Library Exhibit Celebrates New Orleans' Black Ironworkers
An exhibit at East New Orleans Regional Library sheds light on the often untold story of the free and enslaved Black blacksmiths who built much of the French Quarter’s iconic iron work and how one group of artisans is fighting to keep the tradition alive today.
Artistry in Iron was built in partnership with Hermann-Grima + Gallier Historic Houses and the New Orleans Public Library’s City Archives & Special Collections, with funding from the Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities’ Rebirth Grant. Tessa Jagger is the executive director of HGGHH and said the exhibit aims to “change how we talk about architecture.”
“Too often, the only person we talk about is the architect. And that’s obviously very important, but there’s so much more that goes into taking it from paper to building it,” Jagger said.
The team had significant help from a consultant, Jonn Hankins, who is the founder and director of the New Orleans Master Crafts Guild. Jagger said he was integral in providing a link from the past to the present, as well as expanding on the cultural influence of Black artisans.
“So much of what people know and love about the architecture of New Orleans is informed by the work done by Black people,” Hankins said.
While the French Quarter’s iconic wrought iron is perhaps the most striking example, Hankins pointed to other architectural trademarks –– like the intricate plasterwork that adorns many New Orleans buildings.
“Just like with ironwork, plasterwork is another trade that has historically been done by people of color. And that is still true today,” Hankins said. “What’s more, these two trades in particular, have historically been done by the same few families for generations.”
Another goal of the exhibit is to connect the past to the work that is still being done today, and why it is important to pass the knowledge down to future generations.
“Regardless of the quality of the craftsmanship, a 300-year old structure is going to need some repairs now and again. So, if you don’t have experts who know how to truly restore them, they aren’t going to last,” Hankins said. “That’s something else we really wanted to get across in this exhibit.”
Which is why the exhibit highlights the Master Crafts Guild, and specifically Darryl Reeves, a blacksmith and third-generation metal worker.
“I like to call him a forensic blacksmith because when he gets a job, the first thing he does is investigate,” Hankins said. “He examines it –– how the piece was put together, what it’s made out of, and who did it, so that when he gets to work, he can use those same techniques and materials to make it look seamless. Quite frankly, when the job is finished, you wouldn’t even know he had been there at all. It looks like it did 175 years ago.”
One of Reeves’ recent jobs was to restore the fence around Jackson Square ahead of New Orleans’ tricentennial. He also created an identical fence for the Cabildo, using the same historic methods.
Without master blacksmiths like Reeves and plasterers like guild board member Jeffrey Poree, Hankins fears what will happen to New Orleans’ beloved architecture.
“This is a very serious thing right now because while there used to be hundreds of blacksmiths who knew how to work on these things, now we’re down to less than a handful. I mean, I can count them on one hand,” he said.
Though the guild’s apprenticeship programs are molding a few new historic blacksmiths and plasterers, Hankins said major investments need to be made in order get enough young people interested in picking up the torch. Hankins said this is a shame as the need extends far beyond the French Quarter.
“New Orleans is unique because there really is such a high demand for this type of work,” he said. “In a city with as much history as ours, even modest homes and buildings require the same type of expertise as the mansions and historic landmarks. For generations, these trades were the heart and soul of Black communities. And that’s something that’s been taken from us.”
Hankins hopes having the Artistry in Iron exhibit at East New Orleans Regional Library will show young people that this is a viable and important career.
“These are skilled, good-paying jobs. New Orleans used to have one of the best public school vocational trade programs in the country, but most of them have been shut down over the last few decades” he said. “So kids aren’t being exposed to these trades in the same way, which I think has had an impact on this industry’s decline.”
Before going to New Orleans East in mid-January, Artistry in Iron was on view inside the 7th Ward’s Nora Navra Library, which Hankins said was also significant.
“The 7th Ward is where most Black craftsmen lived, historically, and where many still live and work today,” he said. “So having this exhibit at the Library there, that was very special.” Hankins said. “Out here in the East, there are lots of people whose ancestors helped build New Orleans but don’t typically get credit. It’s wonderful to be able to bring this exhibit to them. If you want to impact people in the community, you have to go where they are.”
Neighborhood libraries in particular, Hankins said, are the perfect place to install an exhibit like this one.
“We have to take these discussions out of the realm of history. We are making history now. This exhibit does a great job exposing people to some positive things about Black history that are in operation right now and can be contributed to,” he said. “I think libraries are the most natural place to make those connections.”
Artistry in Iron will be on view at East New Orleans Regional Library, 5641 Read Blvd., through February 28.
Visit Hermann-Grima House + Gallier Historic House with the Library’s Culture Pass Program. Passes are only available to New Orleans Public Library cardholders who live in Orleans Parish and are at least 18 years old. Each pass can be used for up to two adults and between two to seven children, depending on location. Reservations must be made in advance at culturepass.nolalibrary.org.
Additional partners include Audubon Nature Institute, National WWII Museum, New Canal Lighthouse Museum, New Orleans Museum of Art, and Ogden Museum of Southern Art.