The few hundred people who danced, sang and prayed at Saturday’s funeral service hadn’t personally known the deceased, who died 250 years ago.
Yet they knew something about the people whose lives they celebrated, through LSU’s FACES forensic lab, which X-rayed, reconstructed and studied the 15 bodies excavated from a French Quarter courtyard in 2011 and determined that they were people of African, Native American and mixed heritage — in other words, New Orleanians.
The Catholic church service reflected that diversity, as a Native American chief sang an appeal to the creator in Choctaw and African dancers dressed in white danced to the beat of African drums and tapped white sticks on the ground, in a tradition understood as a call to ancestors, asking them to join the ceremonies of the living in the procession to St. Louis Cemetery No. 1.
The bodies were reinterred in an archdiocesan crypt after a procession led by the Treme Brass Band and members of the Black Men of Labor Social Aid and Pleasure Club.
The area’s mixed Indian-black heritage is celebrated not only through the Mardi Gras Indian tradition in New Orleans but also through the Louisiana Band of Choctaw on the north shore, Chief Shawn Stone Bear Murphy said.
While some have attempted to assign more modern roots to the city’s tradition of black people masking as Indians, these bodies proved that the history is much older, said Sabrina Mays-Montana, who helped to organize Saturday’s service with the Umoja Committee and whose husband, Big Chief Darryl Montana, leads the Yellow Pocahontas Mardi Gras Indian tribe.
“It’s not a surprise,” Montana said. “But it is a confirmation that there were native people who were black and were here in the city even before the Louisiana Purchase.”
A few centuries ago, the 15 bodies were given Catholic rites of burial and interred in the St. Peter Street Cemetery, which was then located at the edge of the small city and served as the burial ground for nearly everyone from the city for almost 70 years starting in 1722. Its history is well documented. Hundreds of bodies still lie under that block of the French Quarter, bounded by St. Peter, Toulouse, North Rampart and Burgundy streets.
“At the time, pretty much everyone in the city was buried here,” said Ryan Gray, a University of New Orleans archaeologist. “It is representative of the city’s entire colonial population.”
Still, Gray noted, it seems that the graveyard is periodically forgotten, then rediscovered every few decades when construction projects find human remains.
No one was excluded
In 1972, for instance, a woman hunting for bottles found a coffin, which led to a discovery of five coffins at the site of what now is the Maison Dupuy Hotel.
In 1984, it was reported that “hundreds of coffins” had been uncovered during a construction project on the block and that people were taking bones and skulls as souvenirs. The FACES lab ended up removing 29 bodies from that site; they were probably reinterred in the same crypt as those interred on Saturday, though a forensic lab report on the matter is still pending, Gray said.
Though the St. Peter Street Cemetery was considered a Catholic cemetery, that didn’t really exclude anyone, said archivist Emilie Leumas, of the Archdiocese of New Orleans. “Back then, everyone had to be Catholic. It was the law,” she said.
Under the law, which made Catholicism the only religion of the French and later Spanish colony of Louisiana, all slaves were to be given religious instruction and buried in consecrated ground. Owners who didn’t take care of slaves in this way were subjected to the wrath of the local priest and fined, Leumas noted.
The population of the colony was roughly 50-50, slaves and colonists. Those working with the remains are unsure whether the recently exhumed bones come from a section of the graveyard where more black people were buried or whether, as Gray said, it reflects “the demographics of death at that time in New Orleans,” where black people and Indians, who were often held in bondage, may have been more likely to die.
Under Spanish law, the church couldn’t own any land, even consecrated land. So when the cemetery started to get full, it was the king of Spain who issued a decree in 1789 to close the cemetery and create a new burial ground, which became St. Louis Cemetery No. 1.
The king also ordered that the St. Peter Street Cemetery eventually be sold for the construction of houses, as was common practice at the time. “The whole idea of a cemetery as ‘a permanent resting place’ is a fairly new idea,” Gray said. The land was sold at auction in 1800.
More than a century later, part of the nearby Iberville public housing development was built on top of a section of St. Louis No. 1, which once extended nearly a block farther toward Canal Street than at present. Though Iberville residents and archaeologists alike knew there were graves underfoot, developers recently were forced to redraw plans for one block of the Iberville complex’s planned redevelopment so that they wouldn’t be disturbing anyone’s eternal rest.
Negotiated resting places
New Orleanian Vincent Marcello knew the history of the St. Peter Street Cemetery, and so, when he decided to build a swimming pool behind his luxury condominium development in 2011, he hired Gray to check the ground for remains. Four feet down, Gray’s shovel hit a cypress coffin.
Both law and archaeological practice generally stipulate that historic remains should stay where they are found, in the ground. So excavation work was halted until Marcello consulted with the Louisiana Division of Archaeology and the Attorney General’s Office.
After negotiations, archaeologists from Earth Search, working with Gray and the LSU FACES forensic team, were allowed to remove the human remains before the pool’s deep end was dug. Thirteen cypress coffins and two additional bodies, possibly buried in shrouds without coffins, were ultimately removed from the top 5 feet of soil. The coffins buried deeper in the ground or beneath other parts of the courtyard were left behind. They are considered to be protected by the concrete poured for the pool and patio.
During that dig, Gray and his colleagues found an iron strap hinge that would have formed an impromptu cross, possibly a grave marker. Through tests of the soil, they found pollen, indicating that people were buried with flowers. They also found a grave with an oyster shell buried at the head of it, which is linked to Central African traditions, Gray said.
Saturday morning’s rainfall also was analyzed through diverse lenses. “It’s a sacred day,” said drummer Luther Gray, who noted that, in African traditions, rain on the day of a funeral is symbolic of a sky opening to give blessings. In the Choctaw tradition, rain is seen as a purification, a washing away of the bad to allow the good to flourish.
Even the project that removed the bodies from the ground came from “the intent to bring water” — a swimming pool, said Reggie Diop Green, who performed a traditional African burial rite at St. Louis No. 1.
He said he believes that something was not right with the original burials and the bodies needed to be reinterred correctly. “Their bones were revealed for a reason,” he said.