Michael Mizell-Nelson, historian of the po-boy and streetcar, dies at 49

Historians in the News
tags: New Orleans



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Michael Mizell-Nelson, a historian so steeped in New Orleans culture that he spent 12 years researching the origin and name of po-boy sandwiches, died Monday of cancer at his New Orleans home. He was 49.

Dr. Mizell-Nelson, who co-produced a documentary about the city's streetcars that aired on PBS stations and set up websites for sharing New Orleans lore, "was more of a historian of the people than of the powerful," said his wife, Cathe Mizell-Nelson. "He loved the roots of any movement, any historical period. He was into collective action and the cultures that grew from those grass-roots kinds of efforts."

This was the way Dr. Mizell-Nelson, an associate professor of history at the University of New Orleans, approached jazz and Mardi Gras, as well as po-boys. He established that the sandwiches were named by Martin Brothers Restaurant in 1929 to feed impoverished streetcar operators while they were on strike.

The sandwiches got their name, Dr. Mizell-Nelson said, because Bennie and Clovis Martin, the grocery store's proprietors, called the striking drivers "poor boys." Drawing on his po-boy scholarship and his knowledge of food history, Dr. Mizell-Nelson was in charge of panel discussions and other educational components of the annual Oak Street Po-Boy Festival.




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