The Pierre Parlante Project seeks to revitalize Lafayette Cemetery No. 2 (LC2) by sourcing funds for its physical restoration through its productive use as an educational space.
Established in the late 1840s, LC2 resembles the other cemeteries of the city—above-ground family tombs are scattered in a grid over the land, interrupted periodically by the hulking forms of society tombs. However, LC2 holds a unique place in the hierarchy of New Orleans cemeteries. While tourists invade Lafayette No. 1, and Saint Louis No. 1 and 2, LC2 welcomes hardly any camera-toting visitors. Its location in Central City, a district known for its crime rate and dilapidated housing stock, has insulated it from the tourism industry. When mentioned in literature, it is described as surrounded by a “slum” and laying “very little claim to good or even interesting monumental architecture.”
Nevertheless, the cemetery harbors rare artefacts of the social and racial history of New Orleans and of America at large, while also being embedded within the fabric of a vibrant neighborhood, Central City. Standing towards the rear of the cemetery is the tomb of the French Butchers’ Society (1857), the final resting place of the plaintiffs from one of the most infamous legal cases in American history. In 1873, the Slaughterhouse Cases rendered the ‘privileges and immunities’ clause of the Fourteenth Amendment toothless for over a century. This case was a key element in the ultimate failure of the Reconstruction effort in the South.
Close to the historically Black section of the cemetery, the Butchers’ Society tomb stands surrounded by 18 vaults constructed by African-American benevolent societies. These societies date back to the 1880s and were originally founded to provide private life insurance and financial support to their members. Their tombs, constructed by and for the Black community, are some of the oldest surviving Black monuments in the city. They stand as testimony to resilience and ingenuity in the face of systematic oppression, frozen in contradiction to the Butchers’ Society over a century later. Even more compelling, one of these societies, the Young Men Olympian Jr. Benevolent Society continues to thrive today, active both in the cemetery and in the community.
Lafayette Cemetery No. 2 poses questions faced by many cemeteries across the country. How can these spaces, at once an invaluable repository of history and memory, become amenities to the communities they serve?
In collaboration with local partners, the Pierre Parlante Project will harness resources to transform Lafayette Cemetery No. 2 into an immersive educational space. The physical maintenance of LC2 is crucial to the preservation of its built archive of historic moments and movements. An architectural restoration process therefore goes hand-in-hand with the development of LC2 as an educational resource.
Though grants to fund brick-and-mortar work are rare, there are many grants which support educational programs and efforts to preserve and aggregate historic information. Pierre Parlante will offer field trips covering Louisiana state curricula in history, art and science, as well as skill-related workshops where students will receive hands-on training from expert masons and plasterers. Finally, the organization will offer ethical tours of the cemetery, focusing on giving visitors a non-exploitative look at some of the city’s emblematic structures.
From this income, the project will sponsor physical restoration projects, starting with the 18 African-American Benevolent Society tombs. These projects will eventually be supplemented by the design and construction of an adjacent facility, which will act as a workshop, living history exhibition space and a community archive.
Following the project, a team of two filmmakers, William Sabourin-O’Reilly and Antonia Zennaro, will capture the process of this effort to make the institutional knowledge publicly available for those wishing to replicate the project.