New Orleans What’s the old saying, a picture can speak a thousand words or something like that? Well, the New York Public Library a couple of days ago dropped 180,000 photos from their collections into the public domain. Any claim to a copyright has long ago expired. The library spent the time and money to scan them into a usable form and a somewhat searchable database that can be accessed at digitalcollections.nypl.org. Putting something like New Orleans or Little Rock or unions or Flagstaff in the search slot displays whatever photos or scans they have. Some of this can be a slog. There were over 400 pictures linked to New Orleans, but only two of mountain views for Flagstaff. Labor unions were buried under the Union Jack and Union Square, but that’s no different from the trials and tribulations of any exploration where there is sweat in hopes of salvation.
In Little Rock, there were pictures of the Little Nine and the integration of Central High School. One picture that added a surprising grace note was a photo of the nine being celebrated for their courage by the NAACP chapter in Cleveland.
In New Orleans there were the standard street scenes of the French Quarter, but enough of them to remind the explorer that once the Vieux Carre was a real neighborhood of lower income and working families, many of whom found work on the river. There were also disturbing shots of scabs, largely African-American, being unloaded from boats on the docks to act as strikebreakers in a longshoremen’s union strike in 1935. On the same waterfront were pictures of bananas being unloaded on the wharves with slings rather than cranes. The pictures were from 75 or 80 years ago, but I can vividly remember in those long ago days of the 1960s when I was in high school in New Orleans that anyone and everyone walked along the docks on a nice Sunday afternoon amid the unloading of tons of bananas just mindful of not stepping too close as the longshoremen pulled the sling over to the pallets.
Despite all of the pictures of grand New Orleans buildings, there are also reproductions of the infamous slave markets. More inspiring were pictures of Mrs. Frances Joseph Gaudet, born in a log cabin in Mississippi of African-American and Native American roots who moved to New Orleans and taking up social work founded a farm and rehabilitation center called the Gaudet School for African-American juvenile offenders when there wasn’t anything else available. The property was off Gentilly Road and what is now Franklin Avenue and thanks to her bequest at her death it later became a school for orphans where Louie Armstrong learned to play the trumpet and now in post-Katrina reconstruction is the headquarters of the New Orleans Recreation Department. I drive by regularly when in town as I visit my mother not far away. The photos were a nice memory of Frances Gaudet’s life and commitment.
Looking at the photos of Louisiana and Arkansas there were vivid reminders of the dominance of agriculture in the era of King Cotton and sugarcane, and the dreary poverty that fueled its production. Some of those scenes travelers can escape on the interstate, but even today it’s obvious once you get on the state roads and byways or thanks to the New York Public Library on the internet highways as well.
Put on your seat belts, fire up the computers, and hit digitalcollections.nypl.org and take a journey into the past and see where we stand more clearly today.