Our Times: The Louis Armstrong childhood arrest that no one knew about
South Rampart was a thoroughfare teeming with life on Oct. 21, 1910. The street, between the Central Business District and what was known as "the back of town," was part of a bustling, diverse neighborhood that included grocery stores and restaurants, hotels and jazz-fueled honky tonks, according to Tulane University geographer and writer Richard Campanella.
It was also teeming with police activity. That day, a Friday, a clerk and pharmacist at a drug store on Rampart between Perdido and Poydras streets were arrested in a crackdown on cocaine sales. The two were allegedly part of a ring that moved large quantities of the drug, which would be cut up into smaller packages and resold.
Down the street, between Gravier Street and Tulane Avenue, police put a stop to something else. Six boys were arrested there "for being dangerous and suspicious characters," according to a brief on page 4 of the following day's Daily Picayune.
"Detectives Charles Mellen, William Kennedy, John Dantonio and Patrolman Anthony Sabrier arrested Henry Smith, of Lafayette and Fulton; James Kent, of 338 Saratoga Street; Archie Anderson, of 631 Dryades Street; Willie Telfry, of 416 S. Franklin Street; Louis Armstrong, of Perdido, between Liberty and Franklin streets; and Eddie Moore, of Liberty, between Gravier and Perdido streets," the paper said.
Armstrong was 9.
He was sent to the Colored Waifs Home.
Armstrong is perhaps the best-known New Orleanian of all time, an ambassador of jazz for the nation and a hero of his hometown, a man who played the trumpet in a way that defined the genre, whose face is instantly recognizable around the globe. When tourists fly to New Orleans, it is through Louis Armstrong International Airport that they arrive.
There have been countless Armstrong biographies based on exhaustive research. More than 40 years after his death, you might think there would be nothing left to learn about the man.
And yet there is. Documents from the Colored Waifs Home, a facility off City Park Avenue for troubled and orphaned children where Armstrong famously began to play the horn in 1913, have never before been seen in public.
The records, in turn, have led to the discovery of long-lost newspaper stories about him before he was even a teenager. Together the fragments reveal previously unknown details about Armstrong's early years, altering the course of a legend that he himself helped create.
In his 1954 autobiography, "Satchmo: My Life in New Orleans," Armstrong writes that when he was arrested in 1913, he "had no idea what a Waifs Home was" — even though he had been sent to the home just three years earlier.
"This is mind-blowing," said Ricky Riccardi, archivist at the Louis Armstrong House and Museum in New York City's borough of Queens and author of "What a Wonderful World: The Magic of Louis Armstrong's Later Years."
"I've been spending half my life researching Armstrong, and this is a breakthrough."
In all likelihood, no one alive has even known of the existence of the Colored Waifs Home records until now.
No one except Allen Kimble.
Allen Kimble Jr. was born in 1948 at Charity Hospital, "on the colored side," he said. He grew up on Pauger Street in the 7th Ward and went to high school at G.W. Carver, where he met Sylvia Washington, whom he would marry in 1969, two years after they graduated.
Washington is the granddaughter of Capt. Joseph Jones, an interpreter in the Spanish-American War who rose to become a commissioned officer, and who later operated the Colored Waifs Home with his wife, Manuela, incorporating elements of his military background in his oversight of what was sometimes known as the Jones Home or the Municipal Boys Home. It later evolved into the Milne Home.
It was at the Colored Waifs Home that Armstrong began playing the cornet in 1913, under the instruction of the institution's band instructor, Peter Davis, and where Joseph and Manuela Jones filled a void in his life as parental figures. The Joneses, Sylvia Washington said in a telephone interview, "kind of adopted him."
Allen Kimble joined the military, serving in Vietnam, Japan and California, as well as at Keesler Air Force Base in Biloxi, Miss. He and his wife had two children.
Around 1980, not long after he was honorably discharged as a staff sergeant, Kimble was in the home where his in-laws had lived at 5619 Baccich St.
"The house had a library, built by the boys (from the home)," Kimble said. "It was in bad repair. Things were being subjected to the elements."
Kimble had heard from his wife that her grandparents had known Louis Armstrong before he was famous, so he combed through the records in the library in search of pages that might have the musician's name. He found some from 1910 and 1913, as well as some negatives from the home. He took them with him.
In 1981, the Kimbles flew to Turkey, where Allen Kimble had landed a job as an alarm technician, the documents from the Colored Waifs Home carefully tucked away in his luggage. The family arrived safely in Istanbul, but eight or nine pieces of their luggage were sent by mistake to Tunisia. It would be a week or two before their other possessions, including the documents from the Waifs Home, arrived in Turkey.
