William H. Chafe: Reflects on his experience in post-Katrina New Orleans

Historians in the News

[William H. Chafe, a history professor at Duke University, writes about race and gender. He recently returned from a weekend as a volunteer in New Orleans.]

Nearly 16 months after Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans remains devastated. In the Lower Ninth Ward (primarily black and poor), mid-city (mixed-race and middle class) and Lakeside (richer and whiter), houses are boarded up and ruined; shattered windows reveal rooms full of debris; perhaps one in 10 places has a FEMA trailer parked outside, as a few returning residents desperately try to reclaim what they have lost. Thousands of small businesses have disappeared. Even in the French Quarter, which was left largely intact after Katrina, shopkeepers despair of being able to survive given the decline in tourism. Repeatedly, people declare: "I have not received a single dollar of federal aid."

Yet in this season that celebrates the birth of a child in what today would be called a homeless shelter, a remarkable resiliency of spirit remains in New Orleans. Yes, only half the population there in August 2005 has returned. The suicide rate has increased 300 percent, and less than half of the schools and hospitals that existed 16 months ago are functioning.

But energy, engagement and love persist, creating tiny ripples of hope, from thousands of individual acts of courage -- ripples that can, in words Robert Kennedy uttered 40 years ago in South Africa, "build a current" able to topple the mightiest walls of oppression.

In the Lower Ninth Ward, more than a hundred volunteers gather in a Catholic school (St. Mary of the Angels) to help secure -- with the community -- a foothold toward starting anew. Some are college students, others grandparents and hippies. All have come to live and work with local residents. Most spend their days gutting houses so that returning residents can be eligible for federal rebuilding funds. Tearing down sheetrock infested with toxic mold is dangerous work. Others toil in the kitchen, helping members of the "Rainbow Tribe" -- a commune -- prepare Brunswick stew, macaroni and cheese, and fried chicken for 150.

No one sees this as a lark. The unpaid staff briefs workers on the hazards they will face, insisting that respirators fit snugly so that no toxins are inhaled. The kitchen crew tests every dish to be sure it has reached a temperature high enough to eliminate any chance of food poisoning. Everyone is deadly serious -- and also clearly moved by the importance of the mission. They are white and black, male and female. They respect the integrity and autonomy of the neighbors they are there to help, committed not to fall into old hierarchies of white and black, male and female....

Read entire article at William H. Chafe in the WaPo

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