Sylvester Francis never planned to head a museum and considers himself a cameraman rather than a photographer. Yet his love of this city’s black street culture, which has been central to his life since childhood, directed his destiny. His involvement finally led to his opening the Backstreet Cultural Museum in December 1999. The singular gallery, dedicated to New Orleans’ unique traditions of jazz funerals, Mardi Gras Indians and social aid and pleasure club parades, is appropriately housed in a small historic funeral home in the heart of the culturally rich Tremé neighborhood.
Francis, 57, got his first taste of the traditions when he was around nine-years-old. He lived “back-of-town” on Pauger and Derbiny, a locale that jumped with activity come Carnival. Naturally, the scene captivated the youngster.
“It was a big day for us,” recalls Francis, “because the Saints and Sinners [organization] used to come out from a house on the block—the baby dolls used to come out, the skeletons and the men that dressed like women. And Tootie [Big Chief Tootie Montana of the Yellow Pocahontas] had a stop there because they had a bar at Pauger and Tonti.”
Francis vividly recalls the first time he laid eyes on a jazz funeral.
“This was a weekday and I see all these people and they’ve got music,” Francis relates. “As I got closer, the first thing I saw was a fat, chubby man and he was dancing slow and he was in black. People started telling me it was a jazz funeral. Well it turned out to be the Olympia Brass Band and Fats Houston was the grand marshal. After that day, I started asking everybody about jazz funerals—‘Where you find them?’”
Francis continued to go to as many jazz funerals as he was able, hit the streets on Carnival to trail the Mardi Gras Indians, and was a regular at the social aid and pleasure clubs’ anniversary parades. In 1979, he put enough money together to parade with the Gentlemen of Leisure club. It became pivotal in steering Francis in a new direction.
“The next day, the parade was gone and I didn’t have a picture,” Francis laments. “This guy told me he had my picture and he’s selling them for $35. So I bought a picture.”
That same week a local five-and-dime store was going out of business and offered a movie camera, home projector and screen for $99. Francis bought the package plus a small still camera and soon shot his first jazz funeral with second line parades and Mardi Gras Indian events next in his lens.
Still steamed that he was forced to buy his a photograph of himself, Francis vowed to keep things straight with his own subjects.
“One of my main goals was—I like this culture so much—that if I was to take anybody’s picture, I’d give them a copy. I think that’s what set the pace for me with Indians and musicians. I feel like the picture is mine but it’s somebody else on the paper.”
In 1988, Francis moved to a house on Frenchmen and Rocheblave streets that boasted a double garage. He began hanging some of his photos in the space as well as Indian pieces—beaded vests, aprons and the like—given to him by friends in the Fi-Yi-Yi gang. He describes the spot as a “little baby museum.” When his brother-in-law died, Francis expected his wife’s relatives, many of who were active with the Indians, to attend the repast held at their home.
“Knowing they were coming, I put more stuff out,” explains Francis. When word spread about the display, Chief Victor of Fi-Yi-Yi and other Indians offered Francis more accessories as well as entire suits.
Joan Brown Rhodes, of the Rhodes Funeral Home family, with whom Francis had worked, learned of the now-expanding site. She presented tours of the Tremé area and asked if she could bring her people to the museum.
“The next day we were bragging on it but I started saying that nobody else was gonna come here because it’s the back streets,” Francis recalls. “That’s how we came up with the name.”
Francis moved again, lugging and lovingly providing safe storage for his acquisitions that otherwise might have suffered a less desirable fate. One day, he got a call for Joan Rhodes, who had seen the potential of the little museum. The historic Blandin Funeral Home, which was owned by the Rhodes family, had gone out of business and she asked Francis if he wanted the space for his museum. While the offer was a dream come true, Francis was forced to decline as he just didn’t have any money for such an endeavor.
“She insisted,” Sylvester remembers. “When word got out that I was going to open this museum, a lot of people started calling me up and saying what they had. ‘I got a suit. I got my grandfather’s this; my brother’s that.’ I had my head set on Indians and pictures and people started calling saying they had stuff from jazz funerals and second lines—all parts of the black culture. That’s how I got all this—everything’s been donated. I appreciated that to the highest.”