The Pythian Temple building at Gravier and Loyola (formerly Saratoga) streets was erected in 1909, and was soundly celebrated throughout the United States in the African American press as a true monument to the literal heights of the “Negro race.” The Pythian Temple was an exciting symbol of the power of the black race in the face of growing hostilities in the post-Reconstruction Jim Crow era.
Smith Wendell Green, born into slavery, became a self-made millionaire as a grocer and through his work in insurance and print media. In 1908 he was elected leader of the Colored Knights of the Pythias of Louisiana, where he promptly set about securing finances to construct the stately building.
The Pythian Temple building was an institution that supported African American entertainment, arts, social activities, education, business, and activism. Booker T. Washington spoke there on one of his tours of the South. African Americans who were turned away from the Republican Southern Convention, because the hosting hotel did not allow black patrons, met at the Pythian Temple instead. Sidney Bechet played in the rooftop garden. Members of a neighborhood club known as “The Tramps” attended a vaudeville show at the theater. Later this group formed a benevolent aid society with themes based on a skit in the show at the Pythian. Today the group is known as the Zulu Social Aid and Pleasure Club.
The Pythian Temple was the physical manifestation of black achievement against great odds. The rooms that formed the offices, theaters, auditoriums, and halls did more than provide square footage to employers and consumers. Indeed, the rooms provided community spaces where insurance companies, banks, newspapers, barber shops, benevolent societies, social, political, and religious organizations shaped the institutional framework for creative expression that continues to be the heartbeat of the city, and a self-reliant and self-sufficient black community.