Rudy Lombard’s Feast of Freedom

By  |  March 9, 2015
“Shotgun, Third Ward #1” (1966), by John T. Biggers. Courtesy of Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, DC / Art Resource, NY “Shotgun, Third Ward #1” (1966), by John T. Biggers. Courtesy of Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, DC / Art Resource, NY

What was the year? 1986? 2008? Does it matter? What was the great offense? Same as last time, more or less. Some white shit. What was the reaction?

One Negro leader or another—fill in the blank—stood in front of the cameras and declared we would do such things he knew not what! This said with a walls will come tumbling down certainty, same as last time, more or less.

And what was Uncle Rudy’s reaction to the televised rage?

Rudy Lombard the would-be labor leader. Rudy Lombard the sit-inner. Rudy Lombard the urban planner. Rudy Lombard the cookbook author. Rudy Lombard the downtown second liner. Rudy Lombard the pension fund manager. Rudy Lombard the cancer survivor. Rudy Lombard the South Side stepper. Rudy Lombard the cancer victim.

If only I could remember the sound of it as well as I can recall the sense of it. Something about, They don’t ever intend to work themselves out of a job. They intend to be doing this same shit, saying this same shit one hundred years from now.

Makes you wonder: why did they call it a civil rights movement if the movement itself wasn’t gonna move?

Angela Davis remembers people used to call it the “freedom movement,” perhaps better to keep its ambitions free from the narrow confines of civil codes, government actions, and higher offices. Maybe Rudy Lombard was a freedom rights leader. Take it to the streets, yes. But take it to the mortgage companies, to the restaurant kitchens, to the dance floors, to the N.B.A. players, to the cancer wards, to the jazz clubs. Take it where it most needs to be.

 

“All the things that I touched with him, he never started
at the surface. He always started at the origin of it.
He would say, what you lookin’ at is not what you see.”

—Fred Johnson, Neighborhood Development Foundation

 

Oh, to do this rightly and in order! Like the preachers of old. To impose a chronology on this geography, a theory of evolution on the progress of these ideas. To put him away nice from “Soon I Will Be Done With the Troubles of the World” to “Didn’t He Ramble?” But he rambled from great idea to grand possibility, from New Orleans to Mississippi to Syracuse to Harlem to Washington to Oakland to Chicago; from the docks to the segregated lunch counters to Wall Street; from culture work to cancer work, and a few select bars, restaurants, board rooms, bedrooms, and beaches in between.

Ramble, young man, ramble!

The longshoremen and their union make their first appearance in our story when Rudy used to work occasionally on the riverfront unloading cargo alongside his uncles. Those uncles would warn their rough colleagues not to try any of that funny stuff they sometimes did to newcomers like picking up or letting go of a heavy load at an unexpected time, leaving the novice hurt or worse. These men held a grip of sorts on a crucial part of the economy. International Longshoremen’s Association Local 419 was one of the largest and most powerful black trade unions in the country. If labor unrest slowed the pace of goods coming into the Port of New Orleans, the city—even the nation—could be injured. Suppose a young man with a college degree and International Longshoremen’s Union bona fides could ascend to the top of that body and flex that muscle?

But the freedom movement intervened. Rudy, then a student at Xavier University, had the money in hand to buy a lifetime NAACP membership. But the group’s tepid position on the sit-ins dissuaded him. What he and his would-be sitters-in would need before they went to order sustenance and redress at McCory’s lunch counter downtown was a lawyer with the guts to represent them when they were arrested. Rudy had seen a well-dressed lawyer, Lolis Edward Elie, on Dryades Street where black folks had their YMCA, their offices, and where they often shopped at (white) businesses. So he asked that Lolis, my father, if he’d represent them.

No, but I’ll help you find a lawyer.
But if you can’t find us a lawyer, will you represent us?
I’ll find you a lawyer.
Since you haven’t found us a lawyer, will you represent us?
Actually, Jack Nelson has agreed to work on this with us.

