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#NOLA: Blessed Frances Joseph Gaudet

Frances Gaudet

December 30 in the Episcopal calendar marks the feast day of Blessed Frances Gaudet, a nineteenth-century prison reform worker and educator:

Mrs. Frances Joseph-Gaudet was born in a log cabin in Holmesville, MS, of African American and Native American heritage. She was raised by her grand parents and lived with her brother in New Orleans where she went to public and private schools and attended Straight College. Widowed early, she dedicated her life to social work and worked with the Prison Reform Association assisting prisoners unjustly accused. Starting in 1894 she held prayer meetings, wrote letters, carried messages, and secured clothing for black prisoners and later for white inmates as well. Her never ending encouragement and support of prisoners won the support of prison officials and city authorities, the governor, and the Prison Reform Association.

Upon her return from serving as a delegate to the Women’s Christian Temperance Union international convention in Edinburgh, Scotland in 1900, she attended hearings of the juvenile court where she assumed responsibility for young blacks arrested for misdemeanor or vagrancy and worked toward their reform. She was the first woman, black or white, to support juvenile prisoners in Louisiana and her efforts helped found Juvenile Court. When her home grew too small for this endeavor, she purchased a farm on Gentilly Road and founded the Colored Industrial Home and School which later became the Gaudet Normal and Industrial School. The school was also a boarding school where working mothers could leave their children. Through various fundraising activities the school expanded to 105 acres with dormitories and many buildings.

Mrs. Gaudet was the principal of the school until 1921 when she gave the school to the diocese of the Protestant Episcopal church of Louisiana with the understanding that they would continue the school, or if sold, donate the proceeds to a similar school. In the 1950s the school closed, but in 1954 the Gaudet Episocopal Home opened in the same facility serving African American children ages four to sixteen. Although this home is now closed, the endowment continues to fund scholarships and other ministries in the Episcopal Diocese of Louisiana.  St. Luke’s Community Center on N. Dorgenois Street  honors Mrs. Gaudet with a hall in her honor. Mrs. Frances Gaudet spent the last years of her life in Chicago, Illinois, where she died in December 1934.

Her autobiography is available in full and for free here (courtesy of Google Books).

I attended a service held in her honor at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, an institution with its own distinct history:

The History of St. Luke’s was researched and documented by the Reverend George T. Swallow during his tenure as its rector 1966-1973. Clifford R. Bryan, Ph.D., (1912-1991) member of St. Luke’s, updated the written history of St. Luke’s through the 1990s. According to Swallow (1968), The Negro church in New Orleans was established in 1855 by the Right Reverend Leonidas Polk, first bishop of Louisiana for the “provision for religious instruction of the colored race.” In 1855, he met with several “free people of color” in New Orleans to organize the church later named St. Thomas. The church was led by the Reverend Charles H. Williamson who was an English priest from Quebec, Canada. There was major disruption to the Episcopal Church and to African-American worship during the Civil War. The next documented activities of the Negro Church occurred during the tenure of Louisiana’s second Bishop, Joseph Wilmer who acquired a church building at the corner of Calliope and Prytania Streets and set up a Negro Mission in 1877 named for S. Philip. The church was led by then Deacon Dr. Charles Henry Thompson who was later ordained to the priesthood at St. Philip’s in 1879. This original building was sold in 1885 to settle church indebtedness to the Protestant Episcopal Association.

Membership declined and in January 1887 the church was reorganized during a meeting with the Bishop at the rector’s home on Baronne Street (where services were held). The reorganized church became known as St. Luke’s. The congregation purchased two lots and a house on Fourth Street at Carondelet Street. Construction for the new church building began in July 1888 and the first service in the new church building was held on Easter Sunday, April 21, 1889. In 1919, the Diocese took over the Colored Industrial and Normal School, founded in 1902 by Frances A. Joseph Gaudet, which occupied 105 acres at the corner of Gentilly Boulevard and the Industrial Canal (Swallow, 1968). The school was renamed Gaudet School and the Reverend Taylor (rector of St. Luke’s) became the chaplain. The school remained in operation for thirty-three years. The land in Gentilly was sold by the Diocese in 1966. Proceeds from the sale were deposited into the Gaudet Trust which is still administered by Episcopal Community Services of the Episcopal Diocese of Louisiana….

Read the rest here.

Violet Harrington Bryan, who published the first article on Gaudet’s life and times in 1987, spoke at the service, describing Gaudet and her work on behalf of former slaves, especially children, and the role she played in the New Orleans reform movement.

Encountering a woman like Gaudet in a space like St. Luke’s (in a city like New Orleans) was a reminder that there is so much to be said for microhistories, life histories, and local histories.  Scholars of black life and history often deal in broad sweeps of time, primarily because global phenomenon, like slavery, emancipation, or the progressive movement, impacted many communities on multiple continents at the same time. But histories are narratives of individuals acting and being acted upon. And individuals are constitutive of intimate and visceral chunks of time–memories, family stories, personal impressions, everyday experiences, and the present moment glued to books read, research completed, politics forged, music composed, and words written. It is impossible to write the meta without the micro.

Writing microhistories, life histories, and local histories is also about more than doing good research. Gaudet is nearly unknown outside of New Orleans, even to many academics, in part because black women’s history and New Orleans history are often placed in the corner of U.S. history and told to wait their turn. But to miss out on researching, writing, and teaching her story means missing a critical moment in education and prison reform in New Orleans and missing connections to a range of issues under discussion today like the tension between public school and charters, the school-to-prison pipeline, and the prison industrial complex. Issues with very long histories steeped in racial iconography. Decrypting them unfolds on the everyday level of human interaction and must begin with listening to women like Gaudet when they speak across time and place. Then stepping back to allow them to tell their story.

Image Credit: “Mrs. Frances Joseph Gaudet,” Frontispiece in Frances Joseph Gaudet, He Leadeth Me. New Orleans: Louisiana Printing Co., 1913.