Graduate Student Launches Post-Katrina Oral History Project

Ian Breckenridge-Jackson co-founds Lower Ninth Ward Living Museum to preserve cultural, social history of devastated community

museum sign

UCR graduate student Ian Breckenridge-Jackson co-founded the Lower Ninth Ward Living Museum.

RIVERSIDE, Calif. — Muddy floodwaters that roared through New Orleans’ Lower Ninth Ward in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina swept away a neighborhood with a rich history unduplicated in a city renowned for its cultural traditions.

Ian Breckenridge-Jackson, a Ph.D. student in sociology at the University of California, Riverside, witnessed the devastation as a volunteer gutting flood-damaged homes in 2006. The experience altered the course of his life and led in 2011 to his co-founding the Lower Ninth Ward Living Museum with another volunteer, Caroline Heldman, now chair of the Department of Politics at Occidental College in Los Angeles. The two serve as co-executive directors of the museum.

“The Lower Ninth Ward was and is a unique community,” Breckenridge-Jackson explained. “Prior to Hurricane Katrina it had one of the highest rates of home ownership by African-Americans in the country, and many of those homes went back generations. This was a very family-oriented place where multiple generations lived near each other.”

Recovery in the Lower Ninth Ward continues to lag behind the rest of New Orleans. Only one in five residents of the neighborhood has returned since Hurricane Katrina walloped the region in August 2005. Citywide, approximately three out of four residents have come back. Some Lower Ninth Ward residents who were displaced have put down roots in communities as distant as California. For many others, the lack of resources in the Lower Ninth Ward makes returning home difficult. For example, the nearest full-service grocery store is more than three miles away, earning the community a “food desert” designation from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Ian Breckenridge-Jackson

Ian Breckenridge-Jackson

“This remains a very fresh wound in U.S. history,” Breckenridge-Jackson said. “Caroline and I were both frustrated with the slow recovery process and people not being able to come back. We were concerned that the history of the families who lived in the Lower Ninth Ward would be lost.”

Joseph Childers, dean of the Graduate Division at UC Riverside, said he is proud of the research Breckenridge-Jackson is conducting and the impact it will have on residents of the Lower Ninth Ward and the larger community.

“It underscores not only our students’ commitment to outreach, but the length of that reach as well,” he said.

The museum is housed in half of a double-shotgun-style home on Deslonde Street in the tradition of other house museums in New Orleans.  Admission will remain free, with support for the project coming from private donors and future grants. Although the nonprofit museum is open on a limited basis now, a formal grand opening is planned Aug. 24.

UC Riverside students have helped to transcribe many of the 40-plus interviews conducted so far with longtime residents of the Lower Ninth Ward. Those interviews will become part of exhibits that include photos, videos and artifacts documenting the neighborhood’s history, which dates back to the 1700s when it served as a colony for escaped slaves. The exhibits highlight the neighborhood’s role during desegregation in the South, the legacy of key historical figures, the community’s long history of social justice and activism, and the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, Breckenridge-Jackson said.

The Lower Ninth Ward was a place rich in cultural history with “a distinct culture that is worth remembering,” he added. For example, rhythm-and-blues great Fats Domino was raised in the Lower Ninth Ward. Gospel singer Mahalia Jackson spent a lot of time there. So did rapper Birdman (godfather of rapper Lil Wayne).

“New Orleans Is an old segregated city with a deep racial history,” the sociologist said. “It still grapples with overt race segregation. It is also a beautiful city where people are just kind. It has a lot of history and culture. There is no place like it. I know that sounds trite, but it’s true.”

museum entrance

The Lower Ninth Ward Living Museum in New Orleans will celebrate its grand opening Aug. 24.

Establishing a museum and oral history project dedicated to preserving the social and cultural history of the Lower Ninth Ward couldn’t have seemed less likely when Breckenridge-Jackson volunteered to help with the massive cleanup and rebuilding effort in 2006.

“I assumed I would see the recovery of a community,” he recalled. “I assumed I would be doing very basic community service work. Instead I was wearing a Tyvek suit, mucking and taking houses down to the beams. There were disparities in how much people got from the Road Home Program, based on race. A lot of money designated for the Lower Ninth Ward was allocated toward other parts of the city, and planning commissions initially proposed turning it into green space, not rebuilding. I saw people who felt like they were being erased. It was the first time I had to look racism and classicism in the face.”

The UCR sociologist who described himself as having been apolitical when he first arrived in New Orleans today engages in “coalitional politics,” in community-building that is solidarity-based rather than charity-based.

Now in the third year of his Ph.D. program at UCR, Breckenridge-Jackson will focus his dissertation on the impact of volunteers who flocked to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. His research is funded by a three-year, $120,000 fellowship from the National Science Foundation, and a $3,000 research grant from the University of California Center for New Racial Studies.

“There is a lot of variation why people went there, from volunteer tourists to volunteer activists,” he explained. “I started as a volunteer tourist. I was 21 at the time. I didn’t know what I was getting myself into. It was a life-changing experience. For me, the city and the people opened my eyes and pushed me to grow.  I feel indebted to them. We want to make sure their story isn’t forgotten.”

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