Between the 1930s and 1960s, racist policies at every level of government pushed Black residents of New Orleans into lower-paying jobs and racially segregated neighborhoods. Throughout the nation, local and federal government agencies used coded terms like urban renewal, racial covenants, and red-lining to describe their efforts to segregate housing and homeownership. These policies limited possibilities for Black residents to achieve independence, financial security, and other opportunities for their families.
Of course, Black New Orleanians worked to resist and counter the effects of structural racism in whatever ways they could. The written historical record gives glimpses of individual families who tried to use homeownership as a foothold on economic security in the Melpomene neighborhood. Segregation in an urban setting also provided avenues for prosperity with the formation of businesses catering to Black customers that white-owned businesses often excluded.
By engaging archaeological artifacts excavated from the Guste Homes site in 2004, alongside the written historical record that documents the lives of families who lived in the Melpomene neighborhood prior to its 1961 demolition, we can gain a deeper understanding of residents’ lives.
For instance, Edward Shannon, first a renter at 1219-1221 Howard/LaSalle Streets, owned the property by 1930 while working as a superintendent for a life insurance company. He later opened a furniture repair business at the same location. Another home at 1216 Freret was owned by a series of railroad porters in the period from 1920-1940, while, in 1926, a Black family of Puerto Rican descent headed by Jose Fuentes purchased a home at 2317 Erato and lived there through 1949.
It is often a mixture of luck and circumstance when a particular household is represented in the archaeological record of a neighborhood, and sometimes it can be very difficult to link material remains with specific families. However, the Puckett family at 1222-1224 Howard/LaSalle can be traced in both documents and in the objects they left behind in a privy shaft, apparently filled when they moved out in the 1930s.