In July, art writer Nikki Cormaci emailed me, out of the blue, to say she was looking for the Bruce Brice mural on Desire Street.
She couldn’t find it.
Later, driven by curiosity, my husband and I drove down to Desire and discovered the tragic reason why her search was unsuccessful.
But that night, when I got Nikki’s message, I asked her to stop over. We looked at the photos I had taken six years back as I stood outside the abandoned shopping mall, where the mural spanned nearly an entire block.
In the photos, you can see the painted images peeking out from behind a coat of stucco, which was wearing away. To me, it looked like an “historical memo,” from 1492 to 1970. From left to right, painted images appeared to represent one of Columbus’ ships, a slave captain being slain by Black warriors, an African tree and hut, and the old Desire housing-development apartments protected by Black men wearing bandoliers.
All around the old mall, graffiti artists had left tags and artwork. But they had respectfully left the artwork – the little that was exposed – unscathed.
Seven years ago, this largely obscured artwork took me on an educational journey. I came to believe that both the mural, and the revolutionary history it captured, were essential to New Orleans history.
The journey started in 2016, when I first heard about the mural from a young doctor named Joe Fraiman, then chief medical resident at the LSU Medical Center.
One day, driving home from a search-and-rescue training, a detour sent Joe past the mural. He saw a corner of it, where the stucco had fallen away, and stopped his car to walk toward it and get a closer look.
The afro hairdos and the bandoliers caught his eye. “There’s something very special here,” Joe texted Jenn Hissett, a fellow resident who is also an archaeologist. She looked at the pictures and told him that the art had a 1970’s Black Panther tone. He emailed The Lens and editor Jed Horne sent him to me, knowing my interest in the Panther era within the Desire. (In 2009, I had published a book about it called “Showdown in Desire: The Black Panthers Take a Stand in New Orleans.”)
Not long afterward, Joe and I walked together to look at what he’d found. He’s too young to have personal memories about the Black Panther Party’s work in this area. Even as we walked, he didn’t know he was near the site of the Panther shootout and the day-long Desire standoff of 1970.
We could not see much of the mural. Because of the stucco, only part of it was visible, behind a barrier of wild vegetation and garbage. But from what I’d seen, I agreed with Joe. It was something very special.
I wrote about our findings for The Lens.
In response, I heard from Ricardo Coleman, a local historian who now leads tours through the city. Coleman grew up in the Desire area, seeing the mural on the side of the building, which housed Bynum’s Pharmacy. He knew the pictures told a story, he told me. But, as a child, he hadn’t immediately understood its meaning.
“Initially, I was afraid of it,” he said. “It contained violent and powerful images that stirred up many emotions when I first saw it.”
As he asked questions, he learned, said Coleman, who ended up getting a master’s degree in American history and credits the mural with playing a role in that. “I think maybe that was the beginning of my love affair with history,” he said.
He believed that the mural’s artist was likely Bruce Brice. That was later confirmed for me by longtime Desire resident Wesley Phillips.
Brice, who died in 2014 at age 72, was best known in the city as a prolific muralist and as the designer of the first-ever Jazz Fest poster.
In Brice’s writings, he describes how he was driven to teach and make art. He was “an artist educating the masses,” he wrote. “My goal is to teach . . . to enlighten others about the rich African American experiences, culture, and traditions in this region.”
From Historic New Orleans Collection photographs, we can see the wealth of his mural work, on buildings in the Treme and elsewhere. Then in 1970, not long after the Black Panthers’ confrontation with the New Orleans Police Department, Brice set up his scaffold in the Desire area and painted the mural.
Coleman recalled a teacher telling him about it. “It was intended to educate young people just like me about the history of black people in America,’ he said.
As soon as I saw the mural, I was mesmerized. I wanted to see it documented and preserved.
Historian Lawerence Powell, then chairman of the board of the Louisiana State Museum, understood my sense of urgency. Larry made a few phone calls. Within a few weeks, I ended up in a pile of rubble next to the mural with New Orleans Jazz Museum director Greg Lambousy and three other cultural experts from the museum.