Thus began a friendship and a client-attorney privilege that went all the way to the Supreme Court (in Lombard v. Louisiana in 1962) and beyond. Somewhere in the formation of that bond, my father decided that I should call Rudy “Uncle Rudy,” as if he were biological uncle to me, as he was to Tonya and Derrick and Damon.

I grew up hearing the story of one Plaquemines, Louisiana, evening when the Congress of Racial Equality had decided to engage in night marches of protest. The Klan/cops had decided to end the marches and—if the fears of that night are to be believed—to lynch James Farmer, CORE’s national director. They tear-gassed a church as part of their search. CORE workers snuck Farmer to New Orleans in a hearse. He spent that night in my sister’s twin bed. But where was Uncle Rudy? It wasn’t until recently that he told me his side of that story. He spent the night in a tree, waiting for things to clear. Of course that was another time, a different time, not like now. A time when the press conference took place after the dangerous work, not instead of it.

Later, when it came time for the March on Washington, Jim Farmer was in a Louisiana jail on the usual charge: felony unauthorized exercise of civil rights. Rudy was among the people who elected not to bail him out. Jim never forgave us for that, Rudy said. But that was Martin Luther King’s day. Jim was better off in jail. It made more of a statement.

Next it was either going to be Syracuse or Harvard. Syracuse was in New York, right? Closer to the jazz scene. Closer to Harlem. A map could have told him different, but Rudy was too sure of his facts to check them. So he accepted a scholarship to the Ph.D. program in urban planning, only to have his own urban plan complexify itself in a most Confederate way. There were suddenly no vacancies behind the vacancy signs when Rudy’s black face inquired. Discrimination? Up North? Who knew? Brer Rudy thrown into Freedom Fight’s briar patch again, this time in league with Billy Hunter, the star Syracuse football player. (Later the two would try to teach financial literacy to N.B.A. players. Fools and their errands . . .)

Another story, a minor one, survived from the Syracuse era, a story as irrelevant as it is delicious. A neighbor in Rudy’s apartment building, a white lady, a nurse perhaps, knocked on his door one night and asked for his help. He went to her apartment and found a black man, a mental patient perhaps, crouched in her closet. Naked. The neighbor lady wanted Rudy’s help in extricating this unwanted guest. The guest would neither budge nor converse except to state a little couplet which, having forgotten the date, I have chosen to rhyme for poetic effect.

November the 12th, 1962
You don’t obvious me, and I won’t obvious you.

What was the meaning of this mad scene? When asked, Rudy only repeated the couplet.

 

“It’s a long history, 40 some years of a very,
very close and intense relationship. As far as I’m concerned,
he helped me raise my children. . . . He loved Michael Jackson.
When he came out, he used to bring the kids to all the concerts,
even as far away as Baltimore.”

—Dr. Fletcher Robinson

 

Was it true that the admissions department at Howard University used to require applicants to send a photo with their applications as a means of ensuring a high percentage of pretty young women in each class? We sent our best man, Rudy Lombard, to investigate!

True or not, the rumors fueled years of laughs. Fletcher Robinson, James “Dropper” Hobbs, medical doctors both, and Rudy Lombard, a trio of confederates brought together by Rudy’s M.D. homeboy, Vincent Roux. While Rudy served as founding director of Howard University’s Institute on Drug Abuse and Addiction and Fletcher served as Howard’s vice president for health affairs, they worked on ways to bring the university into the community and the community into the university.

“The other thing he was doing while we were in D.C., he was very much trying to start a restaurant,” Fletcher recalls, thus bringing to light largely unknown archaeological evidence of Rudy’s early restaurant ambitions. “He came close to buying a restaurant that was already successful in D.C.”

