Across the street from Carver Desire Baptist Church in New Orleans East sits the old Press Park residential development and community center, a housing project that’s been abandoned since Hurricane Katrina. The buildings are now reduced to rubble.
The church, too, has struggled to recover since the storm. The area’s dwindling population means the congregation has been cut nearly in half in 10 years, from more than 500 to about 270, according to its members.
But on Sunday, the members weren’t focused on loss or on the slow recovery of sections of New Orleans East. They were celebrating Carver Desire’s oldest member, Ruth Atkins, with a church-sponsored 100th birthday party.
“She’s the mother of the church,” said 51-year-old Zeke Franklin, who has been a musician at Carver Desire for the past 27 years. “She’s the oldest, and that’s why they did this.”
As they danced to the music of the New Creation Brass Band and admired the suit worn by Carlos Dunn, a “spy boy” for the Apache Hunters tribe of Mardi Gras Indians, more than 75 people celebrated their friend’s life. Many wore pink and white shirts that read “Still Fabulous at 100,” with Atkins’ birthday written in pink letters: April 9, 2015.
Between bites of fried chicken, macaroni and cheese and red beans and rice, they talked about their hope for the area’s resurgence — and how it has been prompted in part by Atkins’ drive to see the neighborhood come back after the storm.
At the age of 90, Atkins, a lifelong New Orleanian, returned to the neighborhood to rebuild her house following Katrina’s devastation — an act that church members said inspired others to return as well.
“Everybody loves her because she’s always in good spirits and hopeful,” said 69-year-old Laurene Jones, a retired schoolteacher. “If she could come back at 90, much younger people figured they could come back as well.”
Joe Jones, a 70-year-old friend, agreed.
“She’s amazing. I’ve never seen anyone like her,” Jones said about Atkins, who’s been a member of the church since 1958. “People find it a blessing just to be near her.”
After dancing with Dunn and pumping a light pink and white umbrella in the air during a makeshift second-line parade brought inside because of rain, Atkins reminisced about her life and the city she’s always been proud to call home.
Wearing a light-pink suit, a rhinestone tiara and pink pearl earrings shaped like flowers, Atkins told those gathered around her how proud she was that she was one of the first black head custodians for the Orleans Parish School Board — a position she said she held until the 1970s.
“I got so lucky,” she said, adding that she got the job because her grandfather and grandmother both worked as janitors for the school system. “I have a lot of history.”
According to Atkins and her friends, she helped found an organization called the Happy 20’s Social Aid and Pleasure Club.
The McDonogh 35 graduate said she entered Xavier University in 1932, not long after it opened. That same year, she was queen of the Old Man Illinois Club, a social aid and pleasure club that’s since been renamed the Original Illinois Club.
Founded in 1895, the Original Illinois Club has long focused on the education of black girls and presented young women of color to society as debutante queens and court maids.
At the party, the debutante chairman for the Original Illinois Club talked about how excited he was to find Atkins.
“We’re always looking for the (past) queens, and they move around a lot. But she’s been right here in the community, and we didn’t even know it,” H. Kenneth Johnston said.
He added that having complete archives is important for the history of the club.
According to tradition, it got its name because many of the club’s members were Pullman porters on the Illinois Central Railroad, which at the time was a well-respected job for black men.
“New Orleans is only as significant as its history,” Johnston said. “If you don’t have any history, nobody is interested in doing anything for you.”
As for Atkins, she said she was just excited to have been alive another year.
“I never thought I’d live this long,” she said, laughing. “But this is one of the best years I’ve ever had.”