The Highway That Sparked the Demise of an Iconic Black Street in New Orleans

Claiborne Avenue was a center of commerce and culture—until a federal interstate cut it off from the rest of the city in the 1960s

Claiborne oaks
Before the highway's construction, Claiborne Avenue was known for its towering oaks. Louisiana Division / City Archives & Special Collections, the New Orleans Public Library via the Claiborne Avenue History Project

For more than a century, Claiborne Avenue served as a center of New Orleans’ Black economic and cultural life. Then, in the late 1960s, a federal infrastructure initiative brought the bustling street’s dominance to an abrupt end, with an elevated freeway replacing the oak trees and buildings that had once lined the avenue.

“This was THE street,” Raynard Sanders, co-founder of the Claiborne Avenue History Project (CAHP), tells Rebecca Santana of the Associated Press (AP). “This is where everything happened. This is where African Americans were welcomed and wanted.”

Today, a provision in President Joe Biden’s infrastructure proposal is drawing attention to the historic street—and people like Sanders, who are working to document its history and plan for its future. Sanders, an education and community development specialist, and filmmaker Katherine Cecil created CAHP in 2014 to tell Claiborne Avenue’s story. Their project uses city records, old newspapers and other documents, as well as oral history interviews, to preserve Black life in a 22-block stretch of the street that runs through the Tremé neighborhood. The pair’s plan is to create an interactive website that allows visitors to click on street addresses and learn what once stood there.

As Richard Campanella reports for NOLA.com, Claiborne Avenue got its start in the 1820s, when city planners were working to make room for the area’s growing population. Named after William C.C. Claiborne, the first elected governor of the State of Louisiana, its early population included free French-speaking Black Creoles, enslaved Black Americans, Haitian refugees and white Creoles.

By the middle of the 20th century, CAHP explains, the avenue was the central street of the city’s Black neighborhoods, connecting uptown to downtown. It held theaters and bars where iconic New Orleans musicians performed and hosted celebrations like Black Mardi Gras. As a mixed-use street, Claiborne was also home to residences, shops and enormous oak trees.

Per NOLA, when the Federal Highway Act of 1956 earmarked billions of dollars for interstates across the country, New Orleans officials advanced two projects proposed by planning official Robert Moses. One targeted the French Quarter, then a mostly white neighborhood that was already famous as a historic part of the city. The other focused on Claiborne Avenue. While well-connected local boosters managed to block the French Quarter plan, many in the Tremé neighborhood weren’t even aware of the plan for Claiborne, as no public hearing process existed yet, and officials didn’t bother consulting with local residents.

“There were no discussions about it or anything like [that], and they just showed up and started tearing up oak trees in 1966,” Sanders tells Paul Dudley of WWL-TV.

The Highway That Sparked the Demise of an Iconic Black Street in New Orleans
The highway divided local Black neighborhoods. The Claiborne Avenue History Project

According to the Congress for the New Urbanism, construction of the Interstate 10 Claiborne Expressway led to the destruction of 500 homes. It divided local neighborhoods, causing a drop in activity in the business district and a declining quality of life.

“[S]teel reinforcing rods now occupy the spaces where the roots of live oaks once spread, concrete pillars replaced their trunks, and the shadow of the interstate highway now towers above the neutral ground where generations of families used to walk to work, interact, picnic, and socialize,” notes CAHP on its website.

The Claiborne Expressway was just one of many projects carried out under the Federal-Aid Highway Act, which routed interstates through Black and Latino communities across the country, as Noel King reports for NPR. In some cases, the government seized homes that were in its way by eminent domain.

Deborah Archer, a legal scholar at New York University, tells NPR that the projects arrived just as courts were declaring many segregation schemes illegal. Highways could physically enforce the same racial divisions.

“Sometimes community members asked the highway builders to create a barrier between their community and encroaching Black communities,” Archer says.

Biden’s American Jobs Plan, announced March 31, includes funding to reconnect neighborhoods divided by previous transportation initiatives, specifically calling out the Claiborne Expressway. WWL-TV reports that New Orleans has investigated potential projects to reduce the expressway’s impact since the 1970s, including removing some off-ramps or taking down the expressway and diverting traffic. But the ideas are expensive, and so far, they haven’t gained much traction.

Sanders says he hopes such a plan will still move forward.

As he tells WWL-TV, “We would just hope that, from the Claiborne History Project’s perspective, that something significant is done to address all of the damage that has been done to this community.”