In Memoriam: Barbara Lacen-Keller

The PRC is heartbroken by the passing of our board member Barbara Lacen-Keller, who died Jan. 16 from cancer.

At the core of all that she did, Ms. Barbara was passionate about serving her community. And she had many “communities.” She was a New Orleanian to the core, born in Treme, the former “mayor” of Central City (a nickname affectionately given to her by former New Orleans Mayor Marc Morial), a resident of the East, and a member of the PRC’s Board of Directors and that of the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Foundation, among others. She was a civic leader working for the city for many years as a champion for New Orleans culture, including second lines, Mardi Gras Indian masking, and more. Behind all of her work was a passion for improving the lives of New Orleanians, and keeping our city authentic for the city’s residents, whom she loved deeply.

As the head of PRC’s Multicultural Heritage Committee since 2017, Ms. Barbara brought so much wisdom and experience to the role, but she always ensured that everyone’s opinions were heard and respected. She helped spearhead that committee’s evolution from the African American Heritage Committee to the Multicultural Heritage Committee in that exact spirit: she wanted to be sure that all histories were elevated by the PRC’s work. It was an important shift, and one that has given us such vital work to do.

For many years, Ms. Barbara also was active in the PRC’s Ladies in Red gala, which raised money for the recognition and preservation of sites of significance to the city’s jazz history and for youth education. For incredibly impactful work, the PRC recognized her with a Civic Leadership Award in 2020. At the time of the award, then PRC president Gordon McLeod said, “Barbara’s dedication to our city and its preservation is seemingly boundless. She has been a dedicated public servant in her professional career but also in volunteering her time to PRC’s Ladies In Red event, the Neighborhood Council and, more recently, in leading the PRC’s Multicultural Heritage Committee and serving on our Board of Directors. We are so fortunate to have her expertise and leadership.”

Barbara Lacen-Keller cuts the ribbon at PRC’s rehabilitation of the Straight University Boarding House and Dining Hall in 2017.

Ms. Barbara’s long history with the PRC is even more impressive when you learn that she was initially against preservation. When the Albertsons grocery store chain wanted to tear down part of Central City to build a store on St. Charles Avenue, Ms. Barbara fought against the PRC, Felicity Redevelopment and others trying to stop the development. She told us that she hated preservationists then. But longtime PRC leader Patty Gay changed her mind, Ms. Barbara said. Once Patty explained that the PRC cared about more than just buildings — that the organization aims to celebrate the history of all of New Orleans’ people, as well as its structures — Ms. Barbara opened her mind and heart to it, recognizing how this work could have an immense impact on our city’s trajectory. She understood how valuing the contributions of New Orleanians of all colors and creeds could bring peace and joy to our city. Her personal history with preservation amazes us — not only did she change her mind about what preservation could do, and for who, but then she became a leader within that very movement she once derided. What strength and will that took. She knew how to unite people and get things done.

‘The PRC feels so fortunate to have learned so much from her. Her kindness lit up our meetings. During Covid, she’d close our meetings by saying, “Remember: wash your hands, wear a mask, and be kind to others.” Even in those dark days, she would brighten our spirits and help us stay focused on the important work she was proud to support.

Barbara Lacen Keller and former PRC Executive Director Patty Gay at a Julia Jump fundraiser