Kimble's job was eventually eliminated, a move found by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission to be motivated by racial discrimination. He and his family moved back to the United States, later living in Oklahoma City, Hampton, Va., and Orlando. In 2005, they arrived in Scottsdale, Ariz., where Kimble fell into a deep depression. It was a dark time.
"That led to the destruction of my marriage," he said. "Thirty-nine years …"
In 2008, Kimble returned to New Orleans, where he still had family, and began putting his life back together.
"Several times over that period, I pulled out the stuff from the Jones Home," he said, "and on several occasions I reached out to people to try to get them interested in writing about it.
"No one was."
The records from the home are yellowed, brittle, fragile. They are bound together with tarnished brass pins. Holding the papers in your hands, you get the feeling they belong in a museum.
The cover page from the 1910 documents bears the seal of the Louisiana Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, a group that operated separate institutions for black and white children in New Orleans.
At the top of the page, "colored" is typed in parentheses. "Daily Census for the month ending Jan. 1910," it says below that. In the upper right corner is a handwritten note: "Louis Armstrong in the Nov. report of 1910. Pending trial. Dis Nov. 8, 1910 to aunt."
Inside, another sheet provides a daily census for October 1910. The line for Oct. 21 shows 77 juveniles started the day at the facility. "G. Muks, Kent, Armstrong, Delphrey, Anderson & Smith" are the new arrivals.
Another page of the 1910 documents gives details of the cases against the juveniles. For Armstrong, it gives his name and his age; quotation marks seemingly indicate the charges and the status of the case against him could be the same as those for a 13-year-old several lines up: "pilfer" and "pending trial.
There's no way of accounting for a change in the charges against Armstrong.
But whatever the case, the "dangerous and suspicious" charge was attacked on more than one occasion by local defense lawyers as an unconstitutional method used by New Orleans police to detain people at will, absent any evidence a crime had occurred.
The charge resulted from a city ordinance passed in 1902 that sought "to punish vagrants, dangerous and suspicious persons, bunco steerers, confidence men, thieves, gamblers, pimps, touts, fakers, pickpockets" and the people who protected them.
That Armstrong had spent time at the Waifs Home is no secret. The story goes that he was arrested after shooting a .38-caliber revolver into the air on South Rampart at Perdido on New Year's Eve in 1912.
Still, the documents Allen Kimble carried around the world and back give a more nuanced picture of Armstrong's development. He wasn't a fresh face when he arrived at the home in 1913. He'd been there before.
A report on the incident published in The Times-Democrat on Jan. 2, 1913, and widely recounted by biographers, said Armstrong was remanded to the home as "an old offender," perhaps a reference to the 1910 arrest.
Soon after he arrived at the home, he began learning to play the bugle and then the cornet, under the instruction of Davis, the home's band director.
He joined the Colored Waifs Home band and took part in its performances in parades, picnics and other events around the city. He was hooked, and after leaving the home he began picking up gigs.
"How soon after you took lessons from Mr. Davis did you start to play professionally, Louie?" Armstrong was asked by Steve Allen during a 1965 appearance with Davis on the television show "I've Got a Secret."
"Soon as I got out," he cracked.
That stay that began in 1913 is also reflected in the paperwork from the Colored Waifs Home. "Armstrong in" is handwritten on the daily census from January 1913. He was the lone inmate to enter the home Jan. 1, joining 70 other boys.
His name appears in the monthly census figures, too; he would stay, according to a note, until "sometime about June 1914."
The thinking, until now, is that The Times-Democrat's brief item was the first to mention Armstrong before he became famous. But the 1910 report on his "dangerous and suspicious" arrest precedes it by more than two years.
It has also been thought that after the story on his arrest for the New Year's Eve shooting, Armstrong would not be heard from again in the media until he became famous.
But that's not the case, either. On May 31, just over four months after Armstrong landed in the Colored Waifs Home for at least the second time, The Daily Picayune described the home's band on parade the day before, with Armstrong, then 11, as its charismatic leader.
"Little black imps, sixteen of them, yesterday in honor of Federal Decoration Day, each bearing a criminal record, equipped with every wrinkle that goes to make up a brass band, paraded the streets of New Orleans," the paper reported, later reiterating that the boys were criminals. Decoration Day is now known as Memorial Day.
"Marching proudly through the streets with drum and fife, they rendered several selections, patriotic mostly, and were loudly encored from the sidewalks."
Extraordinarily, the story goes on to name each of the musicians, mentioning not only Armstrong but also early jazz figure Henry "Kid" Rena.
