Notable Mardi Gras Absences Reflect Loss of Black Middle Class
Saturday, February 25, 2006
NEW ORLEANS -- Since 1917, the Bunch, an African American social club made up of 50 doctors, lawyers, dentists, bankers, businessmen and other professional men, has sponsored a dance on the Friday before Mardi Gras -- a coveted invitation during the weeks of parties that precede Fat Tuesday.
But last night there was no Bunch Club dance. The Black Pirates, Plantation Revelers, Bon Temps, Vikings, Beau Brummels, Original Illinois Club and Young Men's Illinois Club have also canceled their carnival balls.
The lack of revelry reflects the lack of people -- New Orleans's black middle class is gone.
Many African Americans prosperous enough to pay dues to a social club and buy tuxedos and gowns for debutante balls lived in the predominantly black subdivisions of New Orleans East, a former marshland drained by canals that severely flooded after Hurricane Katrina. Mile after mile of suburban homes along its cul-de-sacs and man-made lakes as well as a similar neighborhood, Gentilly, are virtually empty.
"The impression is that just poor people were displaced, but Katrina has had a devastating effect on the black middle class, too," said Willard Dumas, a dentist who serves as the Bunch Club's recording secretary and now lives in Baton Rouge. "You spend 45 years building a life and then it's gone. Your home was flooded; your business was flooded. And this happened not only to you but to practically everyone you know, so your patients or clients are gone, your friends are scattered, and your relatives are somewhere else."
White groups are holding their events this month, and debutante pictures are filling the society pages. The difference for the black groups can be explained by geography: Wealthy white neighborhoods were mostly on high ground, but black neighborhoods both poor and rich were on lowland that flooded.
Those black professionals are scattered across the South, finding new jobs, establishing new medical and legal practices and businesses. The longer they are gone, the greater the worry that they will not come back -- leaving New Orleans, a majority-black city before Katrina, without a core of African American leadership.
"We are a productive group of people," said lawyer Bernard Charbonnet Jr., 54, whose home was flooded. "We are the teachers, lawyers, firemen, doctors; the people who get up every morning and go to work; the people who have missions, goals and purposes; the people who serve on boards of civic organizations."
The Bunch Club personified that leadership as well as the longevity of blacks here. Some of its members have ancestral ties to the nearly 11,000 free blacks in New Orleans during the Civil War. The club began as a "bunch" of friends who gathered to play cards and decided to hold an annual carnival dance to meet women.
During the many years that hotels would not host African American events, the dance was held in the gym of Xavier University, the nation's only historically black Catholic university. More recently, the club has rented hotel ballrooms for the dance, which features a live orchestra and a march at midnight for the members and their guests.
In addition, the club's monthly meetings -- held at the now-closed Dooky Chase, a 65-year-old black-owned restaurant famous for its Creole food -- provided a chance to network. These days the group includes some of the city's most accomplished and influential African Americans, including Alden McDonald Jr., founder of Liberty Bank and Trust, the city's largest black-owned bank, and Xavier President Norman Francis, who is now chairman of the Louisiana Recovery Authority.
Charbonnet and Francis are still in New Orleans, but most of the rest of the Bunch are gone. Of the 44 members living in New Orleans before Katrina, only eight lived in houses that were not flooded and are inhabitable.