Michelle Duhon, the owner of Bayou Preservation LLC, crouched over a red bucket placed near the entrance of Lafayette Cemetery No. 2 in Central City on Sunday, washing soft red bricks with a mixture of vinegar and water.
Nearby, mason Eddie Payne was at work under a bright orange tent, laying a mixture of lime, sand and cement on a tomb belonging to the Law Height Benevolent Association, organized in 1928. He assembled bricks on top of the tomb, fitting them together like pieces of a puzzle.
“Everyone out here really cares about old cemeteries,” said Duhon, wiping sweat off her brow. “We’re pooling our resources and knowledge to get this done.”
Duhon and several masons were working in the small, city-owned burial ground in the oppressive heat Sunday at the request of Save Our Cemeteries, a nonprofit group that works to preserve and protect the city’s historic cemeteries.
The organization regularly does maintenance, but this particular project of patching tombs in Lafayette No. 2 was initiated after a recent story in The New Orleans Advocate about vandalism there, said Amanda Walker, the group’s executive director.
“We’ve noticed a lot of open vaults. You do see remains, and it’s very disrespectful,” Walker said as she pointed to a tomb belonging to the Young Men’s Olympian Jr. Benevolent Association, which had a gaping hole in its front façade.
The hole had been covered up following the discovery in May that many bricks had been removed, but only temporarily. Walker said she was there to provide a more permanent fix by overseeing a project that the city of New Orleans wouldn’t take on.
“It’s our job to step in,” she said about the cemetery, which houses some historically significant resting places but is crumbling in disrepair. “We think this is an emergency situation.”
Funds for the repairs came from historic tours conducted by Save Our Cemeteries, as well as an outpouring of donations by the Firemen’s Charitable & Benevolent Association and others following media reports about the vandalism.
The tombs belonging to the Young Men’s Olympian Jr. Benevolent Association, founded in 1884, are significant to New Orleanians, Walker said. Indeed, the group has a rich history, having provided health and burial insurance for ex-slaves.
Its celebrations also helped give rise to the birth of jazz. One such event was highlighted in a flier from 1900, which advertised a “Grand Ball” — to benefit a tomb fund — where the John Robichaux Imperial Orchestra played the musical genre’s earliest forms.
More than 100 years later, the Young Men’s Olympian Jr. is still in business. When longtime member Alfred “Bucket” Carter died at age 80 in March, he was interred in the cemetery with great fanfare.
The Young Men’s Olympian Jr.’s tombs are some of the best-preserved in the cemetery, which was founded about 1850 in what was then the independent city of Lafayette.
Elsewhere, however, once-magnificent Greek Revival and Italianate burial structures litter the grounds, their chipped and broken pieces strewn about.
Inside tombs built for members of the Butchers Association, bright candle wax stained the limestone grave marker. Save Our Cemeteries had put an iron fence around the structure, but vandals found their way in anyway.
“It’s not something we want to see here,” Walker said.
The scene around the tombs was equally distressing. Weeds were nearly waist-high, and the masons worried about the fire ants and poison ivy that had found homes in the rundown resting place. And outside the cemetery, a fire hydrant was gushing water, flooding the Saratoga Street sidewalk.
The city is responsible for maintaining the grounds of the Central City cemetery. But advocates say it gets much less attention than other cemeteries nearby, like Lafayette Cemetery No. 1 in the Garden District.
Even though it’s located half-a-dozen blocks away, Lafayette Cemetery No. 2 isn’t considered a tourist attraction and therefore doesn’t get the funds it needs, Walker said.
“It’s not visited much, except by people in the neighborhood,” she said.
On Sunday, however, at least one tourist seemed thankful for Save Our Cemeteries, Bayou Preservation and the masons, who had come to patch up at least four tombs belonging to famous New Orleans associations and societies.
Danny Camacho, a member of Save Austin’s Cemeteries, had traveled from Texas to observe the restoration project. He marveled at the cemetery’s architecture and the history its structures preserved.
“These are very sensitive places,” he said about historic cemeteries. “Unless someone out there is advocating for them … well, the city has to have a reminder that they have an obligation to care for them.”