The Puckett Household: 1930s Archaeology of the Melpomene Neighborhood

Stop 5 of 11 on the Melpomene Street Blues Tour

In 2013, archaeological consulting firm Earth Search, Inc., excavated a block of the Melpomene neighborhood originally bounded by South Liberty, Erato, Clio, and Howard/LaSalle Streets. Earth Search identified brick foundations and artifacts from a number of different addresses across this particular block. The most informative materials recovered came from a wood-lined privy shaft located along a property line between two homes at 1220 and 1222-1224 Howard/La Salle Street. Archaeological findings suggest that the privy was filled during the 1930s, presumably representing a cleaning episode linked to a family moving from the house or a change in ownership. Glass bottles and containers, many of them intact, filled the privy along with a smaller collection of ceramic tablewares, personal items, and butchered animal bones.

The 1930 Census recorded a woman named Minnie Puckett as the owner of 1222 Howard Street. The Census described Minnie Puckett as a 49-year-old “Negro” widow, born in Mississippi to parents from Virginia. The Census valued the home, where she resided with her 13-year-old granddaughter, at $4400. Minnie Puckett’s thirty-year-old daughter, Lucille Puckett, rented the other side of the house. Also born in Mississippi, Lucille Puckett lived with her four daughters: Edna (10), Helen (8), Genieve (5), and Minnie (3), named for her grandmother. Minnie Puckett resided at this house until her death, after which the house appears in an advertisement for a property seizure and auction by the Civil Sheriff in 1937. By the time of the 1940 Census, the Puckett family no longer owned 1222 Howard Street. The Pucketts’ departure from the house seems like the sort of life event that caused the filling of the privy.

The archaeological assemblage from the privy gives us a small glimpse of everyday life in the household, and of the hopes and obstacles faced by Black families of this generation. The images below illustrate and describe some of the objects found in the Puckett family privy.

The Puckett family’s story epitomizes the aspirations of Black migrants to New Orleans in the early twentieth century, but it also shows the precarity of their position in a segregated society in which oppressive forces devalued their labor and sabotaged their chances of property ownership. The Pucketts moved to New Orleans from Mississippi by 1920, when both Minnie and Lucille lived at 2605 Calliope Street. Minnie was already widowed and working as a laundress. Lucille’s husband, Eddie Carr, a laborer from Alabama, and Andrew Puckett, Minnie’s son working as a brakeman on the railroad, also resided with Minnie and Lucille on Calliope Street.

It must have taken considerable hard work for the family to purchase the property on Howard Street, particularly after the death of Andrew Puckett in 1920. Legal problems surrounded Andrew’s succession, trapping Lucille in litigation issues until the late 1920s. The loss of the property must have been a devastating blow to Lucille and her family.

Of course, the Puckett family’s dreams didn’t end at the moment in time captured by the archaeological assemblage at 1222 Howard Street. Lucille’s children grew up and had families of their own, eventually moving into the Calliope Housing Project nearby. The story of the house lost at 1222 Howard Street passed through family generations as a lesson in being careful in business and personal affairs, and a warning to not be taken advantage of. Lucille’s family remembers her tough and hard-working character, taking on extra jobs to provide more for her family. She insisted that they shouldn’t be content with their lot and should strive for better. Her daughter inherited some of her tastes for fine china and elegant petticoats, symbols of affluence in a racist society structured to keep them as second-class citizens. Many of Minnie’s descendants still reside in New Orleans and saved photos of Minnie, Andrew, and Lucille that they shared with researchers for this project.

Images

Map

1222 Reverend John Raphael Jr Way (historically Howard Street and LaSalle Street), New Orleans, LA