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  • Cierra Chenier

Under the Bridge: New Orleans' Black Wall Street

Before the painted columns stood large, beautiful oak trees. Before the construction of the interstate, Claiborne Avenue was a strip lined with Black owned businesses.

In the 1950's, Claiborne Avenue served as a community space where "Black Mardi Gras" would congregate (Mardi Gras Indians, Zulu floats, etc). Families often spent time under the avenue's oak trees and went for walks up and down its shaded sidewalks. Claiborne served as the main street for Tremé, which is the nation's oldest Black neighborhood (and the birthplace of jazz). The 1960's was the height of segregation and Jim Crow laws, in which Black Americans were not allowed to shop at white-owned stores and businesses.

In result, we built our own.

Claiborne Avenue became a Black-owned business district, much like "Black Wall Street" in Tulsa, Oklahoma. It was lined with everything from insurance companies and drug stores, to restaurants and theaters. The most notable business on the strip still stands today at the intersection of Claiborne and St. Bernard: The Circle Food Store.

The Circle Food Store is the staple of the 7th Ward. It was incorporated in 1938, and served as New Orleans' first Black-owned grocery store for 80 years. It provided groceries, a pharmacy, a physician, dentist, chiropractor, check cashing, and a place to sell school uniforms. As a child, I remember spending summers in "The Circle" with my grandmother, who would make her groceries, cash her checks, and buy my cousins' school uniforms from upstairs... all in the same trip. The Circle Food Store is more than just a grocery store, it serves as a symbol of Black New Orleans. Despite the threat of institutional racism and destruction of Hurricane Katrina, like us, it is still standing.

In 1969, the interstate was constructed.

Originally, the I-10 was intended to run through the French Quarter, but was instead directed to Claiborne Avenue after opposition from French Quarter residents. Although many residents opposed the construction of Interstate-10 on Claiborne as well, it was built anyway. The construction of the I-10 on Claiborne caused the decline of the once booming, self-sufficient, Black business district. Claiborne Avenue in New Orleans is just one of the many instances where the construction of highways and interstates have destroyed urban communities.

Historical Context

In the South, railroads were used as lines of segregation. Have you ever heard of the saying, "across the tracks" or "wrong side of the tracks?" This is in reference to the separation between lower class, Black neighborhoods from middle/upper class white neighborhoods. Subsequently, the American highway system was designed with more than just transportation in mind. Interstate highway planning was very intentional in implementing racial bias. First, the neighborhoods were segregated. Then, interstates and highways formed physical lines of division. These lines of division ultimately contained and isolated Black neighborhoods, and this isolation led to the dismantlement of Black areas. What some highway engineers called "urban renewal," was actually urban destruction.

Once the I-10 was built on Claiborne, over 500 homes in the area were demolished, businesses shut down, and some families migrated to other parts of the city. Those big, beautiful oak trees were removed, and now, the only oaks that you see on Claiborne are those that are painted on cement columns.

Over the years, local artists have painted images on the interstate columns that symbolize the Black-owned district that once was. I say all the time: one thing about New Orleans -- if you just pay attention, the stories will present themselves to you.

So the next time you're waiting at a red light on Claiborne, under the bridge for a parade or second line, or just in the area to pick up to-go from Manchu or Cajun's; take a minute to look at those columns, and appreciate the resilience of Black New Orleans. At every point in history, we have always risen and excelled despite the conditions and restraints that were put in place to prevent such. When doors close in our faces, we go on to build our own buildings with our own doors. Claiborne Avenue is the most literal example.

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