The Lower Ninth Ward: Community and Placemaking

A hundred years ago, the area around the 2400 block of Lamanche Street was occupied by the Temple of the Innocent Blood, a spiritism church that was created and run by Mother Catherine Seals. From 1922  until her death in 1930, Mother Catherine maintained what has been described as a “Bethlehem” in the Lower Ninth Ward. The location for the church was intentional. At the time, this area of New Orleans was isolated swampland located on the edge of city limits. Mother Catherine used this isolation to create a space and culture for the inhabitants of the Temple that challenged the status quo.  Within the Temple walls, Mother Catherine and  her followers created a place and community that served and provided refuge for more vulnerable people regardless of age, race, marital status, or social standing. In 2011, a group from the University of New Orleans conducted an excavation around the former location of the Temple of the Innocent Blood. The dig uncovered items that could be directly linked to the Temple, along with an array of items that post-dated the Temple's closure. 

One of these finds that came after the closing of the Temple of Innocent Blood was a subsurface trash pit containing diagnostic artifacts dating to the 1950s and 1960s. This was a time period marked by white flight and escalating racial segregation across many urban areas of the United States, and New Orleans was no exception. The Lower Ninth Ward was impacted by this social and racial upheaval, and the demographic of the area shifted from a diverse neighborhood of lower income and working class families to an area becoming predominantly occupied by Black residents.

The items recovered from the 1950-1960 period help to reconstruct the story about the community that remained in the Lower Ninth Ward, including its values, welfare, consumerism, and ideals. Objects like brand name lipstick and face creams, jewelry, and souvenirs imply an investment in joy, well being, and consideration for oneself beyond basic needs. Objects like the home mortgage stamp and life insurance tag represent actions of creating permanence, place making, and taking care of your home and family by creating and securing something for future generations.

Although these featured items are associated with a time after Mother Catherine’s death and the closure of the Temple of the Innocent Blood, they reflect the same principles upon which the Temple was founded. They are objects that have a symbolic ability to subvert the status quo, and represent the attainment of a higher social status than what others may perceive or want you to have. These artifacts can be interpreted as a continuation of Mother Catherine’s ethos and presence in the Lower Ninth Ward, and help establish a communal lineage in the history of the neighborhood that speaks to the ability of its residents to create something for themselves that may have otherwise been difficult to attain.