The struggle to keep Black-owned bars alive | Food and drink | Gambit Weekly

For Carol Cushenberry, who along with her husband Freddie owns First & Last Stop Bar, the bar business is something that’s run in her family for generations.

Growing up in the Treme, her mother ran Mooney’s Bar at the corner of Ursulines Avenue and Marais Street. And she counts bar owners in her grandparents’ and great-grandparents’ generations as well.

Cushenberry assumed ownership of the bar a year and a half before Hurricane Katrina when she inherited the building from its previous owner, Albert Rice Sr. She worked as an employee at the bar, and when the owner passed away, his family offered her the opportunity to buy it.

“I was a barmaid on Tuesday, and that following Wednesday became the owner,” Cushenberry says. 

Now, Cushenberry and her daughter, Trinette, say they are on a mission to bring the community together and give everyone a place that feels comfortable. 

Long a staple of life in New Orleans, Black-owned bars like First & Last Stop have begun to disappear over the past two decades, leaving people concerned about the impact their absence will have on the communities that have grown to depend on them.

Writer, photographer and bar patron L. Kasimu Harris says the disappearance of jobs in the city has led to the demise of many local Black-owned bars. Because of automation, people who worked on the river and postal workers lost their jobs and no longer came to the area, he says.

Then, 7,000 teachers and support staff were fired or laid off after Hurricane Katrina, impacting the bars they used to frequent.  

“Most people just retire or sell the business because these businesses are in prime real estate. The neighborhoods they are in are rapidly gentrifying,” Harris says.

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First & Last Stop Bar in the 7th Ward

For generations, Black-owned bars in the city have been places for cultural phenomena, where Black New Orleanians meet to share experiences, music and memories. Bar patrons say they view Black bar owners as an extended part of their family. Black-owned bars provide the Black community with a space rooted in celebrating Black culture, history and perseverance. 

Bar patron Larry Draper says he comes back from Texas to visit First & Last Stop bar.

“I come back every couple of months to check in on my city. This is always one of the spots I touch base with when I come home,” Draper says.

Bar patron TQ says she found First & Last Stop while looking for a place to go to with longer hours.

“Ms. Carol is wonderful and always makes me feel at home. I don’t live in the area but I make an effort to come here. It just feels like one big happy family when we celebrate birthdays or Saints games,” she says.

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Ms. Carol and her daughter Trinette

When these spaces disappear, this not only deprives the Black community of a space to call home, but it also changes the cultural fabric of the city and puts Black history at risk of being forgotten.

Black-owned bars are often family businesses, like Sportsman’s Corner in Central City, which for three generations has been run by the Elloie family — most recently Steven Elloie. 

A second-generation family member, Ceasar Elloie, says his father Louis Elloie Sr. was inspired to open the bar in the late 1960s to provide a space for the people in the community to gather and swap stories.

“Our location is unique. You have a mix of cultures where both Blacks and whites want to experience the Mardi Gras Indians and events that happen here,” Ceasar Elloie says.

Sportsman’s began with customers who lived in the immediate community, he says, including bus drivers, longshoremen and school teachers who liked to hang out there after work. 

More recently, COVID-19 has taken a toll on many Black-owned bars around the city both financially — and personally. The pandemic hit the city’s Black community particularly hard, and that’s been especially true for the Elloie family.

Ceasar Elloie’s sister, Theresa Elloie, died from COVID-19 after running the bar following their father’s death during Katrina.

“It was really strange,” Ceasar Elloie says. “It reminds me of Katrina when no one in the neighborhood except the old timers. I would come over here during the daytime just to look, and they would come running over here. It was like they missed this place. It’s kinda like a home to a lot of people in this community.”

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One of First & Last Stop’s regulars enjoying a set up.

Owner Joshua Rounds says he opened The Blue Flamingo Sports Bar with his mother, Glenda Rounds, back in September 2019 to help combat the lack of access to quality fresh food in New Orleans East.

“We saw the opportunity to be one of the newer businesses in the area that emerged to bring a different feel to the East,” he says.

With the pandemic hitting just six months later, it’s been a difficult journey.

“It’s just been us bootstrapping it through these tough times and making sure that we stay open,” Rounds says. “A lot of businesses attempt to open in the East but it’s tough financially being able to consistently support a business as well as have the financial means to hire employees.”

Rounds says The Blue Flamingo partnered with World Central Kitchen to provide about 10,000 meals during the pandemic. He says the partnership allowed them to keep their employees. 

Rollin “Bullet” Garcia Sr., owner of Bullet’s Sports Bar, one of the city’s oldest Black bars, says now bars are trying to regain their footing following the Covid surges and Hurricane Ida.

“Now is the gauging time. Right now, we’re trying to get back on track,” Garcia says. “We attract people from all over Louisiana and we feel the impact of what Ida has done to all of those parishes.”

Rounds says he hopes bars across New Orleans, including the East, will benefit from a tourism boost if the pandemic allows for Carnival 2022.

“Us being in the East, we are not a typical tourist draw. But they do have a few hotels and we get traffic from those hotels,” Rounds says. “So we are looking forward to things getting back to normal.”

