The Elephant in the Room: Burial Site of Enslaved People and Contested Jurisdiction at McDonoghville Cemetery

In 2016, the Jefferson Parish Historic District sponsored the erection of a state marker recognizing the McDonoghville Cemetery’s historical significance. This marker does not mention the enslaved and freed people buried at this site.

McDonoghville Cemetery is a burial site of enslaved and formerly enslaved people. This cemetery was once a part of enslaver John McDonogh’s plantation. According to a 1915 interview with Jacob Dinckel, then sexton of the McDonoghville Cemetery, this “‘colored’ graveyard consisted of an army of white wooden headboards quaintly lettered and surmounted by crosses [...] with their feet to the rising sun.” [1] These wooden markers are long-gone and today McDonoghville Cemetery is dominated by marble, granite, copings, and some unmarked mounds. Upon his death in 1850, John McDonogh was buried in the McDonoghville Cemetery and later reinterred in his native Baltimore in 1860. [2] According to Dinckel, after McDonogh’s death, a person formerly enslaved by McDonogh buried Black and white people side by side in the McDonoghville Cemetery. [1]

The history surrounding the ownership and municipal jurisdiction of McDonoghville Cemetery is complicated. In 1890, forty years after McDonogh’s death, the McDonoghville Cemetery came to the attention of Joseph A. Shakspeare, Mayor of New Orleans, when The Daily Picayune reported that a citizens’ group complained that “a colored man claim[ed] to be the owner of the ground.” [3] According to the article, the man caring for the cemetery said that “his father, [...] belonged to McDonogh and the cemetery was left to him,” and that he “... sells lots in the cemetery but can show no title when called upon to produce it.” [3] Mayor Shakspeare subsequently ordered the relocation and racial segregation of the people buried in the cemetery. [1] In 1891, Mayor Shakspeare granted the Jefferson Parish Police Jury use of the cemetery on behalf of the City of New Orleans. [2, 4] Since then, the City of New Orleans has maintained a hands-off approach to the McDonoghville Cemetery, with the rare exception of allotting funds to maintain McDonogh’s tomb. [2]

When McDonogh purchased plantation land on the Westbank of the Mississippi River in the early nineteenth century, the property was considered part of Orleans Parish. In 1825, the Louisiana State Legislature created Jefferson Parish by carving land out of Orleans Parish, this new parish line bisected McDonogh’s plantation. [5] Today, the parish line runs diagonally through McDonoghville Cemetery. [6] When the City of Gretna, located in Jefferson Parish, incorporated in 1913, the portion of McDonoghville Cemetery on the Jefferson side of the parish line was then also within the boundaries of the City of Gretna. John Ehret, then Mayor of Gretna, formed a commission to enable the City of Gretna to take control of McDonoghville Cemetery. [7] A title search referenced by historian G. Leighton Ciravolo “suggests that McDonoghville Cemetery has never been formally conveyed either to the Parish of Jefferson or the City of Gretna.” [2]

In 2016, the Jefferson Parish Historic District sponsored the erection of a state marker recognizing the historical significance of McDonoghville Cemetery. This marker states that John McDonogh created the cemetery and it is the final resting place for “many prominent local families.” Even though historical evidence documents that McDonoghville Cemetery served as a burial site for enslaved and freed people, the marker makes no mention of them. Community members are appealing to the various municipalities and organizations connected to McDonoghville Cemetery to have McDonoghville Cemetery’s historical significance as a burial site of enslaved and freed people formally acknowledged.



McDonoghville Cemetery, 520 Hancock St, Gretna, LA 70053