History of the Florida Neighborhood

Meaningful community development begins with an understanding of the history and character of the place. Like many areas of New Orleans, the Florida neighborhood in the Upper Ninth Ward was originally a cypress swamp. Development of the area did not begin until the late 19th century, and few people lived there until the 1930s when new drainage canals, sewage lines and water services made the area more desirable. African American homeowners were encouraged to move to certain areas within the Florida neighborhood around Law and Louisa streets.

“Meaningful community development begins with an understanding of the history and character of the place.”

In response to the issue of homelessness during the Great Depression, Congress passed the United States Housing Act of 1937, also known as the Wagner Act. New Orleans was the first city to receive funding under the Wagner Act, and several low-rent public housing developments were planned. In 1946, the Florida housing development opened on an 18.5-acre tract of land adjacent to the Florida neighborhood. Initially envisioned as housing for war workers, due to construction delays, the development never served its original purpose. Because of wartime shortages, the buildings were not as well constructed as other public housing projects completed a few years earlier.

The Florida development was originally reserved for whites only, while Blacks were relegated to the Desire development.  Unlike other low-rent public housing in New Orleans, the Florida development served what one housing official called “the lowest segment of low-income and underprivileged families.” Many of the original tenants were families from rural areas who had come to New Orleans for work but had been left stranded at the end of the war.

Two public schools had also been built by the early 1930s, William Frantz on Alvar Street for white students and Johnson Lockett on Law Street for black students. From the outset, the Florida development gained a more negative reputation than some of the other housing developments as several newspaper stories appeared documenting children who arrived to school at William Frantz hungry, inappropriately attired and with no provisions for lunch.

By 1960, the Florida area was a predominantly working class neighborhood with both white and African American residents segregated by street. During the school desegregation crisis, two Uptown schools, Lusher and Wilson, volunteered to be sites of token integration after assenting votes by their respective Parent Teacher Associations. The Orleans Parish School Board denied the requests and instead chose two schools in the Ninth Ward, William Frantz and McDonogh 19. There is evidence to suggest that the school board was aware of the implications of restricting integration to schools in lower-income neighborhoods. When Ralph McGill, editor of the Atlanta Constitution, met with the Orleans Parish School Board prior to the decision, he specifically warned against forcing integration on poorer areas while leaving wealthier, more influential neighborhoods unaffected.

The location of the two school sites was not disclosed until November 14th, when four first graders entered the school buildings surrounded by federal marshals, three at McDonogh 19 and Ruby Bridges at William Frantz. The next day, the White Citizens’ Council held a meeting in the Municipal Auditorium attended by over 5,000 people. The leaders of the meeting called for protests and boycotts to resist integration. Leander Perez, political boss of Plaquemines Parish, was quoted as saying, “Don’t wait for your daughters to be raped by these Congolese. Do something about it now.” Perez donated money and a school building to start a private lower elementary for white students assigned to Frantz and McDonogh 19, and he used his influence to pressure St. Bernard Parish schools to accept the affected fourth, fifth, and sixth graders.

The school crisis accelerated the trend of white flight already underway in the Ninth Ward with many white families moving to neighboring St. Bernard Parish. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 desegregated the Florida housing development, and Ruby and her family moved into the development in 1966. While white tenants did not immediately move out of the development en masse, they did stop moving in, and gradually the housing became segregated again.

“The goal of the Ruby Bridges Foundation is not only to restore the Florida neighborhood to its pre-Katrina population but to make the Upper Ninth Ward better than ever before.”

In the late 1990s, the Housing Authority of New Orleans (HANO) began demolishing a significant portion of the rundown Florida development. Some new townhouses and duplexes were constructed, but the buildings have not been touched since Katrina. In the Florida neighborhood, approximately 98% of the residents were African American in 2000, but almost 60% owned their homes according to census figures. The latest data released by the US Postal Service reports that only 45% of the pre-Katrina households of the Florida neighborhood have begun receiving mail as of June 2010 making it one of the least recovered neighborhoods in the city. The figures do not include the Florida development where none of the former residents have returned. On a positive note, as of September 2009, 72 homes and 5 elder-friendly complexes have been completed as part of the Musicians’ Village near the William Frantz building. The Musician’s Village is built on the site of the former Joseph Kohn Junior High, which Ruby attended.

The goal of the Ruby Bridges Foundation is not only to restore the Florida neighborhood to its pre-Katrina population but to make the Upper Ninth Ward better than ever before.