Photo: Katherine Wolkoff
Dressed in a billowy shift from Cameroon covered with a chunky jumble of beads and silver, Rukiya has arrived looking more African than the Africans. As it turns out, most of the women in the room have never been to Africa, which is why several say this project is perfect for them. In fact, much more than the prospect of earning some extra money, what moved them to participate was the chance to connect to their roots—to something that can't be ripped away by a storm.
At one point, as she works, Rukiya looks down at the gallery's concrete floor, which has been signed and drawn on by visitors. Under her feet someone has written: "Keep showing us who we are—and who we can be."
The daughter of sharecroppers, Stella Jones grew up in Houston sleeping three to a bed. Every Sunday she and her six brothers and sisters would pile into the family's green Chevy and arrive at church smelling like gasoline because the car was so old it had a hole in the floor.
As a young woman, Stella worked her way through a pharmacy degree ("Whites were not ready to accept me as a pharmacist—they threw the medicine back through the window," she says matter-of-factly), followed by a master's degree in public health and an MD at Texas Tech. Along the way, she married and had two children. She moved to New Orleans in 1976 when she started her ob-gyn residency at the sprawling old Charity Hospital—such a medical abyss, she says, "they not only had RANDO procedures (Residents Ain't Never Done One), but they also had SANSO (Staff Ain't Never Seen One)." The pace at Charity was intense. It was nothing for Stella to deliver 30 babies in a day—you could tell how many by the number of times she'd rolled up the cuffs on her scrubs, since between births there was no time to change.
The work didn't ease when she opened her own practice on Tulane Avenue, which mainly served disadvantaged black women—often there was a line out the door, and they came to her not just for medical treatment but for help with all their problems. Though by now Stella and her husband had four children, and she was busier than ever, she loved treating her patients. But over the years, the difficulty of their lives began to wear her down—especially the violence they lived with as New Orleans's crime rate spiked in the mid-1990s and the city became known as the murder capital of America.
"There are days that you don't forget," Stella says. "And I will never forget the day in 1995—I'd been up all night with a difficult delivery, and my nurse met me at the door and said, 'You're not going to believe who's in room 3.' It was the mother of a boy who'd just been killed. I thought, "Well, fine, I can handle that." But then she said, 'Let me tell you who's in room 4.' I asked who, and she said Mrs. So-and-So. 'It was her son who did the killing.' And I just stood there, thinking, 'Nothing has changed. It's time for me to go.'"
We Hear You!