My parents were entrepreneurs, faithful churchgoers, pet owners. They took the family on summer vacations. But my childhood wasn’t entirely typical: I grew up in New Orleans—a very Black New Orleans. In the 1980s, long before I hit puberty or even played little league baseball, my mother began ferrying me to a Black-owned bar, the Winnah’s Circle. The bar was in a quaint one-story cinder block building off of St. Bernard Avenue in the 7th Ward, about two miles from the French Quarter. There, amid patrons sipping highballs, I watched and listened as my older sister sat in with the musicians, singing.
My love for Black bars is rooted in those childhood experiences. That love grew in my teens, then after graduate school, when I would accompany fellow teachers to decompress over drinks and a fish fry or steak dinner. Black neighborhood bars were once ubiquitous across New Orleans. Then, around 2017, I noticed that many of these venerable watering holes were swiftly shutting down—or even worse, turning into white-owned establishments. These losses were especially painful because their displacement erased the culture and institutional history of so many neighborhoods, the social aid and pleasure clubs, and Black Masking Indians disappeared. Displacement is an all too familiar theme in New Orleans. Almost 17 years after Hurricane Katrina devastated the city in 2005, much of Black life has disappeared. People, neighborhoods and schools and bars were all washed away in the storm.
The Winnah’s Circle was owned by Sylvia Crier, a longtime educator who taught my sister in 1989 and was my free enterprise teacher in 1997. She’s 81 years old and still teaches. One of Crier’s high school students jokingly suggested the bar’s name because a race horse she owned always lost. While it was open, from 1990 until 1999, the Winnah’s Circle was a premier destination for live music. (It’s since been replaced by a bar called Seal’s Class Act.) Before she owned the Winnah’s Circle, Crier co-owned Snug Harbor Bar—not the jazz club—in uptown New Orleans for 17 years.
When I was a teenager, my father, LeRoy Harris, guided me as I fell in love with jazz. I was immersed in rare facets of New Orleans’s jazz culture, from its music clubs to private trumpet lessons to hunting down vinyl records. My father moved to the city in 1963 as a 20-year-old jazz drummer, patronizing Black bars for the music, food and camaraderie. My mother, Eartha Harris, was a New Orleans native and became an activist during the post-civil rights era. She managed an all male soul band in the ’70s, and she and my father owned Le Earth Flowers & Balloons for more than 30 years. When my sister, Rahsaana Ison, was about 10, she belted out a solo with the church choir, making my mother realize that her daughter was a precocious singer. Within little time, she was acting as my sister’s manager, landing her gigs in clubs.
I’m not sure why I was in bars so young. My father said he didn’t really oppose my mother introducing me to certain things. “That was just her nature,” he reminisced about my mother taking me to gigs. “I remember she would hear a second-line band, close the shop and run out there with you. Both of us didn’t have restraints.”
Once, when I was in ninth grade, the sounds of a brass band filled the flower shop. I grabbed my trumpet and Mom locked the doors. We sprinted toward the band. The street was tight with people, strutting to the music, some dancing on cars and porches. I tentatively eked out a few notes. Then a man, whom I surmised had just left a bar, got extremely close to me and offered these words of encouragement: “You betta blow dat horn, muhfucka. You betta blow, that fuckin horn.” I tried.
Soon, I started skipping some of the high school dances. I was empowered with a car and a trumpet, and that afforded me privileges as a young musician—namely, entrance to live-music bars without parental guidance. I’ll never forget the 1995 New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, when Wynton Marsalis joined fellow trumpeter Kermit Ruffins’s set at Little People’s Place for a late-night jam session. Little People’s Place is a Black-owned bar in Tremé, one of the oldest Black neighborhoods in the nation. The bar is about the size of a living room in a small apartment. Its front door opens into the performance area. Musicians have to scooch aside to let patrons through. I was about 17, collar popped, wearing sunglasses, and my silver Bach trumpet shined. I was clean, but I was the worst musician there.
