Ronald Lewis, preserver of New Orleans African American culture, dies at 68

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Ronald Lewis, preserver of New Orleans African American culture, dies at 68
The House Of Dance And Feathers:: A Museum By Ronald W Lewis Paperback.

by Steven Kurutz

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- Ronald W. Lewis, whose colorful museum in the Lower 9th Ward of New Orleans preserved the performance traditions and rich street culture of its African American population, died March 20 in that city. He was 68.

The cause was the coronavirus, said Brent Taylor, a nephew. Lewis had bypass surgery last year and had been well until he contracted the virus in early March. He died at Ochsner Hospital.

The House of Dance and Feathers, as Lewis named his cultural institution, was an astonishing treasure-trove of local history focused on the Lower 9th Ward and the Mardi Gras Indians, who dress in feathers, bangles and dazzling, hand-sewn costumes as they dance through the city’s black neighborhoods on special occasions. (The group dates to the 1800s, formed by African Americans to pay tribute to the Native Americans who had helped them during the time of slavery.)

The museum, about the size of a trailer and located in Lewis’ backyard on Tupelo Street, was packed floor to ceiling with costumes, parade ephemera, photographs and memorabilia from African American social clubs.

Lewis spent his entire life in the Lower 9th Ward, a working-class black neighborhood, except for a difficult year in which he lived in nearby Thibodaux, Louisiana, after being displaced in 2005 by Hurricane Katrina. As he wrote in “The House of Dance and Feathers” (2009), a book he put together with Rachel Breunlin, a cultural anthropologist, he believed that the history of his culture should be told by “someone who has lived the culture.”

In the book, Lewis explained the museum’s unusual origin story. He had begun sewing from the time he was in middle school and later made suits for the Mardi Gras tribe he helped form, the Choctaw Hunters, leaving his beads, feathers and other design materials strewn about the house, along with the memorabilia he had amassed.

“I came home one day and everything was in my backyard,” Lewis wrote. “My loving wife, Charlotte (who we call Minnie), said, ‘I can’t take this anymore. You’ve got to find something to do with this.’”

In 2002, after retiring from his job of 31 years as a streetcar repairman for the Regional Transit Authority, Lewis took over a wooden shed that had been his sons’ playhouse and turned it into an early version of what would become his cultural center. He modeled it on the Backstreet Cultural Museum, which is also devoted to the city’s African American customs, founded by his friend Sylvester Francis in the Tremé neighborhood.

Academics, journalists and the many tourists who visited the House of Dance and Feathers found in the soft-spoken, gray-haired Lewis a charismatic storyteller. To outsiders who may have thought of the Mardi Gras parade as little more than a big street party with music and alcohol, he would explain its centuries-long history, its customs and their meanings.

“We watched that go from a shed in the backyard with a few visitors to people from all over the world coming,” Taylor said. “And he didn’t charge to get in. He didn’t do that to make money.”

In a statement, LaToya Cantrell, the mayor of New Orleans, called Lewis “the very definition of a culture bearer.”

For Lewis, telling the story of his community (and by extension his own life) had a psychological resonance. “Preserving our culture is our therapy,” he once told the Louisiana newspaper The Advocate.

Ronald William Lewis was born in New Orleans on July 17, 1951. He was raised by his aunt and uncle, Rebecca and Irvin Dickerson, in a loving but no-nonsense home on Deslonde Street in the Lower 9th Ward. He attended George Washington Carver High School but left before receiving a diploma.

In the book “Nine Lives,” an account of post-Katrina New Orleans as seen through the eyes of nine residents, journalist Dan Baum wrote that the Lower 9th Ward of Lewis’ childhood had been made up of tidy houses occupied by country transplants like his aunt (she was born on a sugar plantation in Thibodaux) who held “good waterfront jobs,” harvested “tomatoes from the garden and eggs from their chickens” and gathered at dinner tables crowded elbow-to-elbow with siblings and relatives “while Mahalia Jackson sang from the radio.”

Lewis would remain in that tight-knit African American world as he became a coach and father figure to countless boys, co-founded the first social and pleasure club in the Lower 9th Ward, shared his table with family, friends and strangers, and sought to tell the world about his home.

“Right here in the 9th Ward was where our people chased the American dream,” he told The Advocate.

Like everyone who was in New Orleans in 2005, Lewis saw his life upended by Katrina, which flooded his house and museum (both were rebuilt) and nearly obliterated his beloved neighborhood. He was one of the first people to return.

“When I came back to the Lower Nine, it was me, my wife and the hot plate that she made a pot of gumbo for us with,” he said in 2013 on a local television talk show, “The Goodnight Show.”

Lewis is survived by his wife, Charlotte Hill Lewis; two sons, Renaldo and Rashad; his stepsiblings, Larry Dickerson, Stella Keasley, Cedric Lewis, Ebimola Ojusoku, Richard Lewis, Irvin Dickerson, Walter Jones and Larry Lewis; seven grandchildren; two great-grandchildren; and many nieces and nephews.

The House of Dance and Feathers was a one-man operation, with no official hours, text placards or cataloging of any kind, other than what existed in Lewis’ head. The only sure way to visit was by calling him up on his cellphone to schedule a time. The museum has been closed while his family takes inventory and decides what to do with it.

Ordinarily, someone of Lewis’ stature would be given a jazz funeral led by a brass band with thousands of people joining behind in the second line. But with social distancing restrictions amid the coronavirus pandemic, such a celebration was impossible at the time of his death.

Lewis’ family and friends hope to give him a proper New Orleans send-off on his birthday, in July.

© 2020 The New York Times Company

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