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After Hurricanes and Pandemic, a New Orleans Museum Fights to Hold On

The collection might have been Mr. Francis’ dream, but many people felt a sense of ownership, said Jonn Hankins, a longtime local arts curator. “They know that collection in a way that a family knows their sons and their daughters,” he said.

When Mr. Francis died, Ms. Francis-Dilling heeded his instructions. First, she arranged a massive jazz funeral in his honor. Then, she stepped in at the museum, giving tours filled with the narratives she had heard growing up. “He could put his hand on every single thing in here and tell a story,” she said. “He lived it. I learned it.”

Now, with the museum displaced, she feels the urgency of reopening swiftly to preserve her father’s legacy.

Remaining in the Tremé is crucial, she said, both to maintain foot traffic from tourists and to fulfill her father’s dream of maintaining the deep culture of the neighborhood.

Other community members have leapt into action, too.

Jeremy Stevenson, a big chief of the Monogram Hunters tribe who lives two doors down from Backstreet’s old building, began working side-by-side with Ms. Francis-Dilling, much as other chiefs had done for her father, to computerize handwritten stacks of Mr. Francis’ spiral-bound notebooks cataloging the collection.

A few blocks away from the Backstreet’s darkened building, Gia Hamilton, a New Orleans native and executive director of the neighboring New Orleans African American Museum, heard the news and began exploring options. While a few larger cultural entities have offered to buy part of the collection from Ms. Francis-Dilling, Ms. Hamilton rejects what she calls a “colonizing” tradition of museum collection, preferring to keep an independent vision of “whose collection it is and where it comes from.”

Not long before Christmas, Ms. Hamilton offered the Backstreet a yearlong lease on a back house on the African American Museum’s campus. While Ms. Francis-Dilling is still trying to raise funds to make the deal possible, she is hoping to reopen in the new space early next year.

“I just want to make my father proud,” she said quietly. “That’s all we talked about, is keeping the museum going.”

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