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UNO Students, Library Team up to tell Overlooked Histories of New Orleans' Women

When the New Orleans City Council began to change dozens of street names that honored Confederates and other white supremacists, UNO’s Midlo Center for New Orleans Studies saw the perfect opportunity for a public history project –– one that would tell the stories of the women whose names were nominated to replace them.

With more nominations than available streets, Midlo Center Director Mary Niall Mitchell said there was a wealth of stories her students were itching to tell. So, they partnered with the New Orleans Public Library and NOLA4Women and got to work.

Almost two years later, “From Robert E. Lee to Mama D” was unveiled to the public.

Among the women are Alice Dunbar-Nelson –– a New Orleans-born writer, suffragette, and important figure in the Harlem Renaissance; Doris Jean Castle –– a Freedom Rider, civil rights activist, and one of three plaintiffs to successfully desegregate City Hall’s cafeteria; Sylvanie Francoz –– an educator, community activist, and the founder of a local chapter of the Phillis Wheatley Club; and Stormé DeLarverie –– an early LGBTQIA+ activist and drag performer, who is often cited as throwing the first punch during the Stonewall Riots. The project’s name refers to Dyan French Cole, a beloved local activist who spent decades fighting for racial equality in New Orleans. In the 1970s, she made history by becoming the first women to head the city’s NAACP chapter. She died in 2017.

The stories are told through research guides, digital games, and TikToks, which were created using the Library’s resources, particularly those available through the City Archives & Special Collections.  

During the early stages of the street renaming process, the Archives team conducted research for the commission to determine whether or not the streets in question were named for individuals or events tied to white supremacy. Christina Bryant, the Archives director, said her team helped the Midlo Center students through their research. In turn, the students taught them new ways to connect with different audiences. 

“This was not only an opportunity to share our knowledge and resources, but to learn myself, as well,” Bryant said. ”I now have a better understanding of how to present our collection to teens and others in an engaging and accessible way.” 

While the Archives’ original project was created to assist the Street Renaming Committee, this one targets K-12 students and educators. The research kits, videos, and games are available for anyone to use at no cost, and Mitchell said she hopes they help to bring these important stories out of the dark and into our collective consciousness. 

“The city’s innovators in social justice, the arts, and public policy deserve to be familiar names and faces,” she said. “We are the inheritors of their bravery and brilliance.” 

As a public education project, partnering with the Library just made sense, according to Emily Hanish, a Midlo Center student in the public history program at UNO. 

“Teaching students how to research and complete research-based projects, as I remember it, always fell in the laps of my school librarians. Librarians taught me what a primary source was, how to use my first database, and how to complete my first citation,” Hanish said. “Research starter kits are designed to help teachers and librarians with this learning process by providing students with a few jumping off points to begin their own research and further their skills.” 

Hanish said most of the kits reference Library sources, which she hopes will encourage students and teachers to look towards these tools for future research needs. 

In addition to the research kits, the students created TikTok videos and online games as a way to reach alternative learners, according to Rev. Kalie Ann Dutra, one of the students who worked on the project. 

“Through TikToks, we can engage student learning through auditory and visual learning. Research starter kits engage visual and kinesthetic learning. And the virtual games engage all three aspects of learning,” Dutra said. “These games cater to this generation’s use of technology and learning within the classroom and are just honestly all around fun. Each game teaches not only about New Orleans women but also the different resources the New Orleans Public Library offers, including newspapers, microfilm, music, and books.” 

Andrew Good, another Midlo Center student, said it was important to be able to show younger learners how they utilized the Library, which he said set the base for their research. In one TikTok, Good takes viewers along with him as he digs into historical records to learn about Margaret Elizabeth, one of the women in slavery he researched. 

“The Library provided access to 19th century historical newspapers within the archival collection, which allowed us to illustrate historical methodology of finding enslaved women such as Margaret Elizabeth,” he said. 

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UNO History students Rev. Kalie Ann Dutra, M.Div., Andrew Good, and Emily Hanish worked on the Midlo Center's "From Robert E. Lee to Mama D" project.
UNO History students Rev. Kalie Ann Dutra, M.Div., Andrew Good, and Emily Hanish worked on the Midlo Center's "From Robert E. Lee to Mama D" project.

Good also said their ongoing partnership with the Library will improve citizens’ understanding of the city’s history across the board. 

Our continued partnership with the New Orleans Public Library allows UNO students to highlight New Orleans figures who aren’t often represented,” he said. “Talking about these histories is important; but, through the Library, they are now in the public view.” 

With a new crop of public history students working in the Midlo Center this semester, Mitchell said their partnership with the Library will only grow with time. Currently, students like Ariel Roy and PhD candidate Emily Ratner are working on creating a digital driving tour to promote local heroes and figures. 

“Street names tell us in the most literal sense exactly where we are,” she said. “By engaging participants in a site-specific tour of the people we’ve named our streets after in the past, and who we’ve collectively chosen to name them for now, we invite our community to think about where we’ve been, where we’re going, and who that makes us now.”

The tour will take viewers from UNO through Lakeview and City Park, ending at Xavier University, according to Mitchell, and is being produced with help from Bryant and her team. Mitchell said the Library’s participation in this project is vital for its success and said she’s thrilled to work with an organization that is so dedicated to public education, history, and access to resources. 

“The Midlo Center’s on-going collaboration with the Archives at [the Library] promotes a shared mission: widening public access to historical sources, especially the overlooked or underappreciated histories of New Orleans,” Mitchell said. “The general public, as well as young people and their teachers, are the biggest winners here, and that is due to our partnership with the Library.” 

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