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Lower 9th/Katrina Timeline

A Brief History of the Lower 9th Ward

The Lower 9th Ward of New Orleans is one of the richest cultural communities in the country and was, until Hurricane Katrina in August, 2005, a crossroads of families, music and social interaction in New Orleans. As one community leader aptly described it recently, the Lower 9th Ward had an ‘atmosphere of engagement’ that featured time spent with one another in dialog, in celebration of the music, words and history that make the Lower 9th Ward so special.

Originally a cypress swamp, the area three miles downriver from the French Quarter was incorporated into the city in 1805.  The fact that the neighborhood was the farthest-downriver corner of New Orleans determined its destiny.

Because the 9th Ward was so isolated from the city, it was the last neighborhood to be developed.  It remained rural late into the 19th century, the home of a markedly poorer population than upriver New Orleans, with people of African descent – enslaved and free, Creoles, and Irish and German immigrants settling there.  It also became the home of stockyards, soap makers and other industries that could not be located above the city because they would pollute the water source.

The neighborhood was the last in the city to benefit from an adequate drainage system. It was installed between 1910 and 1920 in preparation for the construction of the Industrial Canal linking the Mississippi River to Lake Pontchartrain.

The five-mile-long, six-hundred-foot-wide canal, completed in 1923, split the Ninth Ward in two, further isolating the lowermost portion of the urban core and creating the “Lower” 9th Ward.  The creation of the canal and the barrier it created between the Lower 9th Ward and the rest of New Orleans also gave birth to a discrete and unique activist culture.

Like Auburn Avenue in Atlanta or Harlem in New York, the Lower 9th Ward is a virtual storehouse of civil rights history and cultural achievement. Historic advancements with far reaching impact originated throughout the Lower 9th Ward.  New Orleans was the first Deep South school district to open its doors to black children.  One of the first schools to be desegregated in 1960 was McDonough #19 on St. Claude Avenue.

The Lower 9th Ward is the birthplace and current residence of Fats Domino.  Trumpeter Kermit Ruffins grew up there and it was an important family meeting place for the young Mahalia Jackson, “Who Shot the La La” Oliver Morgan and many others.

The modern day Lower 9th Ward is distinguished in many ways, not least the fact that more residents owned their homes here than in any other part of the city.  On August 29, 2005, the force of the water resulting from multiple levee breaks due to Hurricane Katrina did far more than flood thousands of homes. It forced houses and families off their foundations. The Lower 9th Ward sustained some of the worst flooding after the storm and thousands of lives were disrupted-lives still in limbo, but not defeated.

The Lower 9th Ward is no stranger to hardship or to hurricanes; its people survived Hurricane Betsy in 1965, when 80 percent of the neighborhood was flooded and they will surely overcome this adversity as well. The activism that has characterized this neighborhood since its inception is alive and well, with nine community groups coming together to form a coalition to ensure progress and a return of the Lower 9th Ward’s culture and energy.

Author and historian Douglas Brinkley contributed to this narrative.

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