By the early 1900s, the Melpomene neighborhood in Central City was a densely populated urban neighborhood, where many residents worked in occupations related to shipping, particularly in the nearby rail yards. Broadly speaking, the area was home predominantly to working class immigrants of European descent in the period between Reconstruction and the end of the nineteenth century, with the neighborhood gradually becoming a predominantly Black neighborhood in the first decades of the twentieth century. The demographic changes in the neighborhood can be tracked in documentary records like the census and city directories, which provide information at the address level about residents’ race and ethnicity, household composition, occupations, and property ownership.
Larger-scale political events always loomed in the background of neighborhoods with such racially integrated patterns of residence. The period after Reconstruction was a particularly turbulent one, as the city’s Black residents found opportunities for social advancement subverted and blocked. Black voter registration in Louisiana had reached a high of 128,150 by 1888, but white supremacists attacked their rights on all fronts. The 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson Supreme Court decision legalized segregation, and the new Louisiana Constitution of 1898 distinguished the right of citizenship from the “privilege” of the vote, using this language to disenfranchise Black voters. By the next year, Black voter registration plummeted to just over 12,000; by 1930, there were just over 2,000 Black voters left in the entire state. White supremacists segregated schools and public facilities, attacked biracial labor organizations, and used extralegal violence like lynching to reinforce state-sanctioned oppression.
Archaeological assemblages can only indirectly illustrate such widespread changes, but they do help explore the individual strategies that working class families employed to live and, in some cases, to prosper, even in the face of considerable adversity. They also help us to understand how people experienced such broad changes at an everyday level: in foodways and diet, in health, in childcare, in social interactions, and in recreation, as displayed through consumer behaviors.