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Roosevelt Hargett, 86, surveys the remains of his restaurant, Roosevelt's Black Pearl, on North Claiborne Avenue in New Orleans, on Wednesday, May 15, 2019. He stands where his kitchen was located before fire destroyed the building.

Roosevelt’s Black Pearl was known for its cornbread and collard greens, smothered chicken and chitlins. It was also known for Roosevelt Hargett, the 86-year-old proprietor and cook.

For decades he ran a restaurant on North Claiborne Avenue that was off the radar for most New Orleanians, but as reliable as clockwork for its regulars.

In its later years, the neighborhood joint was a bootleg venture, operating without a license though in plain sight on one of the city's major streets. Despite his age, Hargett trucked on, serving heaping plates of soul food day after day.

On May 8, a devastating fire tore through the corner eatery. Since then, Hargett has had a different daily routine.

Each day, he drives his pickup from his home in the 7th Ward to Treme, parks under the overpass and stares over the dashboard at the remains of Roosevelt’s Black Pearl, now a demolished heap of charred wood and twisted steel waiting to be hauled off.

Sometimes he ventures across Claiborne, jutting his walking cane out in front of him as traffic hurtles past. He stands on the corner of St. Philip Street and just keeps looking over the debris.

“A lot of good memories in there,” Hargett said. “I know I’ve had a good run, a good life. I’m satisfied with what I’ve done. But I just want to get back to work. I cook for the people; that's all I've ever done.”

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Roosevelt Hargett, 86, surveys the remains of his restaurant, Roosevelt's Black Pearl, on North Claiborne Avenue in New Orleans, on Wednesday, May 15, 2019. He stands where his kitchen was located before fire destroyed the building.

Daphne Hargett, one of his three daughters, watched with concern one recent morning as her father inspected the wreckage.

“I think he’s in shock,” she said. “He just keeps coming back here. I’m worried. This is all he knew.”

Roosevelt's family is rallying around him. Daphne and her sister, Toni Fabor, have organized an online fundraiser through GoFundMe.com. They hope to raise enough money to build a new restaurant.

“My goal is to get him back cooking,” said Daphne Hargett. “We want to rebuild something here. It may not be what it was in the past, but it’ll be something. It will be a new beginning for him.”

That goal may be daunting. Roosevelt Hargett owns the property, but he had no insurance to cover the building's loss.

His restaurant operated for years without a license from the city, continuing even as citations over the condition of the structure piled up.

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Daphne Hargett, the daughter of Roosevelt Hargett, 86, stands in the shade of the overpass on North Claiborne Avenue on Wednesday, May 15, 2019 in New Orleans as she and her family watch the demolition of her father's restaurant, Roosevelt's Black Pearl, after a fire.

The Hargett family says they don’t know how the fire began. Roosevelt Hargett said he had closed the restaurant that day to go to City Hall and try to work through his licensing issues. The New Orleans Fire Department was able to contain the blaze before it spread to an adjacent home separated by just a narrow alley. The department has not yet released a report on the fire's cause. 

In the days since, regular customers of Roosevelt's Black Pearl have been stopping by, visiting with Hargett as he keeps his daily vigil under the overpass. They describe a restaurant that operated off the grid but was central to neighborhood life.

“I’ve been coming here since I was a kid,” said Simon Washington, 48, who grew up in Treme. “You go to get fed, and you go to see people.”

The restaurant had no sign, and its windows were covered. Walk in the corner door, and a narrow room with a few tables led to the steam table where Hargett served a menu that changed with the day of the week. Its last day was a Tuesday, which meant beef stew, baked chicken, white beans, turkey necks and cornbread.

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A charred dining room chair from Roosevelt's Black Pearl lies upside down in a pile of debris waiting to be hauled away on Wednesday, May 15, 2019 in New Orleans.

Other days could bring stewed okra, stuffed peppers, hamburger steaks, barbecue ribs, stuffed crabs and gumbo. Prices were inexpensive — $3 or $4 for a small plate, $9 or $10 for a carton that could feed two.

Washington said Hargett was also known to sell plates to the needy for whatever combination of coins they could get together. He often simply gave away food to those with nothing. 

“There’s no one like him left,” said Washington. “Everyone else is gone. He’s the last man standing.”

From white Pearl to Black Pearl

Hargett was born in 1933 in Waveland, Mississippi. His mother raised eight children and his father hauled pulpwood lumber for a living. Hargett dropped out of school and left home when he was 16.

“Ran away,” he said.

He made it to New Orleans and got a job washing pots and pans at Martin Brothers, a long-ago, 24/7 restaurant on Chef Menteur Highway near Downman Road (unrelated to the also-closed Martin Brothers restaurant on St. Claude Avenue, known for its po-boys).

He worked under the night chef, Maude White, who took him under her wing and taught him to cook.

