Today the blocks bound by Magnolia, Seventh, Freret, and Sixth streets appear to be a vacant greenspace. However, for nearly a century, these two blocks housed the Thomy Lafon School complex. Originally built in 1906, the property operated as a school throughout the twentieth century until 2005, when it was damaged by Hurricane Katrina. The main school building was demolished in August 2011. Archaeologists monitored this process and discovered that the two blocks once occupied by this school had an even longer history as the site of two nineteenth century cemeteries called Locust Grove Cemeteries Nos. 1 and 2.
The Locust Grove Cemeteries No. 1 and No. 2. were established between 1865-1879 for the city’s indigent residents. By this period, there were several cemeteries in this vicinity including Lafayette Cemeteries Nos. 1 and 2 and St Joseph Cemeteries Nos. 1 and 2. The Lafayette cemeteries were municipal, ostensibly reserved for residents of what was then the city’s Fourth District, while the St. Joseph Cemeteries only interred bodies for a fee. Lafayette Cemetery No 2. had recently been overwhelmed with burials after the devastating Yellow Fever outbreak in 1853, and was ordered to be closed for burials outside of the Fourth District. Atypically, and possibly part of Reconstruction Era policies, a plot of land was reserved in Lafayette Cemetery No. 2 in which to bury Black residents from the Fourth District who could pay. Black residents whose families could not pay would be buried in the new cemetery, called Locust Grove.
The first Locust Grove Cemetery was opened in 1865. In March 1877, the city opened Locust Grove Cemetery No. 2. In 1878, yet another Yellow Fever epidemic overwhelmed the city; the conditions of the cemeteries began deteriorating, and the citizens and officials of New Orleans began to take notice. Many individuals reported grim encounters and gave details of piled up bodies, exposed corpses, and multiple bodies shoved into one grave. In January 1880, only 27 years after the first and 3 years after the second, The Daily Picayune reported that the Locust Grove Cemeteries were closed, covered with soil, and sown with grass seed. In the years after its closing the land was used as a dumping ground.
Within only a couple of decades, a school for Black students was constructed near the former Locust Grove Cemeteries. This school was named in remembrance of the late Thomy Lafon, a Black philanthropist in New Orleans. The first building accommodated 500 students. Soon after, the school was burned down in conjunction with the Race Riot of 1900 sparked by the murder of Robert Charles.
The African American residents of New Orleans began petitioning for the school to be rebuilt. Plans were underway by March 1905 and the second Thomy Lafon School was ready by the 1906-1907 school year. This time, the City Council selected the site of the former Locust Grove Cemeteries to build the second school. A playground was built in the summer of 1915 and it became the first playground in the U.S. established for African American children. In 1922, Thomy Lafon School had 30 classrooms and 2,515 students enrolled, making it the largest African American elementary school in the United States.
This layered site contains some of the best and worst aspects of New Orleans’ history. When looking at New Orleans’ rich history of cemetery use and funerary activities, there are some unique themes that can be uncovered. Setting certain spaces aside for the dead, classifying people after death based on wealth or race, and deciding who should be buried where are all cultural patterns that reflect and can often be predicted by one’s status while alive. As we see in Locust Cemeteries, the ways someone’s body was handled after death was contingent on emerging politics, like those shifting across New Orleans’ Reconstruction-era landscape. The mistreatment and mishandling of the human remains of New Orleans’ poor and Black residents is unfortunately seen repeatedly in archaeological sites like Locust Grove Cemetery.
When analyzing this space through the context of the Thomy Lafon School, similar themes echo. A large part of Louisiana’s past consists of inequality and prejudice towards African American residents from slavery to segregation. The transfer of a polluted, indigent burial ground into a school for Black children reflects broader patterns of systematic racism. Even so, Thomy Lafon School, established as a successful Black school during the era of separate but equal, represented the city’s Black excellence and resistance to racism. The school’s perseverance and success over the years highlights the theme of progress and advancement for the African American community in New Orleans throughout the twentieth century.