A keeper of New Orleans Black culture dies at 73

New Orleans is mourning the death of Sylvester Francis, the 73-year-old founder and curator of a small but highly respected museum

NEW ORLEANS -- Sylvester Francis, the founder of the small but highly respected Backstreet Cultural museum that features an array of exhibits from various aspects of African American culture in New Orleans neighborhoods, died Tuesday at age 73.

Bruce “Sunpie” Barnes, a musician and a museum board member, said Francis, nicknamed “Hawk," died Tuesday morning after suffering from appendicitis and other ailments. Barnes was organizing a musical tribute to Francis on Tuesday evening outside the museum in New Orleans' Treme neighborhood.

“We can thank ‘Hawk’ for maintaining the photographs, the costumes, the films, the memorabilia, and the artifacts of New Orleans street culture, right in the heart of his beloved Treme neighborhood,” Mayor LaToya Cantrell said in a statement. "Our thoughts go out to his family. May he rest in God’s perfect peace.”

Francis founded the Backstreet Cultural Museum in 1999. According to the museum's website, its roots go back decades before. Francis had been chronicling aspects of neighborhood culture on film for many years and, in the 1980s, was displaying photos and Mardi Gras Indian memorabilia in his two-car garage in Treme.

He was encouraged by a local funeral home owner to start the museum in a closed funeral home in Treme. Francis drew widespread acclaim and support from, among others, of the organizers of the annual New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival and the Ogden Museum of Southern Art.

It was also a launching point for cultural events. It was the starting point for the annual Mardi Gras morning procession of Barnes' “North Side Skull & Bone Gang,” in which participants dress in skeleton-like costumes and parade around the neighborhood.

In an interview with The Times-Picayune in 2009, Francis said he'd had some reluctance to open the museum at first.

“After I opened it, then I saw that there was a need to have something like this,” he said. “When I opened it, I guess it was just for us. I didn’t know nothing about a museum and I still don’t know nothing about a museum.”