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Proposed street name change from St. Claude St. to Henriette Delille St. is cause for debate

14th June 2011   ·   0 Comments

By Zoe Sullivan
The Louisiana Weekly

When people hear that St. Claude Street may have its name change, often the first response is anger. Once they realize that the street in question is not the boulevard that stretches from the Tremé to the Lower 9th Ward, for some, that anger cools. St. Claude Street stretches the eight blocks between St. Philip Street and St. Anthony Street.

The proposed name, Henriette Delille Street, would honor a free woman of color who ministered to the poor, and particularly slaves. According to Prof. Virginia Gould, a lecturer in Tulane University’s history department, Delille was born in 1812, and in 1842 founded the Association of the Holy Family, which continues to operate as Sisters of the Holy Family. The nursing home that Delille established in the Tremé area has been operating continuously since that time, although it has moved its location to Chef Menteur High­way. Delille is also the first African American who has been admitted to the Catholic Church’s process of canonization, which confers sainthood.

The request for change was submitted to the City Planning Commission, which took the first step in the approval process. Since the area lies within the Tremé Local Historic District, the Esp­lanade Ridge National Historic District and the New Marigny National Historic District, the Planning Commission submitted a request for review by the Historic District Landmarks Commission.

“I think it makes a great deal of sense,” said Lolis Elie, producer of a documentary called “Faubourg-Tremé: The Untold Story of Black New Orleans.” “As we New Orleanians look more closely at our history and culture, it’s clearer than ever the influence of African Americans on our identity as a city, yet few streets bear the names of African-Americans from the colonial and antebellum period.” Elie, a resident of St. Claude Street, said that the current name was “slightly confusing” since people tend to think of St. Claude Avenue. “This street would be a perfect one to change,” Elie commented, noting that “it’s in the heart of Tremé where free people of color basically built it.”

The Backstreet Cultural Museum is the only business on the stretch in question. Sylvester Francis, owner of the museum, wrote a letter to the City Planning Commission voicing his opposition to the alteration.

He explained that the change would force him to pay for the costs of changing the museum’s letterhead, business cards and other materials.

“If Henriette Delille is important enough to have a street named after her,” Francis wrote, “it should be Tremé Street as Tremé was a slave owner’s name.”

The costs associated with the name change are supposed to be covered by the organizations that requested the name change. Naydja Bynum of the Historic Faubourg-Tremé Association, which has led the name change efforts along with the Sisters of the Holy Family and St. Augustine Church said that the trio would take responsibility for these costs, but that they have held off on fundraising until the request was approved or denied.

“This is supposedly the oldest African-American area in the U.S., and isn’t it strange that there isn’t a single street named after a person of color?” Bynum, who lives on the street, said. She also explained that whenever she says “St. Claude” people assume “avenue,” which requires her to give a long, complicated string of directions to her home.

“Women of color weren’t allowed to be part of the Ursuline nuns,” Bynum told The Louisiana Weekly of Delille’s work. “They had to start their own order…to do the same good.”

City Councilmember Kristin Gisleson Palmer represents the area. Palmer told The Louisiana Weekly that her office was collecting letters from the community in order to assess residents’ feelings on the matter. “I’m basically going to get all the letters that come in and we’re going to plot them out and see.” She also explained that some had complained to her that the similarity between St. Claude Street and St. Claude Avenue caused problems for emergency services and deliveries. Palmer also underlined that this review was initiated by community members. “It’s a request and it goes through a process. I don’t sit around making this stuff up. It comes from community, and I honor community by listening to what comes up… It’s very much from the bottom up.”

This article originally published in the June 13, 2011 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.

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