Sylvester Francis, known to New Orleanians for years as the venerable, gray-haired director of the Backstreet Cultural Museum — a two-room Treme museum that gives an inside look at the city’s black culture through resplendent Mardi Gras Indian suits, brightly colored second-line outfits and photos of musicians at work — isn’t as spry as he used to be.
Since the museum’s founding in 1999, every suit, every photograph, every display case was lovingly maintained by Francis. But these days, hobbled by lung problems and a stroke he suffered in March, Francis, 69, must run errands for the museum in a motorized wheelchair.
So even though he knows the museum’s back roof is leaking, he can’t climb up and down a ladder as he did for years, managing to keep the doors open despite a shoestring budget.
Recently, someone from a city agency told him that he needs to cut down the cat’s claw vines on the edges of the museum and fix the building’s storm gutters, which are missing key segments.
To support Francis and his mini-museum, the Backstreet’s board of directors has partnered with the Neighborhood Story Project and the anthropology department at the University of New Orleans to throw a fundraiser at 9 p.m. Monday at Chickie Wah Wah, 2828 Canal St. Blues and zydeco legends Bruce “Sunpie” Barnes and Lil Buck Sinegal will perform.
Money raised will go to support repairs, upkeep and operations at the museum.
For most of his life, Francis was a fast-moving blur who typically had time only for brief explanations, accompanied by his signature hand gestures.
“You used to have to chase him to talk to him,” said Ronald Lewis, who runs the House of Dance & Feathers in the Lower 9th Ward.
Starting in the late 1970s, Francis and his camera seemed to be present every time a grand marshal blew a whistle, an Indian shook a tambourine or a trumpeter and trombonist blew harmonies together. In-between parades, he worked at Rhodes Funeral Home, washing cars and driving them whenever the funeral directors needed bodies moved or families chauffeured.
But the moment that led to the Backstreet Cultural Museum came 40 years ago, after he paraded with a social aid and pleasure club called the Gentlemen of Leisure. Realizing that he didn’t have a photo of himself in his costume, he was told that he could buy one from a photographer for $35.
Instead, he resolved that he would document the culture himself through video and photographs. He made two prints of every image, keeping one for his collection and giving one back to the person in the picture.
Not long afterward, he helped Big Chief Victor Harris to assemble his blue-peacock suit for the Spirit of FiYiYi Indian tribe. But when Francis stopped by Harris’ house after Mardi Gras, he saw that the elaborate suit had simply been tossed into the backyard, a common practice at the time.
Francis salvaged the beaded, feathered crown, his first museum item, and soon began to collect and display items in a two-car garage in the 2400 block of Frenchmen Street in his native 7th Ward.
Neighbors began referring to the garage as the “backstreet museum.” His employer, Joan Rhodes, started sending tour groups there. And, in the late 1990s, when her family decided to get rid of the Blandin Funeral Home at 1116 St. Claude Ave. (now Henriette Delille Street), they offered it to Francis.
Today, the museum is a community headquarters, a place where neighbors regularly leave verbal messages for someone else who may pass by. It’s a touchstone on Mardi Gras Day for thousands of tourists and locals including Indians, “baby dolls” and the North Side Skull and Bone Gang, which has been based at the Backstreet for 15 years.
The Backstreet may be the only museum in town where visitors are likely to find artists who contributed to the museum’s collection hanging out on the front stoop. Not that the Big Chiefs or Wild Men or Buckjumpers will jump up to explain their work to a museum guest — they leave that to Francis or his younger brother, Robert Francis, who fills in as tour guide when his brother isn’t able.
Recently, a small crew helped Francis tidy up the grounds and make minor repairs. Most of the helpers either have artwork in the museum or have relatives who do. “This man and this museum hold the key to our culture,” said Theodore Guichard, 60, the nephew of the late Collins “Coach” Lewis, who sewed Indian suits for FiYiYi for 45 years.
Some might note that the House of Dance & Feathers in the Lower 9th Ward has a similar neighborhood-centric focus and collection. That’s no coincidence, said Ronald Lewis, who began calling Sylvester Francis “boss” not long after he started spending time on the Backstreet stoop more than a decade ago.
“I said, ‘Boss, I want to do this ’cross the (Industrial) Canal.’ He gave me his blessing. We’ve been collaborating ever since,” Lewis said last week.
Lewis and Francis have both collected New Orleans cultural artifacts for decades, but Lewis is clear that the Backstreet is the model for the House of Dance & Feathers.
“Sylvester is the forefather of the mini-museum. He was the first one who did it,” Lewis said. “I followed suit, and then others around town have followed what he started. But I always say, ‘There will never be another Backstreet Museum.’ ”