We arrived at the corner of Desire, near Industry, and began to tromp through weeds and garbage, pull back vines and saw away trees from the back wall of the old shopping mall, owned by the Desire Community Housing Corporation.
Because of the stucco, clearing vegetation and debris was not enough. In the weeds, Greg found a discarded metal hook with an end like a shepherd’s crook. He reached it up to pull back a gutter.
There it was. We stared in wonder.
Then we took photographs.
At that moment, the invaluable 50-year-old mural seemed too quiet, too forgotten. Only the occasional squatter and a few graffiti artists even seemed to recognize its existence.
From photographs and conversations, we now know that 53 years ago, Bruce Brice was the center of attention as he stood on a scaffold next to this old cinder-block building and painted a mural that spanned the entire back of this building.
The mural’s rich colors captured the vibrancy Brice saw all around him, as Black Panther Party members fed and worked with the Desire public-housing community, then the largest public-housing development in the nation.
Yet here was the mural, relegated to oblivion, much like the history it represented.
Not many New Orleanians still remember how powerful the New Orleans Black Panthers were in 1970 when some Panther Party members began living in an apartment in the Desire public housing development. The Panthers vowed to stay there to improve conditions, demand basic services like garbage pickup – and to protect from the New Orleans Police Department, who patrolled the Desire with a heavy hand, arresting, beating, harassing and even shooting residents.
The Panthers had powerful detractors within the NOPD and in Washington, D.C., where FBI director J. Edgar Hoover was determined to eradicate them.
But in the Desire, the Panthers were largely viewed as a source of inspiration and a force for good whose members acted as champions of the poor, unifiers and revolutionary educators.
After Hurricane Betsy, the city had donated the steel-framed shopping-center building to the Desire Community Housing Corporation, said Wilbert Thomas, Sr., 74, who has been president of the nonprofit for the past 30 years.
They added a washateria there for people who lived in the Desire, made sure there were pharmacists and other services. And they arranged for Brice to paint the mural.
Thomas vividly remembers the artwork, because his best friend, Johnny Jackson – a member of the Panther Party and a future state representative and City Councilman — ran the Desire Community Center, where Panthers served breakfast and tutored and worked with children.
“When we were mentoring the young girls and guys, we would look at the mural and talk about it,” Thomas recalled. “If people toured the building, we would talk about the mural.”
The structure was 50,000 square feet and the mural spanned the whole back of the building, from Industry to Florida Avenue.
Before the demolition, The Desire Community Housing Corporation had made plans to renovate the building and re-open it. As they planned, they had discussed ways that they could revive the historic mural, he said.
Then, a few years ago, in December 2019, Thomas got a call. A demolition crew was on the site. Backhoes and bulldozers were tearing into the building.
Thomas ran to his car and sped to the building, a few minutes away. He stood in front of the bulldozer, said that he hadn’t given anyone permission to tear down the building. The work crews called their office and realized their mistake. Their order was for a nearby structure. They had demolished the wrong building, they said.
Turns out, the crews were supposed to demolish a building next door. But that building had already been demolished. So they dug into the Desire’s building. By the time Thomas arrived, the building was in pieces. Nothing could be saved.
“It was a mistake, as they say,” said Thomas, who is trying to figure out how to rebuild it. But also, he mourns the structure itself. “All the historic stuff we had,” he said.
The demolition brought out conspiracy theories in a few people who live nearby, who tell Thomas it doesn’t sit well with them. “All the buildings you could have torn down. Why choose this one?”
He wonders too, even as the Desire Community Housing Corp. makes plans to rebuild. He’s determined to have another building there. “And we gonna get us another mural,” he said. “I promise we’ll get another one.”
For me, the revolutionary ghosts had been persistent.
But in July, when Richard and I went in search of the mural, I saw first-hand that the ruined building was gone, along with the mural itself.
Now, thanks to Wilbert Thomas, I know what happened.
If we hadn’t documented what we’d seen, I would have seriously asked myself if this memory had been a dream.
But since I do have the photographs and the stories, I feel obligated to share with the world, to educate others like the mural educated me.
Orissa Arend is a mediator, psychotherapist, and writer. You can reach her at email@example.com. This piece includes reporting by Lens deputy editor Katy Reckdahl.