In the 1970s, Daddy Lomby, Rudy’s father, used to say that Rudy hadn’t spent a solid month in New Orleans since the 1960s. Even when he was ostensibly living in the Newton Street home of his boyhood or that condo on St. Louis Street in the French Quarter, he was only anywhere part-time. Sometime in that period he and Jerome Smith, a Freedom Rider and New Orleans native, founded Tambourine and Fan, a community organization based on the masking and parading traditions of the city. But that idea of using the working men of the community to build a more powerful force was never far from Rudy’s mind. Specifically, he wanted to place those men in jobs on the riverfront.

“Some of them are gonna move to the ranks of being the leader of the gang as a longshoreman. And in time we’re gonna take the next leap where we move them to the pension board fund,” Fred Johnson, a Rudy protégé, recalls him saying. “We get them to the pension board fund, we’ve educated them through the ranks, they now know how to vote on where to invest the pension board retirement money,” Johnson remembered. In Rudy’s mind, that’s how you control the neighborhood. He said that in the early Seventies.

But so much had changed by then. The highway industrial complex and the suburban subdivision industrial complex (and why not throw in the automobile industry and the gas industry?) had made bulldozing urban communities the national pastime. All across the nation, highways were staked through the heart of American cities in order to make it easier to travel out to the places where the homebuilders were building and away from the homes that were already built. So Rudy led the Claiborne Avenue Design Team, a group that published a study documenting the community as it was and making recommendations for how the damage could be mitigated. (If you’re inclined to use the word “prophetic” you might insert it here as the current movement in New Orleans and elsewhere is to tear down these elevated eyesores and resurrect the communities they destroyed.)

 

“Rudy Lombard was sui generis—one of a kind. Loyal,
generous, creative, and remarkably courageous.
His intelligence was not without humor or a razor
blade. I will miss him deeply.”

—Toni Morrison, novelist and editor of Creole Feast

 

And this errant highway led directly to Rudy Lombard’s most lasting contribution to American civilization, the 1978 book Creole Feast. As he told Poppy Tooker on the WWNO radio program “Louisiana Eats,” “I said that everything that was unique about New Orleans could be traced to the black presence in this city. . . . So, I could name names of African Americans who were prominent in all these areas of the history and culture of New Orleans. . . . But when I said food, I’d realized I couldn’t name names. I just knew that there were blacks cooking in all of the great restaurants in New Orleans. So, if I didn’t know it, I figured, well hell, very few people did.”

Creole Feast, a collaboration with chef Nathaniel Burton, put black chefs on the map as never before. And put American chefs on the map, unlike other cookbooks of the times authored mostly by celebrated European chefs and American food writers. While the book has survived in used-book bins and cherished collections, what is less well-known is that the book gave birth to two food festivals that showcased New Orleans chefs. Rudy took his Creole Feast chefs all over the country, giving them national exposure at a time when few chefs of any color were well-known. All of that culminated in Lombard’s, the beautiful restaurant in downtown Oakland where fountains and the intricate tilework might lead one to believe, as Rudy did, that the renaissance of downtown Oakland was fast at hand. It would be thirty years and a heartbreaking failure before that renaissance.

 

“When I was green, didn’t know nothing,
Rudy Lombard took me with all those big chefs
to New York and everywhere. People like Rudy have done
so much for me. He did things for the best interest
of people. He had vision. People like that you don’t find everyday.”

—Leah Chase, chef, Dooky Chase Restaurant

 

1977: Dutch Morial elected New Orleans’s first black mayor. Hurray!

1981: Dutch Morial re-elected the city’s first black mayor. Hurray redux!

1985: Does anybody else smell monarchy?

But who would dare challenge the mayor’s bid for a third term? Rudy offered himself as critic and candidate, but “Lombard for Mayor” had about as many endorsements from friends and family as did Don Quixote’s Lombardian adventures of old. Unlike the ancient knight errant, the more recent one had little enthusiasm for the campaign part of his candidacy. And unlike the adventures of Dulcinea’s would-be darling, Rudy Lombard’s fourth-place finish produced thousands of victories. For out of that campaign research came the realization that home ownership, particularly among working-class black New Orleanians, was abysmally low. What if an organization, perhaps a Neighborhood Development Foundation, could be created to train working-class New Orleanians to buy homes? For more than two decades NDF has averaged more than a hundred new homeowners every year.

