Months into a pandemic that has ravaged social clubs, churches and other gathering spots for thousands of Black New Orleanians, City Councilman Jay H. Banks can rattle off the list of friends he’s lost with grim precision.
There’s Larry Hammond, whose April funeral, stifled by restrictions to stop the coronavirus’s spread, looked nothing like the jam-packed homegoing that would otherwise befit a king of the Zulu Social Aid and Pleasure Club.
There’s Cornell “Dickey” Charles, a Zulu member known as much for his crawfish boils and open-invitation Sunday dinners as he was for convincing high school athletes they could achieve anything they set their minds to.
There are at least 15 more, all childhood friends, neighbors or associates of a man whose social calendar is one of the busiest in the city. The tally, which owes its length to Banks’ vast connections to various organizations, serves as a window into the virus’s broader assault on New Orleans’ Black community.
Across the U.S., the virus has disproportionately affected Black people. Black people make up nearly half the dead in Louisiana though they represent only a third of the populace. In New Orleans, which is roughly 60% African American, the virus has felled three times as many Black people as White people. Experts say the disparity may be linked to an abundance of multigenerational Black households, to Black workers who are less likely than Whites to be afforded the chance to work from home, to poverty and to other health factors.
Banks said he’s stunned all of those realities haven’t moved more New Orleanians to take the disease seriously, no matter their race. After seeing an entirely maskless crowd celebrating a child’s birthday party outside one recent weekend, Banks hopped out of his car with masks in hand to pass out.
“This dude told me, ‘Motherf— you. F— you and that mask,'” Banks said, adding that the man was Black.
“You get it from that side, and then you get it from (White) business people, who say that the restrictions are somehow an affront to their rights… I feel sorry for them. Because they are going to listen, but they are going to listen when it’s too late.”
Though the virus has wreaked the most havoc on the Black community for a host of reasons, White residents are hardly immune, experts have emphasized. “It is an infectious disease. It doesn’t discriminate,” said Dr. Tekeda Ferguson, a chronic disease epidemiologist and assistant professor at LSU Health Sciences Center School of Public Health.
Service and friendship
Banks’ deep community ties are the fruit of over 50 years he has spent immersed in New Orleans politics, including roles with the Black Organizational for Leadership and Development or BOLD and with prominent public officials; a 15-year membership in Zulu, including a turn as chairman; and decades as a member of Omega Psi Phi Fraternity Inc.
Before he assumed his City Council seat in 2018, he helped residents boost their job skills as director of the Dryades YMCA’s School of Commerce.
He met Hammond, a decade his senior, in 1981. Hammond initiated Banks into Omega, a process that would help form a lifelong bond. Banks later joined Zulu, a group Hammond had been part of since the late ’80s. Hammond was king in 2007; Banks nabbed the title nine years later after an extensive campaign.
Hammond’s diagnosis and his death were just days apart. He is among six Zulu members who have died of the disease, with his and other deaths occurring several weeks after the organization held its signature Mardi Gras parade and series of events leading up to it.
After being urged by relatives to go to a hospital after feeling ill on March 21, Hammond went and was swabbed for the disease. A positive result came back a few days later. Hammond died on March 31.
“It caught everybody off guard, because he was not a sickly person,” said his brother, Barry Hammond. “No one had ever thought that he would go in and not come back out.”
Hammond did have diabetes, his brother added. Underlying conditions such as diabetes and hypertension have caused rapid deaths in many people infected with the virus, Ferguson said. In other cases, people may carry the virus for a couple of weeks without symptoms before finally being brought to the brink of death. Ferguson said both scenarios suggest a need for widespread testing.
Outside of his frat and Zulu, Hammond, a retired postal service worker, was known for mentoring youth at public schools in his native Algiers. The L.B. Landry High School graduate was also a fierce education advocate, fighting alongside Martin Behrman Charter Elementary School teachers for better retirement benefits and a path out of the Recovery School District in 2013.
Jobs put some at risk
Dickey Charles, another member of Banks’ Carnival krewe, was a social magnet and an avid chef.
“He was big into boiling a lot of stuff,” said Louis Landrum, athletic director at Lusher Charter School. “We would talk about different types of food that we would cook over the weekend, and what we would cook over the holidays.”
A baseball, basketball and football coach at Lusher and director of Harrell Playground in the Leonidas neighborhood, Charles was at work when he told Landrum he began to feel ill. It was a Thursday; there were two baseball games on Charles’ schedule. In the dugout at the varsity game, Charles was quiet, unusual for him.
“He just said he wasn’t feeling well… but we definitely didn’t factor in it possibly being COVID,” Landrum said.
Charles’ wife, Nicole, took him to the hospital that Friday. By Sunday, he was on a ventilator. “Unfortunately, he never got out of there,” Landrum said.
Charles had a host of medical issues, including diabetes and high blood pressure, which can make those infected with the virus more vulnerable to serious illness or death.
Those who deal with large crowds and events, like Charles, are often at more risk of getting sick in the first place, as environments can allow the virus to spread readily.
That’s another factor in why Black residents have been at heightened risk: They’re more apt to work public-facing jobs. That’s true in densely packed New Orleans, but is also in rural areas, where Black people are still more likely than Whites to live in households or apartment complexes with more residents, said Laurie Anne Ferguson, dean of Loyola’s College of Nursing and Health, who practices in rural St. Helena Parish.
Some of that could explain why the trend that played out in New Orleans early on in the pandemic has since been replicated across Louisiana and elsewhere around the country.
“If you have a job where you can work at home and you are isolated, your exposure risk goes way down because you can limit how much you can go out in the community,” said Ferguson, who is not related to Tekeda Ferguson.
“If you work in the service industry, you don’t have that luxury,” she added. “That makes you more vulnerable simply because of your population. And if you get sick, you have a disincentive to stay home, because you have to keep the lights on and feed your family. You may not have the safety net.”
‘Not a spreadsheet’
For Banks, the grief coronavirus has brought seems almost bottomless.
Along with Hammond and Charles, the fallen include Ora Mae Jones and her daughter, Cabertha Jones, who died within weeks of each other. Banks’ brother, Gralen Banks, is best friends with Ora Mae’s son, Mike. The two families grew up around the corner from each other in the city’s 13th Ward, between Loyola Avenue and Upperline Street and Robert and Lasalle streets.
There’s Nelson Cosey, whose brother is Banks’ son’s godfather. And there’s “Big” Willie Lonon, whose wife Andrella and Banks’ wife Artelia went to the same elementary school.
Lonon, who worked security at Martin’s Wine Cellar, threw a party at the Algiers Navy Base for his 66th birthday, just days before he died on March 18. The Bankses attended.
“All of these stories are so tragic, but these are just not statistics on an Excel spreadsheet. These are people who have I have had personal interactions with,” Banks said.
He is disdainful of constituents who tell him he’s “overly paranoid” about the virus, and those who lament Mayor LaToya Cantrell’s hesistancy to loosen restrictions in the city. When Cantrell announced last week that New Orleans would stay in Phase 2, even as the state moved to Phase 3, she got some pushback from the business community.
But not from Banks. Not only did he support the mayor’s decision, he has also pushed for schools to stay virtual, calling the idea of putting hundreds of kids in a school building “asinine.”
Its impact on the Black community is rooted in socioeconomics, in his view. “Lack of access to resources, lack of health care, lack of nutritional food, lack of information,” he said. “When you add all of that, that’s how you get to this.
“All this does is shine a bigger light on these disparities that need to be addressed.”
Editor’s note: This story is part of “The Deep Divide,” an occasional series on coronavirus’s disproportionate impact on Black Louisianans.