This has been a tragic week. It is difficult to live each day, but to have to face the death of friends each day puts grief upfront and central to everything else that happens.
We learned of the death of Numa Martinez this week. He died in 2019. The very next day we learned of the death of Maurice Martinez (his brother). NuNu was about 73 years old. Maurice was 88. When you are over 80 73 is considered young and we ask what happened to Maurice because he could have lived into his nineties.
NuNu and I found each other again just a few years prior to his death. We talked via telephone when he went into the hospital and came out again. And when I tried to contact him for just a normal fun conversation I couldn’t reach him – for a couple years. I thought it was because NuNu was off about something that would be great conversation when I did reach him. What I didn’t know was that I couldn’t reach him on this earthly plane because he died.
In our younger years, NuNu was little and I was a teenager. . Bute had a passing conversation or joke or fun thing to say, But, I was much older and remember him from that lofty place teen agers take to those much younger.
When we reconnected it was all about Martinez Kindergarten. NuNu very strongly wanted to see Martinez reborn. Where else could you find the japanese language taught to those really young youngsters in Kindergarten? And this in a neighborhood which came to be considered the home of the poor blacks? When I think of that neighborhood today and way back then as I went back and forth – from my grandmother’s house just a block from Martinez Kindergarten, to my grandfathers house in a much more substantial neighborhood, to the upper class black neighborhood of uptown friends, to the mansions of our truly wealthy white relatives and friends, I wonder how I survived.
My grandmother, Marceline Bucksell Taylor, was a modiste. She designed and made clothes for everybody, but especially for the debutantes and for Martinez Kindergarten kids. You knew when the recital, the grand pageant on a Municipal stage was imminent because our house was filled with young children from Martinez Kindergarten. If you went to Martinez from the time of its beginnings until well into the 1970’s and early 1980’s you knew our house. Every young student at Martinez Kindergarten had to come to Ms. Taylor’s house to try on their costumes for the pageant. Some sang – some danced – some were part of a bit of theatre and in the background sat the king and queen (3-4-5 year olds) taking in the theatre put on for them in the grandest manner. When my grandmother died, her daughter – Doris Gaynelle Taylor – took over the job of modiste.
The gowns of the queen and her maids were exquisite. The kings were absolutely elegant. They put the debutante royalty to shame. They had rhinestone crowns, scepter’s which they learned to wave giving their enjoyment to what was unfolding in front of them and those graduating at the end of this theatre changed from one costume to another to their graduation cap and gowns.
When the young kindergartners arrived, our house was in a state. Bolts of material in the “fitting room”, young children in the kitchen getting water and whatever else they wanted from the refrigerator – which had been stocked for their arrival. They oohed and ached at seeing each other being fitted with brocades, satin, leather, velvets, ermine mink trim on the gowns of royalty. And – when that was over, they marched in a predetermined order back to the school one block away.
When the time came for the pageant, everyone did their part and it always turned out beautifully. Mildred Martinez would have nothing less. One group after another performed in their costumes and bowed before the court and at the end those “seniors” who were graduating marched in with caps and gowns to receive their diploma’s. Some had special mention for one achievement or another and all had some introduction to another language. Right before receiving their diploma’s – one at a time when their names were called – their tassels were moved on their graduation caps from one side to the other. It was all done very formally and according to “code”.
NuNu talked a lot, those years we reconnected, about what he was doing to bring that back. That didn’t happen, however,. I just discovered from Jari Honora, that the school has been torn down – as have many of the homes in that neighborhood.
Black history is not allowed to stand. It can be “sort of” recovered decades later, but not in the near present. Ms. Fannie C. Williams, principle of Valena C. Jones School and close friend of Mary McLeod Bethune, a substantial and respected figure in the black community, had a lovely home just two blocks away. On my last trip to NOLA that house was torn down for an extension of President Eisenhower’s plans for such minority neighborhoods. It was being called the “cleaning up” of the ghetto.
That “cleaning up” has included creating more and out of control crime, more houses seriously in need of either restoration or tearing down and on and on it goes. Many of the most beautiful and historically relevant homes have disappeared. City folks talk about how to get rid of the crime and bring about a better city with improved neighborhoods. When you tear down institutions like Martinez Kindergarten you tear up the heart of a neighborhood which is not designated for “improvement”, but “destruction” with even more crime and ugliness.
When I was a young person, Claiborne Avenue with its greenery down the middle of the street with tables and chairs and wooden sofa like seats all up and down the Avenue, was normal. It is where you went on Mardi Gras. On either side of that green boulevard were many kinds of businesses and it was great to walk along and stop in several. No money to spend in them, but a curiosity as to what they contained. That Claiborne Avenue after Eisenhower has become a horrific place. Cars abandoned under the freeway which took beautiful homes – of black families – and left junk, debris and more in their place. There are bars and funeral homes left and not much else.
With Martinez Kindergarten, I knew who I was and what my future contained. Do the young children living in that same neighborhood have the same sense of themselves? Or do they see an abyss full of nothing but junk, debris and more going further downhill?
My plan was to sell my house in Cambridge, MA. and move back to New Orleans and my husband and I were going to help NuNu re-establish Martinez Kindergarten. That didn’t happen. We are in the middle of trying to sell a house in a 99% white neighborhood where blacks are not allowed to buy, where redlining is prevalent, where blacks selling are forced to sell much under the value of their home or it doesn’t sell. So we are in the middle of a very traditional fight which whether you are black or white you know very well. Our decision has been to grit our teeth and pray hard for whatever God has in store for us.
Martinez Kindergarten was in a fight for its life. It lost that fight. The children in that neighborhood have also lost the promise of a wonderful life for which they were being prepared. Instead, they are on the street and are growing up being trained to destroy and disrespect, not build-up.
That is hard to hear and even harder not to deny. It is time we look realistically at what is happening and the real reasons. That is very threatening to almost everyone. We have our positions in this society and don’t take kindly to those positions being threatened. The “better than” fight as hard as the bottom white, black, and in-betweens to maintain the status quo.
NuNu, your young life was a part of the golden years in New Orleans. Life became harder as you and me and all the rest of us became adults. We could hide from the racism within that small circle. I will never forget the shock I felt when I first discovered just how horribly blacks were treated outside of our little circle.
As adults we had to face it head-on as it sapped our lives, our talents, our goodness. We now have a society in which to live which has moved to a place very difficult to change. Where there were millionaires back then, there are billionaires today. Where the move towards democracy was an exciting time and fight for us all as our chests swelled seeing Rev. Andrew Young from our own New Orleans fight with Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King for a better life for us all.
We are now fighting a very ugly Hitler-type enemy trying to move us all into a place full of ugliness, but mostly of beholdeness to them akin to the slavery of yesterday. Our clothes may look nicer, our homes may be larger, but our lives are as full of pain and horror as they were before Martinez Kindergarten was established.
May God forgive us all!