In the 1950s and ‘60s, Creole families from New Orleans brought the tastes, sounds, and traditions of home to L.A.’s Jefferson Boulevard as they sought new opportunities, jobs, and “freedoms that they had never before experienced.”
This article was originally published by LAist on July 9, 2023
Culture is a moveable feast that always survives, travels well and ensures community.
Mine came to Los Angeles from New Orleans, Louisiana.
I am the eighth generation of my family born in New Orleans. All of us are descendants of Etienne Broyard, a gendarme in the French colonial army who arrived in New Orleans at age 24 in January 1753 from La Rochelle, France. After his service was completed, he became a policeman, and then plied his trade as a carpenter.
By the time my grandfather and father inherited Broyard Construction, the company Etienne founded, it was perhaps the largest Black-owned construction company in the South. My Creole family had grown into a mutiracial family with deep roots in New Orleans.
The South was a challenging and dangerous environment in which to thrive for any person of color, even in New Orleans, one of the country’s most cosmopolitan seaport cities. In the old colonial days, there were restrictions in New Orleans that dictated and limited the behavior of both free Blacks, known as the “gens de couleur libre,” and the majority bound in chattel slavery.
Called the “Code Noir” or “Black Codes,” these rules spelled out in detail where and when people of color could move about the city, conduct business, even recreate, the latter on Sunday only.
Long after the Black Codes ended, segregation endured. My grandparents and parents told us many stories of living in New Orleans in the early- to mid-20th century: Sitting behind a moveable screen in the back of the streetcars and buses, climbing the stairs on the outside of the Saenger Theater to sit in the “buzzard’s roost” to watch a show, ordering food at Levada’s to-go from a window in the alley, as they were not allowed to walk through the front door of this and many other restaurants.
They sat in the “Colored Only” section at Sunday Mass in Catholic churches throughout the city, only allowed to receive communion after the white parishioners did — and even then, not at the altar. The priest or deacon would walk the sacrament back to them in the rear of the church.
This is the environment into which my brother, sister and I were born in the mid-to-late 1950s. According to my mother, as the result of a difficult pregnancy, I was the first “Negro” child born at Oschner Clinic, which at the time served only whites. In my own way, I proudly started life as an integrationist.
The move to L.A.
In 1961, as my brother was about to start first grade at St. Raphael Catholic School in the Gentilly neighborhood where we lived, my parents made a difficult decision.
Already, throughout New Orleans and beyond, angry white citizens were in an uproar over the desegregation of schools, staging protests and even going so far as to follow Black children home from school and throw rocks, eggs and bricks at them.
Picture Norman Rockwell’s 1964 painting “The Problem We All Live With,” depicting little Ruby Bridges walking between four federal marshals as she headed to William Frantz Elementary School, and you get the idea. That event took place in New Orleans.
My parents decided they were not willing to put their children through this. As my mother said, “I’m not going to fight the Civil Rights Movement with my children’s lives.” They knew they could send their children to any school they selected and could afford, and that new opportunities awaited them professionally, if they just had the courage to leave behind the people they loved and make the 2,000-mile journey west, one-way, to California.
And so they did.
My father closed up Broyard Construction, sold his trucks and cement mixers, scaffolding and tools, and left behind the family business.
My mother, a Xavier University graduate with a degree in education, who was being groomed to become one of the first Black school administrators in the city, put her ambitions on hold. She closed up the beautiful yellow brick house that my father built for us on Eads Street, where we lived around the corner from her mother, down the street from my dad’s parents, and down the block from my dad’s grandmother and aunt. We said goodbye to them all.
Six months after my father and uncle drove to Los Angeles in a rental truck full of furniture and appliances, my mom packed up the three kids and we boarded the Sunset Limited through Louisiana, Texas, New Mexico and Arizona, and got off at Union Station in Los Angeles.
The family moved into a two-bedroom apartment on Budlong Avenue south of Adams Boulevard. Eventually, we settled into a Spanish stucco in Leimert Park.
Building Creole L.A.
This was the route, and likely the reason, for so many of the families that came to California from New Orleans and settled in Los Angeles in the 1950s and ‘60s. Opportunities. Jobs. Freedoms that they had never before experienced.
Simple things, like going to the beach whenever they wanted to instead of only on specific days and between certain hours. Stepping through the front door of a restaurant and being welcomed. Enjoying the national parks, the museums and the theaters, and feeling safe as they traveled, stopping in whatever motel or hotel suited their fancy and their wallet.
If you could afford it, you could pretty much do it in California. And that newfound sense of independence and long-hoped-for liberation was worth whatever it took to achieve — even if it meant uprooting your family, leaving relatives and lifelong friends behind and, for the most part, starting over from scratch.
So many of my parents' friends and family members joined them in this exodus, which my Uncle Jack facetiously called “the great brain drain.” Over time, as more of them arrived, it often felt as though we were back in the Seventh Ward, the Treme or the Marigny neighborhoods of New Orleans.
There were the Broyards, the Dupres, the Tureauds, the Delereys, the Theards, the Gagniers, the Rousseves, the Olivers, the Fontenots, the Antoines, the Anthonys, the Conants, the Aubrys, the Metoyers, the Loquets, the Roques, the Guenveurs, the Bacquets, the Desvignes, the Domaines, and the Gueringers. There was the Bordenave family and the Hardins, the Honores, the Vavasseurs, the Pajauds, the Prudhommes, the Monteguts, the Saulneys, the Lacroix family, the St. Cyrs and the St. Juliens, the Pichons, the Dumas, the Chevaliers, the Feltons, even the Rawles family from as far north as Baton Rouge.
