Caroline Gerdes (right) interviewing a resident of New Orleans’ Ninth Ward for her new book, which will be available on April 7.
Caroline Gerdes grew up hearing stories about her grandmother’s bookie dad, the speakeasy her family owned during the Great Depression, and other tales from her grandmother’s childhood in New Orleans’ Ninth Ward. Eventually, she realized that if her own grandmother had so much neighborhood history to contribute, surely others in the same age group had equally rich stories. While finishing her senior year at LSU, Gerdes was awarded a National Geographic Society grant to document the history of the Ninth Ward from the perspectives of those who have lived there the longest. This April, her book derived from that work, An Oral History of the New Orleans Ninth Ward, will be published by Pelican Publishing Company.
The neighborhood was made infamous as the site of the levee breach following Hurricane Katrina, which is part of what prompted her to take on the project. “While I didn’t fixate on Hurricane Katrina for the project, it was the catalyst for me to go out and do these interviews. I was trying to document the full history of the neighborhood without concentrating just on one day in 2005,” Gerdes said. “I wanted to document the full history, to preserve these stories.”
According to Gerdes, the Ninth Ward dates back to the turn of the twentieth century, when its population grew due to an influx of immigrants. French, Germans, and Sicilians poured into the neighborhood, joining African American residents to form a diverse and lively community that stood out even amid the rapidly evolving social climate of New Orleans in the early 1900s.
Though none of the earliest residents of the neighborhood are still living, Gerdes said that she focused on documenting the stories of those who lived there between 1920 and 1960. Many of those individuals were able to speak to the experiences of their parents, who were among the Ninth Ward’s earliest residents. The accounts in her book range from tales of world wars to antiquated Mardi Gras traditions to family recipes brought from Germany. Gerdes even interviewed Leona Tate, one of the “McDonough 3,” the three first-grade girls who were among the first children to integrate New Orleans public schools on the same day as Ruby Bridges.
“This book is not just for people who are attached to the Ninth Ward, but I think that these stories also speak to New Orleans nostalgia and Louisiana history, and also American history,” Gerdes said. “I’m really just trying to get people to look past just one part of the Ninth Ward and see it as a whole and a community.”
“An Oral History of the New Orleans Ninth Ward” will be available from booksellers, including Amazon, on April 7.