D. Joan Rhodes has pushed her life and career beyond all expectations for a black woman in America. With a successful family business under her belt, Joan continues to stride forward. After a career spanning decade, in which she has seen thousands of various types of funerals, Rhodes embodies what it means to live!
With jazz in her veins and love in her heart, Joan has impacted the lives of many with her family businesses, community work and constant determination to carve herself out as a woman to be recognized. With indomitable spirit and constant energy, we find out more about her life and loves.
The Family history
It’s not every day that you can say you were born into death, but this is something D. Joan Rhodes knows very well. She is a third-generation member in her family owned businesses that includes Funeral Homes, Life Insurance, Transportation and Real Estate Development companies. Since birth, it is all she has known. She has spent her life working in management as a licensed funeral director and insurance professional.
In the late 1800s, violence and lynching (the practice of murder by extrajudicial action) were wide spread across the US, particularly in the South. Because of these atrocities in the rural area of Thibodaux, targeted at Negro land owners, Mr. Duplain W. Rhodes, Sr (Joan’s grandfather) and his wife, Carolyn, escaped to New Orleans where they hoped to start a new life. From 1884-1885, on Valence Street in uptown New Orleans, Duplain W. Rhodes Sr. started the first Rhodes Family business, Rhodes Undertaking Company.
Duplain W. Rhodes Jr., born on September 13, 1899, as the third child (the only son) to Carolyn Toups and Duplain Rhodes Sr. often tells the story of how his father created The Rhodes Undertaking Company out of nothing: “At that time, there were few Black funeral homes, so often times Blacks ended up being prepared in the stable where the horses were kept. My father decided to go into the funeral business to provide burial services for Negro New Orleanians.”
The Rhodes Undertaking Company made steady progress as a result of hard work, careful planning, and forward thinking. Mr. Rhodes Jr. often shared this example of his father’s visionary mindset:
“About 1917, my father recognized the advantages of automobiles, in spite of his pride at having some of the finest horses. In fact, my father was one of the first Black people in New Orleans to own an automobile.”
Mr. Rhodes Jr. like his father, was always looking to expand the business and was not afraid to make bold moves. In the early 1960s, he broke the tradition by abandoning his beloved black fleet of vehicles and purchasing an entire fleet of white limousines for his funeral services. Many people ridiculed him, saying that no one would ever want to use his cars for their burial services, but they were all proven wrong.
Mr. Rhodes Jr. continued expanding and gained the lion’s share of funerals of the day. In addition, he capitalized on the white limousines and marketed them for weddings and special events, which the more affluent black and white clients patronized during the 1960s.
Duplain Rhodes, Jr. married Doris Millaud and they had five children, Sandra, Duplynn Joan, Duplain III, Stephanie and Kathleen. Rhodes, Jr, also had a daughter from his previous marriage, Edith Rhodes Gomes.
Duplynn Joan, known as Joan, was raised in New Orleans as part of a Creole family in Gentilly, what is now known as New Orleans East on Chef Menteur Highway. Her father, Rhodes Jr., purchased over 15 acres of land spanning from Chef Menteur Highway to Dwyer Road. He later created a subdivision and built a street and named it Rhodes Drive, where the family still owns property. Her educational career began in the neighbourhood at St. Paul the Apostle Elementary School. She went across town to attend Xavier University Preparatory High School and then attended Dillard University where she earned a Bachelor’s degree in Business Administration
For most of her life, Joan has worked as a part of the family business.
“I was born in the business. All my siblings – there are five of us – we all work in the business every day. We still own it. We have some fourth and even a few fifth generation members currently working in the business.”
The Rhodes Funeral Homes: recognized positive reputation in a time of grief
It is perhaps this constant continuation of family heritage that gives Rhodes Funeral Homes its positive reputation in the community and is why people keep returning to work with them at the passing of every loved one. There is a recognition by the Rhodes family of what it means to be with the people you love; and as such, those that are buried or cremated with the company are treated with dignity, love, and care. There is a personal touch, which makes a difficult time feel a little less stressful and hassled.
Perhaps, it is also Joan’s own experiences that has added to this. As she explains, “I had one child. I lost my daughter when she was 23. She was in mortuary school being primed to come into the business.” With the passing of her own child, it is hard for Rhodes to not feel a personal connection with everyone she looks after through Rhodes Funeral Homes. She understands grief, on a very deep and raw level.
Hard to look after the business, but essential
The fact the business has passed through so many generations in succession is an impressive feat, but it hasn’t come without a certain level of hard work and prior preparation. As Joan testifies: “We did a lot of estate planning in my generation. If you study families and if you study business, less than 15% of businesses survive the third generation. That is to do with having children, cousins, transfer of ownership, perceived equity and so forth.”
Certain measures have been put in place to protect the business from this though. As she explains: “We kind of have vertical businesses in that each business interacts with the other. You must have the physical plant – the real estate and the rolling stock – the equipment to transport. Then we moved that into weddings and events. With our main facility on Washington Avenue, we have what we call an event center. People are doing more than just having funerals at these massive buildings we own. We now have weddings, parties and repasses there.”
This multi-dimensional thinking has helped give Rhodes Businesses a longevity that surpasses all the love and happiness, death and sadness, that it deals with on a daily basis. In recent years, Joan has taken a step back to allow the younger generations to make their way through. After serving as President of the life insurance company for 30 plus years, she is now semi-retired.