They all made the trek west and settled in different “parishes” south of the 10 Freeway, between La Brea Avenue and Vermont Boulevard.
Tastes of home
The main hub of the Creole community was Jefferson Boulevard, between Crenshaw Boulevard and Western Avenue.
Perhaps the attraction was in the name, since a lot of New Orleans folk lived in Jefferson Parish, just a bit west of central Orleans Parish where the city is located. At least that’s what I was told once by Leon Aubry, the self-proclaimed “King of the Creoles” who in his garage hosted The Jefferson Council, a group of New Orleans expats who eventually became the Autocrat West Social Club, an offshoot of the long-established Black social club in New Orleans.
At one time, the boulevard was dotted with little bits of New Orleans.
On Jefferson just west of Crenshaw was Pete’s Louisiana Hot Sausage, where we all went to shop before any okra or file gumbo was put on the stove. A little farther east was Leon Aubry’s barbershop, where men and boys could get a good haircut. On Mondays, Leon would put on a pot of red beans and rice and you could help yourself.
A little farther east was Harold Legaux’s pool hall, where you could occasionally get a bowl of his delicious gumbo. It eventually became Harold and Belle’s Restaurant, a five-star establishment known far and wide as the best place in L.A. for traditional New Orleans Creole cooking, to this day still on the southeast corner of Jefferson and 10th Avenue.
Moving east from there was Big Loaf Bakery, owned by Ceejus McLurkin, where we would go every Sunday after Mass for cream puffs and éclairs, napoleons, and those dark brown twist donuts we called “dookie rolls” — a nickname that was sure to get a laugh, along with a swift reprimand from whomever’s mother was in earshot.
Farther east across Arlington Avenue was Miss Shaw’s Beauty Shop, where all the ladies from back home would go for the perfect coiffure as they sat under those giant hair dryers, socialized without men around and went out looking like a million dollars and with an earful of the latest gossip.
My brother and I would ride around the neighborhood on our bikes, running errands for our parents or working odd jobs. We would make a few dollars sweeping the floor or selling our spots in line at Champ’s Barbershop on the corner of Western and Leighton, run by brothers James and Ricky Smith. Champ’s was where I saw my first Playboy magazine. It’s also where my mom took me the very first day I picked my hair out into an Afro.
We’d ride our bikes to the the seafood market on the corner of Vernon and Arlington Avenues, where my mother would send us to get a jar of gulf oysters or blue crab for gumbo, catfish straight out of Bayou Lafourche or Camellia Beans, the only red kidney beans sufficient for a proper pot of red beans and rice. There you could also find Zatarain’s root beer concentrate — my dad used to make his own root beer at home — and Creole seasoning and crab boil, even a Barq’s root beer if you were lucky.
There were other places where people gathered: Sid’s Café on Exposition Boulevard, a lovely, cozy little sitdown spot that made the best fully dressed roast beef po-boy I ever ate in my life. And the 5 C's Restaurant run by the Castille family, also New Orleans folk, where you could get everything from oyster and shrimp po-boy sandwiches to black-eyed peas, rice and greens and candied yams, all on one plate.
Practically every wedding and funeral reception was held at Ashton’s Shatto Banquet Hall, run by Ashton Jones from Cane River, Louisiana. It was always open and full of people on Carnival Day, and every Friday during Lent for fish and shrimp dinners. Thankfully, it’s still there.
During the past 40 years, as the neighborhood has evolved and changed, I’ve had the great honor of serving my New Orleans community as a cantor in the Catholic Church. I’ve been called upon to sing at memorial services, baptisms and weddings for my expatriate community hundreds of times, planning liturgies and celebrations of both death and life for them. At gravesites and in family homes, I’ve sung Franz Schubert’s “Ave Maria,” the gospel hymn “Just a Closer Walk With Thee” and — many times — “Do You Know What It Means To Miss New Orleans?”
What it means to miss New Orleans
My community came here from New Orleans seeking a new way of life. They brought their culture completely intact, and set it down in Los Angeles, like so many others. It’s what we see all over the city, from Chinatown to Little Tokyo, west to the Japanese American hub on Sawtelle Boulevard, which if you follow south will soon lead you to the historically Mexican neighborhood of Del Rey by Inglewood and Culver Boulevards. You can see it from Koreatown to the Ethiopian section of Fairfax, just south of the Jewish section of Fairfax, to the Central American communities of the Byzantine-Latino Quarter along Pico Boulevard.
All of these cultures have come to Los Angeles, set down a sure foundation, and enriched this unique city that so many of us expats call home.
For me and many others, Jefferson Boulevard between Crenshaw Boulevard and Western Avenue was and still is New Orleans West, where we shopped, dined, prayed, raised our families and nurtured ourselves, all within close proximity of each other.
Many of the people there have passed on or left. The signs might be gone, and many of the buildings may have been torn down, but their spirit lives on.
Our legacy is carved into a side altar of the Holy Name of Jesus Catholic Church on Jefferson Boulevard, where you’ll see a gold-leafed fleur-de-lis, a symbol of French royalty that became the adopted symbol of the city of New Orleans.
It’s a testament to what these New Orleans people carried with them to Los Angeles, valued and lived every day — their culture. They brought it here, set it down, and proceeded to revel in it. Let’s hope it’s never forgotten.