For Francis, it was an important starting point: to date, he has photographed, filmed or videotaped more than 300 parades and funerals. On Nov. 1, 1999, he opened the Back Street Cultural Museum at 1116 St. Claude St., to showcase both his work and the culture from which it springs.
Francis' museum is part of a quiet economic and cultural revival underway on North Rampart St. and the adjoining Treme neighborhood one block north of the French Quarter. The area is being slowly energized by small business people and residents, with the local music community playing a significant role. The Funky Butt, Donna's Bar, Kermit Ruffins Jazz & Blues Hall, Joe's Cozy Corner and The Candlelight Lounge all feature internationally recognized talent.
A current publication from the New Orleans Multicultural Tourism Network -- affiliated with the Greater New Orleans Metropolitan Convention and Visitors Bureau -- includes an article titled "Faubourg Treme: America's Oldest Black Neighborhood." This historic claim is based on the quantity and value of black-owned property in this area during the 1850s.
The Back Street Cultural Museum complements this assertion. Open from Tuesday through Saturday with free admission, it is housed in the historic Blandin Funeral Home, the simple and elegant remains of a vital black-owned business. The building's exterior ironwork creatively incorporates a casket in the design -- but it is on the inside where the museum's treasures are found.
When visitors enter the Back Street (admission is free; donations are accepted), they encounter two main exhibition rooms. One is dedicated to the famed second-line parade and jazz funerals that are rooted in local Reconstruction-era traditions. The other focuses on the phenomenon of the Mardi Gras Indians who represent the purest continuing retention of African and African-Caribbean culture found in this country.
Sylvester Francis and his co-workers are not university-trained historians. Instead, they draw from life experience to interpret their displays.
"It is the custom of the Mardi Gras Indians to build a new suit each year," Sylvester explains. "In 1990, I helped Big Chief Victor Harris of the Fi Yi Yi put together his suit. It was a blue peacock design. After Carnival, I went by Victor's house and saw the blue suit had been thrown out into the yard. At this time people didn't think about the value and history of this work. To try and sell the suit was considered selling out the culture and you could not get what it is actually worth. The only part I was able to save was the headpiece. The rest had been destroyed by weather.
"Three weeks later a brother in-law of mine died," he continues. "We had a two-car garage at 2403 Frenchmen St. and I decorated it with the headdress and some pictures I had. There we held the repast. From then on I just kept adding more pieces to the garage. That is how it became known as the Back Street Cultural Museum. Because we were on a back street in a back of town neighborhood in New Orleans."
Word soon spread of the garage museum. Joan Brown, of the Rhodes Funeral Home, began directing tour groups there. She eventually donated the Blandin Funeral Home to house the growing exhibition. "She has been our biggest supporter," says Francis. "She understands the importance of what this means to the community."
Currently, more than 30 Mardi Gras Indian tribes are active in New Orleans, averaging between a half-dozen to 10 members each. Hundreds of hours of dedicated work go into a full and mature suit. Look closer, and it's apparent this work is highly evolved, combining skills in sewing and design with personal expression in a headdress, jacket or vest, aprons, pants, and shoes, all including thousands of intricately hand-sewn beads and rhinestones with spectacular color-dyed ostrich feathers, marabou, ribbon and cloth.
The museum features up to 10 Indian suits at any one time. And although they are symbols of strength, rebellion and beauty, parts of these suits can be quite fragile and require constant upkeep.
Big Chief Charles Taylor of the White Cloud Hunters has his 1999 suit currently on display. "I support the Back Street Cultural Museum 100 percent," Taylor says. "It is great to carry on the tradition this way. I love it. It is a dream come true."
Also included in the Mardi Gras Indian exhibit is a striking 1949 photograph of the 8th Ward Hunters that includes Big Queen Anita Thomas, who is Francis' grandmother-in-law. Artifacts include a hand-held gas lantern used a half-century ago for the annual St. Joseph's night parades, the 2001 suit of Kenneth Terry Wild Man of the Yellow Pocahontas, the 2001 suit of Merlin Armstrong Jr., Big Chief of Trouble Nation, the Baby Doll suit of Felecia B. Shezbie, a wild skeleton suit, several suits belonging to Big Chief Victor Harris, and the plastic five-gallon percussion buckets, sticks and headdress of Lionel "Uncle Bird" Oubichon Sr., who was the Medicine Man of the White Eagles tribe.
