by Keith Weldon Medley
The Pythian Temple is one of New Orleans iconic structures. Just as the Custom House on Canal Street symbolized commerce in New Orleans in the 1900s, the Pythian Temple at 234 Loyola Avenue (then, Saratoga Street) became a crowning achievement for a new-century generation of progressive African Americans. In the era of Jim Crow racial segregation, they faced their future with dignity and pride.
A Pythian Temple historic marker was erected on April 6, 2017, in Duncan Plaza at the corner of Gravier and Loyola. The plaque was sponsored by The Plessy and Ferguson Foundation, ERG Enterprisers, Crescent City Community Land Trust, Green Coast Enterprisers, Studio WTA, and Landis Construction. The plaque unveiling was followed by a “meet and greet” with the partners of the revival on this historic occasion.
The History of the Pythian Temple
The Knights of Pythias was founded on February 19, 1864. It emerged after the end of the Civil War as an integrated fraternal organization. The Knights of Pythias promoted friendship, charity, benevolence, and goodwill among men. Abraham Lincoln himself blessed this endeavor stating, “The purposes of your organization are most wonderful. If we could but bring its spirit to all our citizenry, what a wonderful thing it would be. It breathes the spirit of Friendship, Charity, and Benevolence. It is one of the best agencies conceived for the upholding of government, honoring the flag, for the reuniting of our brethren of the North and of the South, for teaching the people to love one another, and portraying the sanctity of the home and loved ones…I will do all in my power to assist you in this application and with your work.”
However, as time went on, segregationists sought to divide the organization between ‘colored’ and white Pythians. In the 1900s, a prominent African American businessman named Smith W. Green became leader of the Grand Lodge, Colored Order of the Knights of Pythias of Louisiana. A former slave, after Reconstruction Green became wealthy as a grocer, and subsequently became president of the Liberty Independence Insurance company. He had also been a resident of Lake Providence, LA. As a member on the executive committee of the local NAACP in New Orleans, he worked closely with famed New Orleans lawyer A. P. Tureaud as they lobbied for a new hospital for veterans. He was elected supreme chancellor of the Knights of Pythias of Louisiana in 1908. The Pythian Temple was Green’s dream and his crowning achievement.
Constructed at a cost of more than $200,000, Green’s proposed Pythian Temple was fireproof, majestic, and built and operated by people of African descent. Made of steel, iron, brick terra-cotta and cement, the temple was 64 feet wide and 102 feet high and had five stories. It had one office and quarters for a bank on the ground floor; a theatre with balcony on the second floor; a large meeting hall and eight suites of offices on the third floor; a meeting hall for the Pythian lodges and a banquet room and seven rooms on the fourth floor. Odd Fellows lodges and a convention hall and seven rooms occupied the fifth floor.
The Times-Picayune described the Pythian Temple as “the biggest business enterprise ever attempted by the colored race in the United States.”
The Indiana Free Press called the Pythian Temple “the largest and finest building owned and controlled by colored people in the world. This is the first handsome structure erected by the race in this city without assistance from the whites, and it is all the more credit to them that the funds were raised entirely among themselves, and the project was devised by them and carried through without any appeal to well-wishers of the dominant race. It should stand as a monument to what the Negro can accomplish…”
Under the leadership of Green and his followers, the building became a beacon of pride for African Americans. In June of 1908, the Pythians laid their cornerstone at Gravier and Saratoga St. In 1909, the building was dedicated with a large crowd attending. Even in this glorious setting, New Orleans civic leader Philip Werlein and the cities’ segregationists demanded that the building be designated the ‘colored’ Pythian Temple and boycotted when Green did not comply.
Green responded stating, “I do not believe that the conscience of the American people will permit those who are broadminded to endeavor to stop us in promoting the principals of friendship, charity and benevolence and good morals among our people because of the accident of birth or the color of his skin as well as previous conditions of servitude.”
The ceremonies moved forward and featured orchestral music with selections from the St. James A. M. E. choir and the glee club of the Dryades Street YMCA. African American lawyer J. Madison Vance who was a 1912 delegate to the Republican National Convention engendered frequent applause as he spoke of the “Power of Organization and its effects upon Civilization.” Following the dedication on August 18, 1909, The Times-Picayune declared, “New Orleans Negroes Lead Their Race in Enterprise.”
The Pythian Temple Building and its Environs
The Pythian Temple became more than a handsome building. It was the life blood of commerce, social life, school functions and the backbone of black New Orleans. The structure housed law offices, People’s Insurance Company and Guillaume College. Many of the masonic and social lodges clubs held their meetings at the Pythian Temple.
The Pythian Temple stood on the cusp of the New Orleans’ Black Storyville neighborhood. It was where Louis Armstrong, the Baby Dolls and Jazz took root. Its boundaries roughly included Tulane, Gravier, Perdido, North and South Poydras, and Lafayette which paralleled Canal Street. The perpendicular streets from the river toward the lake were Dryades, South Rampart, Saratoga, South Franklin, South Liberty, Howard, and Freret Street.
When the city established Ordinance No. 13,485 C.S. to create the Storyville red light district, it also established a four-block area called ‘uptown’ or Black Storyville. Black Storyville did not house the glitz, glamour, and top-shelf champagne of its more famous neighbor across Canal Street. The census of the era depicts Black Storyville as serving the working class men and women who labored on the steamboats, at the sewer works, in coal yards, as laundresses, in sugar plants, as blacksmiths, in sawmills and other industries that kept New Orleans afloat.
