Backstreet Cultural Museum A Community Treasure Needs Our Help
On any given day in a select New Orleans neighborhood one may have an opportunity to join a second-line. It may be a jazz funeral or a celebration of a social aid and pleasure club on a Sunday afternoon. Whatever the occassion, Sylvester Francis, founder of the Back Street Cultural Museum, is certain to be there with video camera in hand capturing the majesty of the costumes, the musicianship of the brass bandsmen or tambourine shakers and the parade followers who are the significance of the spectacle. Growing up in the historic 7th Ward, Francis was both a spectator and participant in the cultural traditions of the Mardi Gras Indians and social aid and pleasure clubs. In 1978, a week after the annual parade of his second line organization, the Gentlemen of Leisure, he realized he did not have a photo of himself in the flamboyant suit the group adorned that year. It was brought to his attention that he could purchase a photo that was taken of him along the parade route from an amateur photographer for $35.00. Motivated by this event, he made a vow to document the activity of Mardi Gras Indian masking and second lines, to photograph all who paraded and then share the keepsake with the subject when they crossed paths. Francis invested $99.00 in a media kit that consisted of a super eight camera, projector and screen--the rest is Treme history.
As a young man, Francis worked for the Rhodes Funeral Home Family of Businesses in several capacities. He washed cars, transported bodies and drove limousines. Because he was a member of the fold, Francis had the inside track on some of the day-to-day workings of the business. His employment with Rhodes ultimately would allow him to fulfill his destiny.
Because he worked for the funeral home, he would know who was having a jazz funeral; and because his schedule was flexible, he had opportunity to film the processions. It was a perfect fit. “The Rhodes family understood the value of the culture and the significance of jazz funerals. That was a good thing, Francis says. They would allow me to leave and film other jazz funerals that were handled by other funeral homes.”
Between 1978 and 1999, Francis developed a reputation for taking photos at parades and at jazz funerals. What started out as a hobby, a reaction to not having an image of himself, blossomed into a way of life, one that Keepers of the Culture respected him for. As a result of his benevolent spirit, Francis started to receive phone calls and messages would reach him that maskers and paraders wanted him to give him their suit, umbrella or the fan from that year. His collection began to grow.
The gesture that started out as a courtesy took on a life of its own. “When I realized people wanted to give me their last mementos, I became serours about collecting and preserving, says Francis. I then wanted to learn the stories behind the people,” he says.
Eleanor Tatum would be his teacher. “Each piece, every costume had a story and the old heads wanted to tell their stories. Even the funeral procession tells the story of a person’s life, Francis says. When I take photos the one thing that is most important to me is to show respect for the individual or in the case of a funeral to respect the family. If I am shooting a funeral, I never film inside the service. I only photograph outside and try not to photograph the family at all," he says. "Musicians and paraders would allow me to interview them. From them I learned what was important to preserve.” Tatum, who was a renowned grand marshal and famous for parading in black short sequined “hot pants,” schooled him on who was who in the culture. “She would take me around and introduce me to everyone. When she became ill, I would take my film to her and she would identify those in the film. When I photographed someone I would make two copies. I would give one to the person in the photograph and keep one because they wanted me to have it,” Francis says.
As Francis’ visibility increased, so did his relationships with Mardi Gras Indians, steppers and other culture keepers. Over the years, his collection grew. He recalls that it was years after he filmed hundreds of processions and erect exhibitions annually at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival that he visited the Mint at the Louisiana State Museum to view an installation of Mardi Gras Indian suits. “When I visited the Mint, I saw suits without labels. You did not know who the suit belonged to or what tribe the person masked. Because I did displays at Jazz Fest, I had some experience with exhibits so I knew the displays could have been more thought out. I said to myself then, if I ever had a museum I would make sure to put labels on the suits I displayed,” he says. Francis kept filming and displaying at Jazz Fest.
In 1990 the Rhodes family decided to take Blandins off-line and discontinue its use as a funeral home. At that time Joan Rhodes was very aware of the cultural activity Francis was engaged in so she offered the building to him. “We made an arrangement," says Rhodes; he had a collection of costumes, objects, artifacts, still images and film that he kept at his home. "He was making a good contribution to the community, so we offered him an opportunity to expand his collection and be in Treme where the culture lives.” In August of 1999 when the Backstreet Cultural Museum became a reality, he displayed his collection properly with labels and all when the doors opened for visitors on November 1.