A Brief History of New Orleans' 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 9 so special. Porches and stoops were important places to catch up with one another and talk about everyday life.

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.

What is referred to today as the Lower 9th Ward was so named after the industrial canal was dredged in the 1920's, cutting through the 9th Ward. The area below the canal became known as the Lower 9th Ward. The creation of the industrial canal resulted in development of land along it, providing steady work for many in the area. When shipping became containerized, the demand for workers declined, which had a negative economic impact for the neighborhood.

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 9th Ward, and the Lower 9th Ward specifically boasts a "Who's Who" of the greatest musicians America has ever produced. It is the birthplace and current residence of Fats Domino, and 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. The population is predominantly African American, and their homes were built on land that was, in the Colonial Louisiana of the 19th Century, plantation land. These homes were built and paid for in modern times, thanks to an industrious nature and commitment to independence. The Lower 9th Ward also includes Jackson Barracks, first built in 1834 and currently being rebuilt after Katrina to once again serve as headquarters for the Louisiana National Guard.

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. Houses were smashed or thrown on top of cars or other houses, as even some of the highest areas of the city were flooded. 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 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. Their vision–an attainable vision–is a rebuilt community complete with exceptional schools, quality of life and a robust local economy.

Douglas Brinkley
Author, Historian