It was cats from the Mingus Big Band and Wynton’s band, and other players. Wynton blew a custom-made Monette trumpet, beautifully adorned with decorations that made it much heavier than other trumpets. Eventually, Wynton grew tired of holding it and asked to borrow my horn. I obliged. As I stood to the side, one of the bar’s patrons said, “I betcha you ain’t never heard your horn sound like that.” He was right.
I enrolled at Middle Tennessee State University in 1998, then graduate school at the University of Mississippi in 2005. Perhaps it was the distance and partying with people my own age, but I drifted away from the Black bars. I returned home in 2008, teaching journalism to middle schoolers, and I was back in a Black bar nearly every week with my coworkers, all Black women. It was magical. During the New Orleans Saints’ Super Bowl-winning season, when they won their first 13 games, we watched the team at the Zulu Social Aid & Pleasure Club, or Sidney’s Saloon, when Kermit Ruffins ran it. Most patrons were dressed in black and gold, and during breaks in the game, a DJ would keep the crowd hype. There was always plenty of delicious free food. Sidney’s is white now, as are four other spaces on St. Bernard Ave. The previous Black owners of these establishments occupied the spaces when they were not allowed on Bourbon Street. In the 1970s, Black bars were plentiful on St. Bernard Ave.—some of the prominent places were Miss May, Good Timers Bar & Restaurant, Sherones, Poorboys, Miss Yvonne’s, Sidney’s Saloon, Devil’s Dungeon and the Blue Lake. Those bars, their communities and their legacies are gone now. Even Next Stop, a bar that was open as recently as 2017, is largely forgotten. But all these places were worth preserving.
Since starting this photo series in 2018, two iconic institutions have shuttered. The Purple Rain Bar has permanently closed, and the Sandpiper Lounge hasn’t reopened since the global pandemic and it was damaged during Hurricane Ida, in 2021. Fortunately, I was able to shine a light on them before they went dark. I’m driven to ensure that Black bars are no longer overlooked and that their stories are told.
Earlier this year, I sat alone on a Thursday night in the Big Man Lounge on Louisiana Ave. I bought a Heineken with Apple Pay. The bartender put two beers down, BOGO. Hustle & Flow was on the television, but everyone was kibitzing and listening to Darren Powell, a.k.a. DJ Steele. He was spinning barroom classics: “Sure Wasn’t Me” by Tyrone Davis; “Ain’t That a Bitch” by Johnny “Guitar” Watson and “Cause You Love Me” by Lisa Amos, featuring Willie Puckett. I ordered another beer; two more came.
A table behind me had a setup—a bucket of ice, liquor and a mixer. They seemed like old friends. I ordered another beer, and DJ Steele sat a styrofoam cup before me. It was filled with ya-ka-mein, the beef noodle soup popularized by chef Linda Green. DJ Steele kept working the room, talking to folk and passing out the free cups of goodness.
I’ve had birthday parties and business meetings, and have entertained close friends and taken family Christmas photos in Black bars across New Orleans. (Yes, all of my children, ages 9, 3 and 1, have been inside a Black bar. How else were we going to take Christmas photos?) But on that Thursday night in Big Man Lounge, I sat alone, without a camera. I sipped. I ate. I reflected. I once again felt what makes these places so special. And these spaces are to be revered as they are, not renovated and redeveloped beyond all vestiges of Blackness. These spaces, like juke joints and shebeens, are a vital part of the African Diaspora, of our community.
As I left Big Man Lounge, Hustle & Flow was still playing, with Djay in the throes of recording “Whoop That Trick.” He was on the cusp of a breakthrough. I walked to my truck with a Heineken in tow, feeling much the same. Hopeful that even when the name of a Black bar changes, it remains Black—a bastion of Black cultural excellence that continues to influence the world. And a safe space that’s a respite from the rest of the world.
L. Kasimu Harris is a New Orleans based writer and artist. His work has appeared in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, National Geographic and Garden & Gun magazine.