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Owner Rollin ‘Bullet’ Garcia, left, enters Bullet’s Sports Bar.

Black bar owners understand the role their businesses have traditionally played in the community, which has motivated many of them to hang on even during the pandemic and hurricanes.

Garcia, for instance, says he is passionate about the 7th Ward neighborhood where Bullets is located and where he and his family live.

“I’m a community player. I live in the neighborhood that my business is in, and my two sons live like a block away,” Garcia says. “When I walk around this neighborhood, I see the needs of old people. I’m not rich but I always say, ‘Do you need anything?’”

Black-owned bars are also where many of New Orleans’ most legendary musicians got their start.

Harris grew up listening to music in Black-owned bars. His sister was a vocalist and his family would often go to The Winter Circle bar growing up, which is now called Seal’s Class Act bar.

He says he attended his first Black-owned bar when he was 16 when he went alone to Little People’s Place in Treme to see Wynton Marsalis play live.

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Kermit Ruffins performs at Bullet’s Sports Bar.

“In New Orleans as a young musician, you could go into a bar or jazz club because you could play, and it was a very important experience.” Harris says. “Kermit Ruffins grew up in bars as well because his mother was a barmaid.”

According to Garcia, Fats Domino and Ray Charles played in the building where Bullet’s sits in now. He says Ray Charles’ daughter, ​​Robyn LaJoya Moffett, came to play in the bar to continue her father’s legacy. 

“Music was really a deep part of the cultural fabric of the city. For me as a young person, it allowed me to explore the city in a safe environment and get a chance to play with some of your musical heroes,” Harris says.

Harris says Black-owned neighborhood bars are not only epicenters of music, but they’ve also historically held a civic purpose as well. He remembers the bars being a place where people would go if they had an issue with the police or wanted to organize for a cause.

“It was a place where movers and shakers went,” Harris says.

For those reasons, these bars brought neighborhoods together. Harris says he is on a mission to photograph the culture and traditions of these Black owned bars before they disappear.

“I just look at this as an ethnography project to uncover and preserve all the stories that have come out of these bars. Even though I am three years into this project, sometimes I feel like I am just beginning,” Harris says. 

Harris says he hopes to capture the community aspect that lies in many of the Black owned bars across the city.

“I gotta carry the torch for my city — especially my community,” Garcia says. “We put our best foot forward for New Orleans to look great in the eyes of whoever comes in here.”

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For decades, First & Last Stop Bar in the 7th Ward has been a home away from home for Black residents of the neighborhood.

Ceasar Elloie says their unique location allows them to have access to the culture of Social Aid and Pleasure Clubs and Mardi Gras Indians. 

“This is like the home of The Wild Magnolia Indians. Second and Dryades is like a headquarters for culture in the Uptown area. Everything starts and ends here as it relates to parades, second lines, and social gatherings,” Elloie says. 

Harris says the connection between Black-owned bars and the community goes even deeper than the culture of Mardi Gras. 

“Sportsman’s Corner bar has obituaries on their front door from 2012 of people who had frequented that place and became a part of their extended family,” Harris says.

Rounds says he and his mother wanted to create a center of gravity for the East and a place where people can feel safe and meet their neighbors. He says Covid brought The Blue Flamingo to its knees but that the people in their community consistently supported them.

“New Orleans East has the population to support businesses. We need more business owners who live out in the East to make that investment. If we want to see different things, it’s up to the people in the neighborhood to develop the neighborhood and support the businesses in the community,” Rounds says. 

Harris says it’s important for any community, especially the Black community, to have a place they can go. He says historically, Black people were intentionally separated and didn’t always have a place to go back to. 

“In a time when your freedoms are restricted like Jim Crow and segregation, you needed that place to go where you are welcomed and you know you will be treated with dignity,” Harris says. 

Harris says these spaces should be celebrated because they hold the history of the city. 

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Economy Hall, shown in 1939, was a hub of social activity and mutual aid for the Creole community.

These gathering spots, like Economy Hall, date back to the 1800s as a place of refuge. Harris says they had late night dances and birthed the jazz funeral.

“These places are important for the community as well as Black culture that is truly New Orleans culture,” Harris says. “When we lose these clubs and bars, where does our culture go?”

Harris says it felt almost violent watching the culture and the city rapidly change. That’s why he’s trying to document the spaces that are left. 

These bars are a hub for the community, which is what led Harris on a mission to document their disappearance. Harris says prior to his work there was little to no documentation on bars that contributed to the fabric of what makes New Orleans what it is. 

Harris was inspired to start the project after seeing the accelerated change of bars in the 7th Ward. In his project, Harris says six bars on St. Bernard Avenue had been in a predominantly Black neighborhood for generations. Now, half of the bars in that area are white-owned. Harris believes New Orleans can’t afford to wait to embark on this documentation because the city is changing so fast.

“There’s a lot of genius that comes out of things that seem regular and ordinary, particularly within the Black community,” he says. “These Black-owned bars are an example of that.”

Two steps forward, one step back.


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