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Unusual times, remarkable places

The "Standard of Ur" from ancient Mesopotamia

The "Standard of Ur" from ancient Mesopotamia

18 December 2007

Lions roar, pictures speak

Julie at Virtual Journey honored me with a nomination for A Roar for Powerful Words award. Thank you, Julie. The award comes with an obligation to blog about what the recipient thinks are the three things necessary for writing to be effective and powerful. I want to think on that a little longer and will post my answers later in the week.

In the meantime, Julie also started a meme she calls the Gallery Meme and invited readers to participate. I was intrigued and will post on that today.

Here are her rules: Choose an image(s) of any kind (photo, art, or graphics—your own or attributed), then write a description, poem, or 'scene' about them as you please, and say why they are meaningful to you.


It was April of 2006, and my in-laws were visiting. We drove down to the Quarter to see the Gay Easter Parade and found the parking spaces in the Quarter and Faubourg Marigny already snatched up by parade goers. So we parked in Tremé, a neighborhood I was not very familiar with. I got out of the car and crossed the street, and this is what I saw:

How could I not take pictures of a sculpture of such power and pain? It wrenched my heart and I did not even know what it was.

Later I learned its story.

The wall behind belongs to historic St. Augustine church, a Catholic church built for free people of color and dedicated in 1842. The church served a wider congregation than its original intention, though, and had the most integrated congregation in the United States. In the center of the church, free people of color had a block of pews, and whites and other non-blacks had a separate block of pews. Charitable people of color purchased the pews in the outer aisles so that slaves would have a place to sit in church—a first in the United States. Through its history, members of the church, such as Henriette Delille and Homer Plessy, have worked to help the poor, the sick, the elderly, and the oppressed.

The sculpture itself was erected in 2004 and is called The Tomb of the Unknown Slave. It honors all slaves who died in the United States and particularly the black and American Indian slaves who were buried in Tremé in unmarked and now-forgotten graves.

The shrine contains a 1500-pound cross made from a marine chain. Hanging from the cross are shackles such as slaves were forced to wear. Surrounding this central cross are small metal and wood crosses.

Normally stark, the shrine is softened in this picture by Easter lilies.

To me, this picture contains the history of New Orleans in microcosm—racism and racial tolerance, brutality and compassion, beauty and violence, badly treated slaves and a well-to-do class of free people of color, despair and hope, all coexisting in an improbable mix that birthed the modern city that embraces its history while not hiding from the parts that were dishonorable and cruel.

To learn more about St. Augustine church and its shrine, visit

Anyone else want to take up the challenge of this meme?


virtual nexus said...

Shauna, this is deeply moving.

It means a lot to me because I was brought up in Hull which is the home town of William Wilberforce, and from an early age I had a consciousness of his part in the liberation of slaves, and the unimaginable conditions on the slave ships. Thank you so much for posting this.

Shauna Roberts said...

JULIE, we share a Wilberforce connection then. I grew up near Wilberforce, Ohio, a town named after William Wilberforce and home of Wilberforce University, the oldest private black university in the country (founded 1856).

Carleen Brice said...

Wow. New Orleans is about the last city in this country that I've never been to, but always wanted to see. Gotta get there! Thank you for sharing this picture, and the story behind it.

Shauna Roberts said...

You're welcome, CARLEEN. New Orleans is a wonderful place to visit, even after all the devastation. Various people have claimed that it's the most European city in America, the most African city in America, or the most Caribbean city in America. All are probably true.

Charles Gramlich said...

Incredibly powerful photo. I will definetely try to take part in this meme, as well as doing the "lions that roar" thing over this week's posts.

virtual nexus said...

Shauna -

How strange. I'll check that out the Wilberforce connection sometime - would make a fascinating post in its own right.

I've put a link to Wilberforce House in my sidebar under Museums.

I've just rationalized my blog names to reflect content - main blog is now VIRTUAL JOURNEY - (minor glych on your link above)
hopefully blog sort-out will settle
down now!

Lisa said...

I am looking forward to your thoughts on powerful writing -- and, this photo and the story behind it are fascinating. There is something incredibly rich about New Orleans past and present that I've never been able to put my finger on. There is no other place like it on earth. I really like Julie's challenge too.

Shauna Roberts said...

Have you become a mind reader, CHARLES? In the post I wrote for today but did not put up yet, I nominated you for the Lions That Roar award. There's a cool lion picture that goes along with it that you can put on your blog entry.

JULIE, I caught the name change last night. I'll correct this post today.

LISA, I'm posting my Lion entry today . . . eager to get your feedback on whether you agree with my points.

I know you're not much into genre books, but there are two series of books about historic New Orleans that are very well researched and fun to read.

One is the Benjamin January mystery series by Barbara Hambly, which is about a free man of color who solves mysteries in early 19th century New Orleans. The first book of the series is called A Free Man of Color. You can really feel how scary it was to live in that half-world where you're free, but sometimes you have to pull out your papers to prove it, and sometimes the papers don't make a difference and you are mistreated or beaten up anyway. . . not to mention the murderer is trying to get you before you get him.

The other series is the Master of Arms romance series by Jennifer Blake. Each is a romance novel in which the hero is one of the men who made their living in the early 1800s in New Orleans by teaching swordsmanship and fighting duels. Again, heavily researched and historically accurate. The first book in the series is Challenge to Honor. I'll have an interview with Jennifer on my blog in mid or late January.