white street-car that came their way.” The location is also significant to note, as Congo Square in Tremé was “…the traditional assembly ground for Sunday slave dances during the ante-bellum period,” and thus had always been a site of cultural importance to the blacks of New Orleans.
The second case is certainly better known. The “Generation of 1860,” a group of politically-minded free blacks whose ranks were “…overwhelmingly drawn from within Tremé,” formed a group in 1890 known as the Comité des Citoyens whose express purpose was to fight racism and racist public policy. “…fomented by a group of Tremé activists,” the landmark Plessy vs. Ferguson lawsuit was orchestrated by this very committee and took place in their own neighborhood on Press Street. Though no immediate results came from either of these cases, the repercussions were far-reaching and resonated throughout the nation.
Perhaps one of the most momentous contributions of Tremé was the birth of jazz. “The end of the 19th century proved to be a kind of cultural cauldron. While we lost everything politically, we had the development of jazz because we were losing everything else. We needed it economically, culturally, and because politically we had no voice.” This last facet, at least, is somewhat emphasized in Treme, with the series heavy focus on local music.
Ostensibly, Treme is not supposed to be about the history of Tremé; it is a show about rebuilding New Orleans after Katrina. But where is any intimation of her past even acknowledged? The true story of Tremé too often falls by the wayside; it is a history that has practically been forgotten, a history that does not just belong to New Orleans, but a history that belongs to us all as Americans. The television show has brought Tremé into the public’s conscious, but in a way it has also helped bury that history further. The representation that Treme is purporting leaves its viewers with no idea of just what the Tremé truly is. All they are left with is an impression, an empty name that belies the reality of what the Tremé rightfully holds.
–Faubourg Treme: The Untold Story of Black New Orleans