In our earlier Virtual Exhibit “Our Neighborhood,” we explored why the community of Corona, Queens meant so much to Louis and Lucille Armstrong. Between the time they moved in in 1943 until Lucille’s passing in 1983, the Armstrongs were beloved by the residents of 107th Street. This will be the first post in a series that will focus on some of their neighbors and their memories of Louis and Lucille. (If you or someone you know lived in Corona when the Armstrong’s were there, leave us a comment as we’d love to hear from you, even if it’s only a quick story or anecdote!)
The only place to start such a series is with “Little Dynamite” herself, Selma Heraldo. Though Selma passed away in 2011, she was a fixture at the Armstrong from the time it opened in October 2003. We never knew when she would show up but at least once a day, she would make an appearance and regale visitors with tales of her famous neighbors. After Selma passed away, our longtime Director, the late Michael Cogswell, remarked, “As a museum director, having Selma here was something like being able to go to Mount Vernon, George Washington’s home, and meeting a next-door neighbor who remembers George and Martha.”‘
Selma was born on May 16, 1923 and lived her entire 88-year life at 34-52 107th Street in Corona. Her mother, Adele, knew Lucille from the time young Lucille spent living in Corona and was the one who alerted her that the home at 34-56 107th Street was for sale in 1943. Louis grew to love Adele Heraldo, affectionately referring to her as “Moms,” as shown in this autographed photo from the 1960s.
Though Selma was seven years younger than Lucille, the two hit it off and became not only friends, but also traveling companions as Selma accompanied the All Stars on their tours of the United States between 1949 and 1952 and would help Lucille pass the time during the daytime while her husband normally slept. Here’s a photo of young Selma relaxing outdoor, as found in one of Lucille’s scrapbooks:
After 1952, Selma began working as a telephone operator and disappeared from the public life. She never married and stayed put at 34-52 107th Street, living with her brother Arthur, who passed away in 1999. She eventually retired from the phone company and seemed destined to live a quiet life in retirement….until the Louis Armstrong House Museum opened in 2003.
Selma had already been on the advisory board for the House Museum and was frequently in touch with Cogswell during the planning and restoration of the National Historic Landmark. She had never given interviews or presentations and was a bit baffled when Cogswell offered her the opportunity to talk about the Armstrongs at the Smithsonian Institution in 2000. Selma told story after story to a standing-room-only crowd and overnight, a star was born.
Selma didn’t travel much in the final decade of her life, but she did make three memorable trips to Satchmo Summerfest in New Orleans to tell stories of her life. One of her interviews with Cogswell from the 2005 was filmed and we will share it below. Early in the presentation, Cogswell shows two photos from Opening Day of the Louis Armstrong House Museum in 2003. Because the camera doesn’t pan up, we’d like to show those photos here:
And as a postscript to the story of Selma’s house, she left it to the Louis Armstrong House Museum in her will. We have been using it as office space and as a green room ever since she passed, but we’re excited to report that we’ve received nearly $2 million in funding from the City to help us renovate and restore Selma’s House. It will always remain an integral part of our “campus” on 107th Street. Thank you, Selma!
Now, to close, Selma telling her story in her own words to Michael Cogswell at Satchmo Summerfest in 2005. We miss both Selma and Michael dearly and are thankful to have wonderful memories of their dedication to Louis, Lucille, the Armstrong House and especially the community of Corona, Queens.