 

“I was honored and blessed to be his pastor for a quarter of a
century and Rudy ministered unto me far more than I was able to minister to him.
He taught me an eclectic amalgam of subjects from his exotic
Creole recipes, through the ‘inside’ stories of the civil rights
movement to the rarely heard 78-rpm recording of Louis
‘Satchmo’ Armstrong when Armstrong still had a soprano voice!
My life was forever changed by the brilliance of Rudy’s mind.”

—Rev. Jeremiah Wright, Pastor Emeritus,
Trinity United Church of Christ

 

There were two things Rudy said he wanted to do because he thought his late mother would have wanted him to: get married and join a church. His legendary life as a bachelor came to an end, first in Lake Tahoe when he married Njambi Mungai, then later in Chicago when he married Carolyn Merritt. It was Carolyn who brought him to Chicago’s Trinity United Church of Christ, from which he evangelized pagan and Christian friends alike on behalf of the church’s annual Thanksgiving service.

By the time he was diagnosed with prostate cancer, Rudy’s hard-drinking, hard-living days were far behind him. What began as a personal hunt for the least invasive, least debilitating treatment ended as a crusade to educate black men about the dangers of prostate cancer, the necessity of regular checkups, and the general advisability of a healthy lifestyle.

“Talking about prostate cancer makes people look down at their feet and want to change the subject,” he wrote in a September 23, 2013, op-ed for the Chicago Sun-Times. “I know because I talk about it every day. Ten years ago at age sixty-four, I was diagnosed with prostate cancer.”

Rudy used to say that prostate cancer was a slow-growing cancer and was not apt to be the cancer that killed you. In the end, it wasn’t cancer of the prostate, but rather cancer of the pancreas that felled him last December.

For years, Uncle Rudy and I talked about doing a revised edition of Creole Feast. But it was mostly me talking and him nodding. He was off on something else by then. He and the great photographer Frank Stewart were talking about doing a book on the culture of the steppers in Chicago.

 

The last time I saw Uncle Rudy, the confidence of his gait had diminished, the artful clutter of his living quarters had given way to mere clutter, and he was talking about writing a book on friendship. It was a book to which he wanted all of his friends to contribute essays. I promised him that I’d write one.

I imagined that essay would be about those years of Sundays when my father would drag me across the river to Newton Street to spend the afternoon with Rudy’s father, Daddy Lomby. It’d be about Uncle Rudy showing me Sausalito and turning me on to Nat Adderly’s underrated cornet playing and to Donald Byrd’s brilliant performance on Art Blakey and the Original Jazz Messengers. It’d be about the joy of taking Uncle Rudy and D. Jones and Ferrouillet and my father on their first trip to Africa. It’d be about sharing a cynic’s optimism and a belief that one day, one of these ideas is going to catch fire. It’d be about the beautiful Dr. Haniff and entrepreneurial Willie Adams, and meeting Denise Nicholas and Alex Haley at the Creole Feast banquet. And cooking Shrimp 21 and Crepes Brulator and setting the apartment on fire with Charles Bailey’s roast duck recipe. And second lining with Uncle Rudy and Tambourine and Fan past the Downtown Howard Johnson where Mark Essex exploded as if from the pages of his own “Carnival of Fury.”

It’d be about the magic that happened whenever two or three of Rudy’s friends were gathered together with him.

It pretty much would have been about the things I’ve written here except without the sadness of finality and the urgency of writing it now, putting it all down as I begin to feel details surrendering in the face of mere nostalgia.


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Lolis Eric Elie is a New Orleans–bred, Los Angeles–based writer whose work includes documentary film (Faubourg Treme), television (HBO’s Treme), and essays. His essay “The Origin Myth of New Orleans Cuisine” appeared in the April 2010 issue of the Oxford American.