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A ‘giant’ of New Orleans culture and ‘scholar of the people’ dies of coronavirus

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A 'giant' of New Orleans culture and 'scholar of the people' dies of coronavirus

This did not happened. Lewis did not receive the tribute his family believes he deserves, at least not yet. The coronavirus pandemic has dashed any hope of bringing together thousands of people in honor of the man New York's mayor, LaToya Cantrell, called the "bearer of culture" in this city.

On March 18, Lewis, 68, fell ill and his family took him to a hospital. He quickly deteriorated and died two days later.

"We were shocked," said Rachel Breunlin, Lewis's friend and business partner. "I still haven't really thought about it all the time."

It was not until the day of the funeral, that only a handful of people were able to attend, that the family discovered that Lewis was infected with the coronavirus.

"He's a giant," said Mr. Lewis's nephew Brent Taylor. "They should put a statue of him in Tupelo."

Tupelo is the street in New Orleans' Lower Ninth Ward, where Lewis opened the House of Dance and Feathers museum dedicated to documenting and preserving the city's rich cultural history. He served as the museum's director and curator who struggled to tell the stories of the city's poorest neighborhoods.

"I want to educate the world about our great culture," wrote Lewis on the museum's website. "How do we do that and why are we so successful, even though the economy says we shouldn't be."

Lewis's death is seen as the passing of a cultural icon in the city. Lewis wrote a book called "House of Dance and Feathers" with Breunlin. The book serves as a "detailed map" of New Orleans culture.

"He was an intellectual of his traditions," said Breunlin. "He was a true scholar of the people."

Lewis founded the "Big Nine Social Aid and Pleasure Club". Such organizations can be traced back to the 19th century and are intricately woven into the fabric of New Orleans. The clubs were the driving force of the community "providing health services and burial to its members" and a place that inspired debate and public service, according to the Casa de Dança e Penas museum.

Once a year, the social club "Big Nine" holds a parade and a second row. For Lewis, the event was the highlight of his year. Lewis loved to bring the Lower Ninth Ward community together, plan the parade route and see everyone dressed for the special occasion.

"He said to leave the violence, drugs at home. Let's go out in peace," said Taylor. "He showed us what it was like to be a great man."

It almost came to an end in 2005, when Hurricane Katrina dealt a cruel blow to Lewis. The storm flooded his home and neighborhood with less than 4 meters of water. He was a survivor and the storm inspired him to work harder to preserve his community's culture.

Lewis spent most of his life working for the city of New Orleans Regional Transit Authority. He repaired the tracks used by the trams that are ubiquitous for this southern city.

But its greatest impact came from preserving the rich legacy of African American culture in New Orleans. He learned to sew to create the head dresses of the carnival Indians. The creations are works of art and full of symbolism.

"He absolutely embodied the beauty of New Orleans culture," said LJ Goldstein, a New Orleans photographer who considered Lewis to be one of his closest friends. "We lost an ambassador."

Lewis, according to Goldstein, was not the leader of the elaborate parades and second lines. Instead, Lewis "made the magic happen" and helped other people shine.

Family and friends are waiting for the coronavirus pandemic to pass, but while they wait, they are planning a traditional jazz funerary of Lewis's legacy.

The community of brass bands and social clubs across the city continues to call Taylor. They are eager to celebrate Lewis's life the way it should have been, had it not been for the infection that took his life and closed the city.

Taylor says thousands of people will march and perform at the second-line funeral procession. The family plans to hold the procession on July 17, which would be Lewis's birthday.

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