“She told me, ‘When I leave here I want you to take this job,’ and that’s what I did,” said Hargett, recalling how the promotion meant a weekly paycheck of $45.

He later went downtown to cook at the Pearl, a now-closed restaurant in the 100 block of St. Charles Avenue known for the elaborate neon sign that still hangs over its door. His pay jumped to $50 a week.

Eventually he saved enough to open his own restaurant and took over an old barbecue joint at 1001 N. Claiborne Ave. He already had a name picked out.

“I was at the Pearl before, and that was a white restaurant,” said Hargett, who is African-American. “That was the white Pearl, so this would be the Black Pearl. All my customers were black.”

That was in the late 1960s, maybe 1969, Hargett reckons. This stretch of North Claiborne Avenue through Treme had long been a prime corridor for black-owned businesses, though the elevated interstate highway built directly over it would radically change the street. 

Roosevelt’s Black Pearl grew into a neighborhood standby, albeit one that stayed low-key. In all the guides and surveys and rankings of New Orleans restaurants, it remained unmentioned, a spot just for those in the know.

One September night in 2004, though, it made the news in a gruesome way. A late-night robbery attempt ended with the murder of four employees. They included Glenda Lockett, who had worked for Hargett practically since he started the Black Pearl. Three men who were known as regulars at the restaurant eventually pleaded guilty to roles in the killings.

Still, Hargett said, his customers stuck by him through the calamity. “The people never stopped coming,” he said.

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Herman Stanley, right, a patron of Roosevelt's Black Pearl, reaches out to console Roosevelt Hargett, 86, as he looks over the site where his restaurant once stood on North Claiborne Avenue. It was destroyed by fire May 8, 2019.

Over the years, regulars brought their kids, who would grow up and bring their own. Others stumbled on the ramshackle joint by accident and felt at home.

“For me it was after a funeral across the street,” said Herman Stanley, referring to the Charbonnet funeral home directly across Claiborne. “I walked in and saw all the food he had out.”

Ever since, whenever Stanley traveled across the river from his home in Harvey to visit the Veterans Affairs hospital, a lunch at Roosevelt’s Black Pearl was part of the trip.

“He just feeds you," Stanley said. "You can’t get food like that everywhere anymore.” 

'Reverence and adoration' 

“You know you've got to be something really special when gruff old Black men from the hood speak your name with reverence and adoration," wrote Deborah Cotton, the late chronicler of New Orleans street traditions, when describing Roosevelt’s Black Pearl in a 2008 story for The Times-Picayune.

Her assessment of the premises was frank ("a hovel would not be an overstatement"), but she was impressed by the spell Hargett’s food seemed to cast on his clientele.

“There was a line of men stretching out of the door, all of them dirty from working on houses, laying cable and whatnot,” Cotton wrote. “And their demeanor — like kids in a candy store, peering into the windows with wide eyes..."

By that point, however, things at Roosevelt’s Black Pearl had begun to change. After Hurricane Katrina, Hargett said, the rhythm of the neighborhood restaurant was never quite the same.

“The storm washed a lot away here,” he said. “We didn’t have the business we had before. I don’t know what happened to the people. They just weren’t here anymore.”

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Roosevelt Hargett, 86, stands beneath the overpass on North Claiborne Avenue on Wednesday, May 15, 2019 in New Orleans as he watches the demolition of his restaurant, Roosevelt's Black Pearl, following a recent fire.

He rebuilt the flood-damaged restaurant himself and reopened, but acknowledges his permits and licenses were not always in order.

David Beriss, a professor of anthropology at the University of the New Orleans who studies food culture, said restaurants like Roosevelt’s Black Pearl can play a role in their community beyond supplying meals.

“People count on these places. They expect it to be there, and when it’s not, it’s like a death in the family,” Beriss said.

He tied the restaurant's unlicensed status to other types of “informal food businesses” around the city. There are the “huckabuck ladies” selling frozen treats from their porches, the Latino women who hawk their home cooking at construction sites at lunchtime, or the fleet of ad hoc vendors that spring up around second-line parades.

“It’s a way of making urban spaces into places where people want to live and recognize as their own. It contributes to the texture of the real life of the city,” Beriss said. “This has been here all along, but doesn’t get much recognition. It's part of the story too.”

If they can build back, Daphne Hargett said, the family will be more involved in their father's business. She said they would make sure its permits are in order. After the fire, she said, their father has to cede some control in a way he wouldn’t allow before.

“He was the quarterback, the wide receiver and the running back," she said. "He was the whole team, and you couldn’t tell him anything about it.” 

There’s no question, however, that his role will remain central in whatever comes next.

“He’s here to cook,” Daphne Hargett said. “It has to be him. We could never cook behind him. It just wouldn’t come out right.”


Follow Ian McNulty on Twitter, @IanMcNultyNOLA.