Gerdes
Gerdes

Caroline Gerdes moved to Capitol Hill two years ago, but the Louisiana native has a special place in her heart for The Big Easy — and it’s all on the record.

Gerdes will read selections from her book “An Oral History of The New Orleans Ninth Ward” and answer questions about her hometown 7 p.m. Wednesday, Aug. 30, at Elliott Bay Book Company, in conjunction with the 12th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina.

When she was 22, the author received a Young Explorers grant from National Geographic to conduct an oral history project on the Ninth Ward in New Orleans. It took her a year of planning and around 50 interviews in 2012 to complete the project, and those recordings are now archived at Louisiana State University.

“When I recorded those interviews in the Ninth Ward, I was looking at the full history of this ward, not just Katrina,” she said.

Gerdes was living in Mandeville, Louisiana, across Lake Pontchartrain to the north of New Orleans, during Hurricane Katrina in late August 2005.

“It was a really formative experience for me,” she said. “I was 15 and in high school. By witnessing what can happen in a community, by witnessing what you thought would be around forever, it really influenced my desire to do oral histories.”

Gerdes said she put out a call for volunteers to talk about their history in the Ninth Ward, and spent hours interviewing people.

“It’s a different kind of experience when you’re sitting down and listening to someone’s life story that maybe started in the ‘50s and ‘60s,” she said.

Gerdes also rented out a church in New Orleans for a day, where she interviewed people on a first-come, first-served basis, and would rent out a library room at times when people didn’t want to meet at their homes or had since moved out of the area.

Her paternal grandparents and father grew up in the Ninth Ward. Her family at one time had owned a speakeasy, and her great-grandfather was a bookie.

“My grandmother was my first interview, on Mother’s day 2012,” Gerdes said. “She actually passed away while I was writing the book, and the book is actually dedicated to her.”

Gerdes’ childhood home didn’t get hit by Hurricane Katrina. She had evacuated days prior, as did her grandmother.

“Her home did have flooding to the roof,” she said, “and she lost all of our family photos, her clothes; she only had a suitcase for a few days.”

Hurricane Katrina had an incredible impact on people living in the Ninth Ward, but Gerdes didn’t want her oral history project or later book to only focus on that period in time. Being local and having family from the Ninth Ward also helped when getting people to speak with her, she said.

“Actually, a lot of people were kind of sick and tired of talking about Katrina,” Gerdes said, “and I say that because people had come in from national news outlets after the storm and there was a lot of sensationalism, and people were kind of sick of talking about being victims.”

Something she did expect people would want to talk about was desegregation, but she was surprised how often it came up even when she’d gone into an interview to discuss something else, she said.

Ruby Bridges is known as the first black child to desegregate the William Frantz Elementary School during the New Orleans school desegregation crisis in 1960.

Gerdes said there were three African-American girls — the McDonogh Three — who lived in the Ninth Ward and were credited with desegregating the McDonogh No. 19 school. Gerdes spoke to one of them, Leona Tate, for her oral history project.

“I really kind of handed the mic to her about desegregation in my book,” Gerdes said.

She also spoke to man who was a teacher during desegregation, and he saw racism among his white students.

“He was pro-integration, and the way that he wasn’t able to come out and say, ‘You’re wrong,’ and the way he tried to teach his students to be on the right side of history, that was an interesting interview as well,” she said.

Gerdes said no one she spoke to talked about being opposed to desegregation, but she thinks attitudes might be different if she were conducting them now in 2017. The current national climate is focused on removing Confederate memorials and monuments, and those conversations weren’t happening five years ago, she said.

“It probably would have been a very different book,” Gerdes said. “I feel like the people I was speaking to in 2012 were like, ‘Oh, this chapter is behind us’ — even black and white people.”

A number of older Ninth Ward residents delighted in sharing tall tales and folklore from New Orleans.

“It kind of sheds light on the culture, so the back section of my book is just unverifiable stories,” Gerdes said. “I feel like a lot of people, in the nature of volunteering for this, were kind of storytellers.”

There were even traditions she hadn’t heard about while growing up in the area, such as how the plastic baby in Mardi Gras King Cakes used to just be a pecan. Whoever ended up with the pecan piece, their family would have to provide the King Cake next year.

“If they thought their parents couldn’t afford the first one,” she said, “they would sort of just eat it.”

When Gerdes decided to write her book, National Geographic had the first right of refusal. A book wasn’t something the publication company was interested in, she said, but she received a lot of support. The editor helped her with how to write a proposal to pitch to publishers, and “An Oral History of The New Orleans Ninth Ward” was printed by Pelican Publishing Co. in April.

Among the places Gerdes has spoken about her book are Columbia University and National Geographic Headquarters in Washington, D.C.

People who come to hear about her book, she said, have typically been to New Orleans and share a fondness for the city.

“They generally have an interest and love for New Orleans,” Gerdes said, “so I feel like a lot of questions I get are from people who want to know more about the culture.”

Elliott Bay Book Company is at 1521 10th Ave.