The Pythian Population
The opening of the Pythian Temple provided opportunity and space for entrepreneurs large or small. The NAACP had an office there as did the Plasterers Union, who met every first and third Monday of every week. The fraternal group Seven Stars of Consolidation met every first Wednesday at the Pythian Temple. In room 107, Guillaume College provided classes in shorthand, typewriting, bookkeeping, English, and preparing students for civil service exams. It promoted its curriculum as “The Best Afternoon and Night School”. The “Business Journal Printing House” was housed at the Pythian Temple.
“Do you own a home?” queried James A. Sample who was a contractor and builder. He beckoned potential customers into his office in the Pythian Temple room 301 with an “easy monthly payment plan.”
I.E. Mullon, M. D., operated in room at the 405 Pythian Temple. The Peoples’ Benevolent, Industrial, Life Insurance Co. (of Louisiana) had Walter L. Cohen and Louis J. Joubert had their office in the Pythian Temple.
There was a bank on the ground floor and a combination theater and auditorium on the second floor. There were a myriad of lodges, Union Halls, Scottish Rites temples, fraternal organizations and Freemasons and houses of worship. The societies that met at the Pythian Temple were the Bricklayer’s Union, Carriage Drivers, Lather’s Unions, the Queen Anne Temple, S. M. T., St. Elizabeth, S. M. T., Golden Rule, C. P. of H, Grand Temple, Love and Friendship, Pure in Heart, Queen Ester, and Screwmen’s Benevolent Association.
The Woods Directory
Another mainstay of African American enterprise that emanated from the Pythian Temple was a book called the Woods Directory. Published annually from 1912 through 1914, the book documented the spirit of black New Orleans with over a thousand listings of businesses, large and small professional, manufacturing, food and beverage, construction and the trades. Much of the Pythian Temple’s customers were chronicled by Allen T. Woods, a stenographer who had a vision of progress in the era of segregation. In 1915, he wrote, “New Orleans is now passing through the most interesting period of its history. Great heads are at work devising ways and means to meet the vast trade which must of necessity come with the opening of the Panama Canal. Ideas are being formed to work out the new problems and conditions which confront us. Antiquated methods must go. In this great movement the colored people must play a part.”
The Pythian Temple was an adjunct to the Woods Directory. It provided the imagery and access to the dreams of the 1900s. As the publisher of The Woods Directory, stenographer Allen T. Woods presented a fascinating picture of the work-a-day world of New Orleans’ black citizenry. At the Pythian Temple, for as little as 25 cents, Woods published the business cards of the city’s black tradesmen and tradeswomen, musicians, modistes, market vendors, hair stylists, and caterers. Larger concerns such as construction companies and funeral homes purchased full-page ads which Woods accentuated with illustrations and photographs. After soliciting advertisements from across the city, Woods organized, printed, and distributed 5,000 free copies of his directory. The directory’s production garnered praise from prominent people nationwide.
Booker T. Washington wrote, “Such a publication as this is bound to accomplish great good, and I congratulate you upon the enterprise of your Colored business men which makes such a publication as this possible.”
The Secretary of the New Orleans Board of Trade wrote to say that he was “agreeably surprised to see the large number of your people engaged in different business enterprises.”
The NAACP’s Crisis magazine observed that the “Woods Directory shows the remarkable organization of the Colored population.”
Even in the era of Jim Crow, there were undeniable accomplishments and milestones.
Music in the Air
The Black Storyville area and its culture was a hotbed for music and the arts. It was the stomping grounds for Louis ‘Satchmo’ Armstrong who honed his music there. Louis Armstrong came to age on Perdido Street not far from where the Pythian Temple stood and where New Orleans City Hall now stands. In his autobiography, Satchmo said, “As we got off the car,” I looked straight down Liberty Street. Crowds of people were moving up and down as far as my eyes could see.” 1
In 1913 in the shadow of the Pythian Temple, Louis was arrested for shooting a gun in the air celebrating New Year’s Eve. Since that time, he became a worldwide phenomenon and a musical genius. In 1925, The Louisiana Weekly began as The New Orleans Herald and operated from Room 103 in the Pythian Temple building while bringing information, and critical news to the masses.
In 1909, the Pythian Temple hosted a theatrical musical performance of a comedy skit called the ‘Smart Set’ that later evolved into the famous Zulu club. The Pythian Temple also provided a venue for Papa Celestin’s Original Tuxedo Orchestra Band. In 1923, the Doctors and Druggist’s Ball christened the Pythian Temple’s Roof Garden with Manuel Perez’ Jazz Band and legendary musicians Alfred Williams, Earl Humphrey, Tats Alexander, Maurice Durand, Osceola Blanchard, Caffrey Darensburg, Eddie Cherie, and Jimmy Johnson. Perez’s band blew their music from the balcony.
By October of 1925, the Knights of Pythias boasted a Louisiana membership of 8,910 and total assets of $507,564. However, with the onslaught of the Great Depression years, they eventually lost the building in 1943. “During World War II, the Pythian Temple became the Industries Building and was home to the employment offices of Higgins Aircraft.
In the “From Common and Basin to Tulane and Loyola” exhibit at the New Orleans Public Library, it was stated, “The Eighth Wonder of the world … is not a temple that is dedicated to the gods, but it is a mammoth, modern, up-to-date building, dedicated to the living and built by Negro brains and Negro capital. The name of this pretentious and magnificent structure is the Pythian Temple of New Orleans, LA.”