Pontchartrain Park 1955

One Woman's Story

Written by: Chakara Watson

They are not going to take care of the property.

&mdash General Public Sentiment in 1955, when Ms. Shirley Watson and her husband, along with many other families of African descent, purchase homes in Pontchartrain Park

Nothing like this had been done in the country. White people didn't think black people could afford it. [But] They set records on paying mortgages."

— Rosa Keller

"We first heard about Pontchartrain Park from our good friend, Jimmy Coney, around May 1955. He told us all we needed was twenty-five dollars to hold the lot," recalls Shirley Watson, speaking on behalf of herself and her husband Eugene Watson, Jr.

Watson remembers the day she and her husband—my grandmother and grandfather—went to pay the holding fee for the lot their house would be built on. Mr. Watson didn't have the twenty-five dollars at the time, so Mr. Jimmy Coney, whom everyone knows as Uncle Jim, loaned him the money and took him down to the office, then located on Canal Street between Claiborne and Robertson.

Shirley recalls her husband being the one to choose the model of the house that only cost 10,800 with a $840 down payment. The house he chose was on Pauline Drive, the same street Uncle Jim chose. "Ours was the 6300 block, and Uncle Jim's was the 6600 block. Ms. Watson explains that her husband was the one making all the decisions and handling all the business, because she was pregnant with the couple's second child. "At the time if you didn't own a car, and you were pregnant, you didn't travel unless it was absolutely necessary."

After her husband chose the house and finished with the remaining preliminaries, he went to Commercial Credit Company, a place that his father knew well, and borrowed $500 in order to complete the $840 down payment. They already had $100 in their savings account at Hibernia Bank. With the $500, the $100 in the bank, and the weekly income from a longshoreman job, they would have the money by the end of the thirty days.

With a huge smile, Ms. Watson started to recall something she likes to brag about. "When the day came for our loan to be approved, the loan officer, Mr. Julien, whose name I'll never forget, told us that they couldn't approve the loan because we didn't have enough references." At that time they didn't consider paying rent on time, and the only credit they had and paid out was at Universal Furniture.

"My husband was very upset and was storming out of the room, because he didn't feel Mr. Julien's decision was either just or fair. I told Mr. Julien that all we wanted was to be self-sufficient and law-abiding citizens with a nice place to raise our children," says Mr. Watson. In those days, people did not want to rent to anyone if they had children, at least not in a decent home or neighborhood.

"I also told him that if my husband wanted to borrow money to buy a new Cadillac, he would approve the loan. And to me a home was a more sound reason to borrow money." Mr. Julien asked Mr. and Ms. Watson to sit down and proceed with filling out the application for approval. She happily thanks God.

Now that their house was taken care of, they had about five months to pay out the loan and be ready to assume mortgage payments that were only fifty-nine dollars a month for thirty years. Ms. Watson mentions that all of this was possible through the G. I. Bill, because her husband was a Korean War Veteran. And through the ensuing years they earned money through their two main jobs: She was a seamstress at Haspel Bros. Men's Clothing Factory, which no longer exists. Her husband was a stevedore with Waterfront Employers of New Orleans.

They moved into their new home in October of 1955. Ms. Watson was thrilled, because both her and her husband's mothers and fathers were homeowners. But she laughs softly, "That's a story in itself."

Ms. Watson recounts the moment she pulled up to inspect the finished masterpiece located in Pontchartrain Park. "Our house must have been the second smallest model in the neighborhood, but to me it was a mansion. And it was all ours. There we were, proud homeowners." In this neighborhood, that was common. They moved in with their two sons, one a year and a half and the other five months old. Incidentally, Ms. Watson's next door neighbors', Ms. Helen and Mr. George Doyle, were classmates of hers at McDonogh #35 Senior High School. Ms. Watson also recalls that another lady, Maggie, who lived across the street from her, knew her mother. Ms. Watson remembered when she was young and Maggie baby sat and played with her. Coincidentally, two other ladies who attended McDonogh #35 Senior High School with her, Rose Sims and Myrtle Woods, lived across the street from her. And her sister Audrey Shanklin stayed in the third section of Pontchartrain Park built.

Many of those struggling young families were part of the first section to be built in Pontchartrain Park while the other portions were being developed. Ms. Watson remembers that there were no Regional Transit Authority buses in the area at the time. They had to walk a fourth of a mile, across train tracks, and across Leon C. Simon—a main street with lots of traffic—to Camp Leroy Johnson on the lakefront. There they had to catch a bus with the same name, ride to Franklin Avenue and catch the bus there that brought them into the main part of New Orleans.

Smiling happily, because it was unique in 1955, Ms. Watson recalled, "The back of our house faced the levee, France Road and the Industrial Canal."

Other places have also changed over the years, some from their original plans. "SUNO's campus was supposed to be a predominately black-owned shopping center, but Gentilly Woods shopping center put an end to that."

Bethany Methodist Church, of which Ms. Watson is a charter member, was built as the Protestant church for the subdivision. It was supposed to be a Catholic church and school, but the parish diocese ruled against it, since St. Gabriel was so close by. SUNO opened in 1959, and Bethany around the same time.

The chartered members of Bethany Church, including Ms. Watson, met in Cuss Hall at Dillard University and decided to open up Mary Dora Coghill Elementary School in 1960. "My first two sons were among the first pupils," explains Ms. Watson. Joseph M. Betholemy Golf course was built the same year. It was named after the landscaper who designed the course amongst other things.

In 1969, Ms. Watson started and was the director of Pontchartrain Park's first nursery at Bethany Church. She has had five children; the youngest is now 37. She had four boys and one girl. Ironically her daughter was the only girl in the neighborhood at that time with many boys. Now one of her seven granddaughters is the only girl in the neighborhood.

"Since we moved here in 1955, there have been many stories to tell, but then that would be grounds for a book."