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Ronald Lewis, Preserver Of New Orleans' Black Culture, Dies At 68


Ronald Lewis has died. People in New Orleans knew his name - and so did listeners to this program because we first met Ronald Lewis amid the wreckage of Hurricane Katrina. In 2005, we stood listening as he took a phone call while standing in New Orleans' Lower 9th Ward.


RONALD LEWIS: Hello. Yeah. I'm right here at Deslonde and Johnson Street by...

INSKEEP: Just behind Lewis was a wall of rock where engineers repaired a breach in the levee. Just in front of him was a concrete porch, the only thing left of the house where he was born.

LEWIS: Our family house, all those the new houses they built on Deslonde - they're gone - you know, like, gone-gone, not no rubble, no nothing.

INSKEEP: Ronald Lewis lost everything. His own house was flooded out, as was a tiny backyard museum that he ran. It honored the tradition of Mardi Gras Indians, African Americans who dressed like Native Americans and danced in parades.


LEWIS: The Mardi Gras Indian and the social aid and pleasure clubs is the true black history here in New Orleans. I'm not leaving my home. This is home. Only way I won't be here is I'm forced out of here.

INSKEEP: The audience of this program followed along for years as he rebuilt his house and his museum better than before - and even authored a book on Mardi Gras Indian traditions.

BRUCE SUNPIE BARNES: After Katrina, you know, he was highly motivated.

INSKEEP: His friend Bruce "Sunpie" Barnes is chief of a cultural group that Lewis joined called the Northside Skull and Bone Gang. We asked Mr. Barnes to help us remember Ronald Lewis, who developed a respiratory illness a few weeks ago. He died in March at age 68. Family members say he tested positive for the coronavirus. COVID-19 killed a man who helped to bring back his city after Hurricane Katrina.

BARNES: When so many other people were thinking the city won't come back; the spirit of the city's broken, Ronald was one of those white doves that took over immediately to help people recognize and realize that we could bring everything back. All was not lost. And when he created his museum, the House of Dance & Feathers, you know, that's exactly what he did. He became a beacon.


LEWIS: This collection show the resilience of the people because we had lost everything, but we didn't lose hope. And so every piece in here is symbolic of that - of us rising up out the ruins of Katrina and saying, we are here; we're back.


INSKEEP: Lewis found a role with Skull and Bone even though he wasn't healthy enough to march with them. When they left their base to perform, he would wait to welcome them back.

BARNES: He would stay behind because he wasn't as mobile as he used to be - arthritis and a few other ailments. And when we'd come back, he would greet all of the people - he was a wonderful greeter - and, you know, and speak to them about the tradition. And we'd come back. We'd all sing and chant and dance together. And you know, so that was a beautiful thing.


INSKEEP: So Mardi Gras was late February. Did you see Ronald Lewis then?

BARNES: Yes, I did. He came out, and I was so happy to see him. And we - you know, we greeted each other with hugs and danced a little bit. And I was really happy to see him in such good spirits. He had had a hard year the year before with some dialysis and other things. But he had gotten past that, and he was moving and looking great.

INSKEEP: When it became known that he was sick, how quickly did he decline?

BARNES: It was fast. Within eight to 10 days, he was gone. And you know, he didn't really get his - he didn't his test back until after he had passed. You know, things were slow at that point. But we - because he had the symptoms, you know, we thought that, yeah, it was true.

INSKEEP: I don't think it was very clear at the time of Ronald Lewis' death, but the statistics make it clear now that this disease has been more deadly in the African American community than in others across the country, although it's deadly to all kinds of people, of course.


INSKEEP: What have you thought about as that news has spread?

BARNES: You know, there was some early fake news, if you will, by people posting things online. People were posting things saying - oh, you know, black people - oh, it's not going to touch Africa, in particular African Americans. And I was telling friends, please don't listen to that madness because, you know, this thing is literally coming for us.

INSKEEP: I want to just notice one more thing. As I listen to you talk about Ronald Lewis, I can hear in your voice that he was an enormously valuable person to you - that it was an enormously valuable life that he lived.

BARNES: Absolutely. You know, Ronald was one of those once-in-a-lifetime friends that you hope you get to meet, someone that uses a lot of wisdom, stark honesty and then, you know, how to lend a helping hand. He showed by example. He might call you up and run something by you, see what you think. He might just call and say, hey, man, I'm just thinking about you. How you doing? He did that, you know, often. He would call you in the morning and check on you. And life has changed for us all. You can't reach out and touch somebody, say hello. You can't hug them. You can't shake their hand, can't risk any of those things right now.

INSKEEP: His wife, Charlotte, told us that she was allowed to have a small funeral, I think up to 50 people.

BARNES: Yeah. They did have a small funeral. We were not really getting an opportunity until later to honor him in the way that we really want to and, you know, according to tradition, you know?

INSKEEP: Oh, you'd like to have a second line...

BARNES: Yeah. We...

INSKEEP: ...You'd like to have a real New Orleans funeral. You'd like to have a party.

BARNES: Yeah. We're going to have a real New Orleans funeral. And we will do that at some point, you know, and honor him for having been the person who was organizing second lines and creating one of the most iconic second lines that would roll through the city, you know, the Big Nine coming out of the 9th Ward, across the bridge, back into the downtown area of New Orleans. Yeah, he's going to get a second line. And that's the main thing that's been so painful is not to, you know, give him the kind of passage that he deserves.

INSKEEP: Bruce "Sunpie" Barnes, thanks for your insights - really appreciate it.

BARNES: You're welcome.


SUNPIE AND THE LOUISIANA SUNSPOTS: (Singing) We are the Northside Skull and Bone Gang... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.