"Those who made up the band were: Louis Armstrong, leader; Sam Johnson, solo cornet; Henry Rene (sic), second cornet; Louis Rock, solo alto; Isaac Ingram, first alto; Robert Oliver, flute; Louis Smith, clarinete (sic); Gus Vanzan, bass baritone; Richard Williams, bass trombone; Jeffery Harris, bass; Eddie Frazier, bass; Joseph Johnson, cymbal; James Brown, snare drum; Isaac Smoot, bass drum; Louis Stey, drum boy; Richard Cook, flag boy."
It's not clear from the 1913 newspaper story whether Armstrong was playing the horn yet, according to Bruce Raeburn, curator of the Hogan Jazz Archive at Tulane University.
"He could be the mascot or the equivalent of a grand marshal, meaning that he was essentially 'fronting' the band, not so much as a musical leader but as a source of charismatic energy for the musicians and crowd to feed on," he said.
Raeburn noted that something critical happened between the time Armstrong was detained at the home in 1910 and his return there in 1913: Davis arrived and started the band program.
"The first time Armstrong was in there, there was no band to get involved with," he said. "It's almost like he got a second chance."
At the age of 11, Armstrong found his calling.
"There it is, in black and white, a measuring stick for how far Armstrong had already traveled in such a short period of time," Riccardi said. "From Louis Armstrong, 'an old offender,' to 'Louis Armstrong, leader' in less than a calendar year."
As Kimble put it, "Without Joseph and Manuela (Jones) and Peter Davis, there probably would not have been a Louis Armstrong."
The block where Armstrong was arrested in 1910 is quiet now. There is no marker to indicate where he was picked up. There is no statue on the spot where he shot the gun on New Year's Eve in 1912, the fateful crime that ended up turning him into a musician.
There's no placard at the site of the Colored Waifs Home, which was unceremoniously torn down in the mid-20th century, like so many other jazz landmarks in New Orleans.
There's no Peter Davis Parkway. Capt. Joseph and Manuela Jones' final resting place in Mount Olivet Cemetery is, according to Kimble, a "common grave," with no tourists lining up to pay their respects.
Kimble believes the Joneses and Davis have not gotten the recognition they deserve for their role in Louis Armstrong's transformation from troubled youth to world-famous musician; for nurturing other important figures in American music, including Waifs Home Band alumni Kid Rena, Champion Jack Dupree and, later, Lionel Batiste; and for caring for countless other children in desperate need of help who never became famous.
They weren't in it for the money.
"They went out on a limb for the boys," said Ellenor Marquez, another granddaughter of Capt. Joseph and Manuela Jones, in a telephone interview.
Armstrong's second stay at the home was a clear turning point in his life, a stable period of about 18 months, during which he picked up the cornet and began playing for Davis.
"I've always said that Armstrong's New Year's Eve arrest was the greatest arrest in the history of arrests, and seeing his reputation change from clipping to clipping is proof that without his being a 'dangerous and suspicious' character in trouble with the police, he might never have ended up in the Waifs Home, and he never would have changed the sound of American popular music," Riccardi said.
"What would we be listening to today if it wasn't for Armstrong's arrest?"
Allen Kimble said he hopes to create a foundation in honor of the Joneses and Davis "to research, record and preserve our endangered history and culture."
"I want to bring people from all over the world (to New Orleans) to research the black culture of New Orleans," he said. "In my estimation, the damage done to black history is irreversible. My job is to research and document it so people remember we were here."
As for the remaining documents from the library at the Joneses' house on Baccich Street, Kimble believes they were lost when the building was demolished.
"I always regret not taking more," he said.
Armstrong left New Orleans for Chicago, then moved to New York and became a star. But he remained loyal to Capt. and Manuela Jones and to Peter Davis.
In 1931, on his first trip home after hitting it big, Armstrong made it a point to stop by the Colored Waifs Home, sitting with his band for a picture in front of the boys who were staying at the home and posing by himself alongside the Joneses and Davis.
He also turned benefactor, sending numerous donations to the home over the years.
He wrote in his autobiography about the day he was released into the custody of his father, noting that he was not happy to go.
And in 1937, Armstrong wrote a letter to Capt. Jones, published decades later in The Second Line, the magazine of the New Orleans Jazz Club.
"Remember, Mr. Jones, how the old place used to be back of City Park Avenue when I was a boy? You two have really stuck by those kids for years and years — in fact, you all have spent the very best days of your lives with those kids — us kids, I should say.
"You both shall always have good luck, because you've been wonderful to us all. You both shall be the 'tops' in my estimation always."