At the beginning of the Mardi Gras Indian exhibit is a glass display case titled, "Needle and Thread Killing Them Dead." Explains Francis: "This means that if you don't learn how to sew you are killing the culture. Anyone can go out and be wild on Mardi Gras day. To be an Indian you have got to learn how to sew. To make a suit."
When the Back Street building was an active funeral home, the room now holding the museum's second-line and jazz funeral exhibit served for laying out deceased bodies for viewing. Noted musicians George Lewis and Snookum Russell both stopped here on their way to their final resting place.
Today, exhibits and photographs mark a tradition that dates back to the black Union officer Captain Andre Caillou, killed at the Battle of Port Hudson and honored by a huge funeral with a brass band in New Orleans in 1863. More than 10,000 people -- including numerous black associations and benevolent societies -- turned out for this event.
Such societies and social aid and pleasure clubs now organize the city's annual second-line parades, usually on Sundays. Jazz funerals occur on any day but Sunday. The brass bands historically used in these events gave jazz its instrumentation and provided the nurturing ground for many early jazz artists.
Francis began documenting the second-line parades and jazz funerals in 1980. "It was through Ellyna Tatum, the first lady Grand Marshal, that I began to understand the importance of what I had," Sylvester says. "In 1985, she fell ill with Lou Gehrig's disease and we spent a lot of time together watching my films and videotapes. She identified the different musicians and people, explained their importance, who they were, what instrument they played and who they played with."
Like Mardi Gras Indians, parade participants spare no expense on often very limited budgets. On exhibit are a man's parade clothes from the Money Wasters Social Aid & Pleasure Club annual march of 1996. It includes a Stetson hat, long-sleeve button-down shirt, streamer, necktie, pants, socks and shoes -- all in matching deep burgundy. The display hints at the powerful show of unity displayed in the sight of 20 to 30 men, parading in unison in the same immaculate outfit.
The museum's collection also includes a large oil painting of Alfred "Dute" Lazard, a favorite Grand Marshal in the Sixth Ward and the first Grand Marshal of the popular Treme Brass Band. "Dute" passed away in 1995 and, of course, had a huge jazz funeral. The painting is a donation by Jerome Smith and the Tambourine & Fan organization.
Besides maintaining and developing the museum, Francis and company publish the annual journal "Keeping Jazz Funerals Alive." It catalogs the jazz funerals they have documented over the past 21 years and includes information on funeral homes and cemeteries used in each burial. Maintaining a time-honored tradition, the journal lists both the full name and nickname of the deceased. A short list includes Pork Chop, Professor Longhair, Gray Eyes, Cigar, Baby Buck, Uncle Ratty, Tank, Big Daddy, Tee Low, Rags, Cornbread, Mr. Google Eyes, Big Jake, Lottie, Sister, Sporty, Popee, Deacon, Pops, Pee Wee, Bat, Scoop, Terrible Tom, Pud, Smokey, Fat Man, Hully Gully, Alto, Buzz, Policeman, Itchy, Ooh-Poo-Pah-Doo, Itty Bitty, Blue Lu, Slick Rick, Sil, Sluggo, Red, Chicken Man, Skilled, Dutch, Duke, Dute, D-Boy, Charlie B, Two Pistol, Pappy, Sookie and Shorty.
In the Back Street museum, the jazz funerals display features Johnny Adams, Al Hirt, Darnel "D-Boy" Andrews and Mayor Ernest "Dutch" Morial. One wall is dedicated to the Grand Marshalls -- including a large photo of Ellyna Tatum -- and there are displays of parade and funeral routes, a glass case of "tribute and memory" shirts, and Francis' own gray derby hat.
To Francis, the derby symbolizes the spirit of both the funeral tradition and his free museum. "That hat started this part of the collection off," he states. "It symbolizes the time when people didn't belong to a burial society or have burial insurance. The only way they could make it to the grave was for people to pass the hat."