The ingredients of success and the role of poker
What has made her so successful? Joan knows exactly what: “I’m just pushy and try to do my best. I have to remove myself sometimes because what I might want for others is not necessarily what they might want for themselves.” However, that isn’t to say she feels as though she has achieved everything she wants in life. There’s still a lot more to do. In my semi-retired state, I’m playing tournament poker. Yes, that’s what I’m doing, for pleasure. I went to the World Series and cashed in the ladies’ event, WSOP. I recently went on a tour to Rome and Florence, Italy and then a poker cruise around the Greek Islands.”
“I’m having fun. Again, most of the time I’m the only woman in the room and the only black person. When it all falls in place, I get to the final table. You don’t see many of us there. My family thought I was crazy, but I got to do what I got to do.” She continues: “I guess I love adventure. I’m not afraid to venture out. I could get in trouble sometimes, and I have, but it’s worked out. I believe in being free and living the life that I have and trying to get as much out of it as I can.”
A woman and a coloured woman at that!
Joan’s energy is almost too hard to keep up with, as is her passion and zest for life. Perhaps having been surrounded by death for so much of her career, she has identified the value and importance as well as the fleeting briefness – of life, and what it means to actually ‘live’ it. What has added to Joan’s drive in life is the amount she has managed to achieve as a woman of colour during a time when this wasn’t accepted.
As she notes, “I feel like sometimes what I do is take opportunity for things that I like to do and try to make the most of them. In 1977, I moved to the Tremé neighbourhood (known for its jazz clubs, soul food spots and cultural centers celebrating the neighbourhood’s African-American and Creole heritage). My first property was the pink building across the street. I loved this little complex here. There was a little old lady that lived here. She was born here and she died here. She was 98 years old when she passed.”
She continues to explain: “Through time, I was able to acquire this building and the one next door… Now, I still own all three of these properties. These properties were each built by free women of colour. This house, we’re sitting in, was built around the late-1700s by a free woman of colour. I laugh because now I own all three of them, and I’m a free woman of colour… It’s been challenging to move forward and to be a woman. It has its limits. I try not to let it limit me, but often I’m the only person of colour in the room. Many times, I’m the only woman in the room.”
Her true hero was her father: “I think if I have a hero, it is my daddy. He taught me a lot. He encouraged me when others were discouraging. He would come back and say, ‘You know, you had a good idea. It was good that you did that.’ He supported some of my ventures.” She is also inspired by her creole cousin, Marlin Gusman – the sheriff: “He gives a good insight on how to work through the maze of getting to a goal. You might figure out where you’re going, but you’ve got to move around to get there.”
Her Creole heritage
Understanding her Creole heritage is important to Joan. Her message to those from her culture is clear: “For the Creole people, we should cherish our heritage and know who we are. We should represent, where we can, for ourselves and for our families to make things better.” Her mother’s Millaud family came over with the Haitian migration and settled on the West Bank. Her mother married a black man, which was frowned upon for a time, until he employed many of Millaud’s family and friends with his business. Despite now being very proud of her background, it was difficult for her to grow up as Creole: “You were always trying to figure out how you fit in with everything else.”
Dedicated to the Community
Joan continued the legacy of her parents who have contributed tremendously to the development of the community. After retiring as President of the Rhodes Life Insurance Company of New Orleans and full-time duties in Family Corporate Boards, Joan dedicates more of her time to community projects. She is presently involved in Real Estate Development as well as the Redevelopment of the City of New Orleans. Her commitment is to see both the cultural and economic renewal of the city restored.
As a resident of Tremé, she is an active participant in many Cultural events in the local area. Her past affiliations include: President of New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival & Foundation (NOJHFF), Board Member of the French Market Corporation, Member of National Jazz Commission, Member of Louisiana State Music Commission, Member of Historic Tremé Neighbourhood Association and Vice President of Armstrong Redevelopment Corporation, During her Presidency of the NOJHFF, the Foundation acquired the adjoining building now known as “The George and Joyce Wein Jazz & Heritage Center” at 1205 N. Rampart St, on the edge of Tremé. The building was in a dire state. After the renovation, the Foundation won an award for its stunning restoration. Today, the building serves as the Foundation’s headquarters, music school and a community facility.
Currently Joan is working with the community effort to re-establish The New Orleans African American Museum in Tremé. Last year she was the 34th Grand Marshall and the first lady Grand Marshall of The Sudan Social & Pleasure Club and the 2017 Honoree of the Tremé Festival by the Historic Tremé Neighbourhood Association.
The future: her 3 wishes
Times have changed from then and now. Joan’s concerns for future generations is very different from what may have worried her in the past. If she had three wishes, these would include peace, happiness and development.
More poignantly, perhaps she adds: “I would wish that there was more opportunity for the children and the grandchildren; that they didn’t have to go through some of this craziness. Let’s see. If I had a wish for my city, it would be to fully develop Armstrong Park. I moved here in 1977 and part of moving from a very secure environment to this neighbourhood, which wasn’t this neighbourhood then, was the promise of development of the park. In Tremé, there were beautiful buildings, but many of them were dilapidated. It was wild on the street. It was loud. I think it’s coming, but Armstrong Park is still not what it was supposed to be. It’s been 12 years since Hurricane Katrina and the municipal auditorium is undone.”
With her indomitable determination to get things done, this is perhaps less a wish and more a looming reality. With it, Rhodes will truly cement herself at the heart of her community.