A ‘forgotten tragedy’ at a New Orleans gay bar and a new effort to honor the victims’ remains

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NEW ORLEANS — For nearly half a century, the remains of Ferris LeBlanc, a gay World War II veteran, have been hidden in an overgrown potter’s field in eastern New Orleans. No one knows exactly where his body is. There are no grave markers.

LeBlanc was buried there in obscurity with three other unknown victims of the 1973 UpStairs Lounge fire that killed 31 men and their mother of two. Fifteen people, mostly men, were also injured at a popular New Orleans gay bar, one of the main LGBTQ safe spaces in the city at the time. Until the 2016 Pulse nightclub shooting, the UpStairs Lounge fire was the deadliest known attack on a gay club in U.S. history — often referred to as a “forgotten tragedy.”

While the arson was a tragedy, the aftermath — and the failure of city leaders to properly investigate the attack — continues to be investigated. Attorneys say the city didn’t do enough to identify remains and locate families after the 1973 fire. Historians say a simple search for military records could have helped. Records show that 11 of the 32 victims, including LeBlanc, served in some capacity in the military.

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The World War II Museum in New Orleans honors LeBlanc, who fought in the Battle of the Bulge, one of the most important battles of World War II, on its website. Pfc. Ferris LeBlanc “served his country honorably during World War II,” the museum wrote in an online biography. “However, due to the tragic circumstances of his death, his credit was forfeited” in the UpStairs Lounge fire.

Pfc. Ferris LeBlanc (L) served honorably during WWII but was never given a proper military funeral. LeBlanc (R) enjoys a birthday celebration with his family, who said authorities did not notify them of his death in the UpStairs Lounge fire. Photos courtesy of Robert W. Fieseler/National World War II Museum and the LeBlanc Family

LeBlanc’s family has been on a crusade with the city for the past seven years to get his remains for a proper military burial. They want recognition for LeBlanc and the three unidentified victims buried with him in Potter’s Field. The family says it has been a painful journey and calls efforts to retrieve his remains “absurd” and unnecessarily burdened with bureaucratic red tape.

“It’s a great tragedy that happened and continues almost 50 years later. There have been so many hoops to jump through,” Ferris’ nephew Skip Bailey told the PBS NewsHour. “We have to find him. It’s the right thing to do and it’s so important on so many levels.

Ahead of the fire’s 50th anniversary next year, New Orleans is finally taking steps to actively search for the remains of the four victims, including LeBlanc. The city council has now stepped in to rectify the indecent burial, which only compounded the tragedy of his untimely death for the LeBlanc family.

“I don’t think the city of New Orleans really made an effort to find out who he was,” said Lori Bailey, Skip’s wife. “One of the things we asked the city is, ‘Couldn’t you at least put something out there that bodies were found here so people don’t just think it’s a cyclone fence [and] a cow pasture?'” And they refused.

During the summer, New Orleans City Councilman J.P. Morrell’s efforts to renew the search for remains and to posthumously recognize and honor the 32 victims. In June, the council also formally apologized, citing its “historic regret for the harm caused to the LGBTQ+ community” by the city’s response, or lack thereof, to the attack. City leaders “offered no official comment on the deadliest fire in New Orleans history for more than two weeks,” the council resolution said. Before the official apology, a presentation by lawyers and authors who wrote about the fire moved many council members and the audience to tears.

“The city government basically rejected the identification [of the remains] because they just didn’t want to notify their family, and also because they just didn’t care about another dead gay man,” Morrell said.

“We’re a city that’s considered one of the most welcoming cities for the LGBTQIA+ community, but we were also a city that was terribly homophobic,” he added. “As a city, you cannot have a phoenix-like rebirth without acknowledging the death of such principles and hateful activities. The city we are today is not what we were then.

The UpStairs Lounge crowd gathered in the back theater circa 1972. It is believed to be the only group photo of the bar’s patrons in existence. The popular French Quarter gay bar was one of the main LGBTQ safe spaces in the city at the time. Photo courtesy of Johnny Townsend

At the urging of the World War II museum, Morrell got the support of all six council members to pass a resolution last week to help the LeBlanc family cut through the red tape needed to find Ferris’ remains, saying the city had a moral obligation to help. The council’s resolution called out the city’s “strong and deeply inadequate response.” Morrell said he is “expecting movement over the next four weeks” from the mayor’s office, including access to potter’s field and help from Tulane’s anthropology department.

“The fact that we’re still having this conversation 50 years later tells you how terribly the city failed on this issue.” Morrell said.

The family says Mayor LaToya Cantrell has not followed through on promises made since she hugged LeBlanc’s sister, Marilyn, at a service on the 45th anniversary of the fire in 2018. At the time, Cantrell promised to do everything possible after announcing the assignment. forces an unsolved question to be investigated. Cantrell’s office did not respond to questions from the NewsHour about the city’s efforts to locate the remains.

If the latest resolution doesn’t work, Morrell promises to take a “more aggressive approach.” He also hopes it will lead to “a bigger conversation to find a home for everyone there and maybe a permanent memorial.”

“It’s a little embarrassing and I want it fixed as soon as possible,” Councilman Eugene Green said at the Aug. 4 council meeting. “It’s just ridiculous that society was ever at a point where someone who served their country and put their life on the line could have come back to the country and been discriminated against.”

Search and reckoning

Search and reckoning

In June 2003, a bronze commemorative plaque was installed on the sidewalk of New Orleans’ French Quarter at the corner of Iberville and Chartres Streets. It has an inverted triangle, two fleur-de-lis, a description of the tragedy, the names of the victims and an image of the eternal flame. Read also : Don’t say Gay, similar bills leave LGBTQ youth scared, isolated. Photo by Roby Chavez/PBS NewsHour

LeBlanc was a 50-year-old gay man who was loved and accepted by his family. But he was never to be buried with military honors or a flag-folding ceremony. Instead, LeBlanc was placed in a pauper’s grave. His family said they were never contacted to identify the remains.

New Orleans community activist and historian Frank Perez often leads tours of the site left by the UpStairs Lounge fire, where only a plaque on the sidewalk points to the tragedy.

He was with Marilyn each of the three times she received permission from the city to visit the potter’s fields between 2015 and 2018.

“The last time I was out there, it was terrible. They never cut the grass; it’s right next to a dump. There’s a bunch of abandoned portals and a lot of illegal dumping. I wouldn’t feel comfortable burying a dog there,” New said. Perez, executive director of the Orleans LGBTQ Archives Project. “It’s absolutely still an open wound, especially for survivors. But some people in New Orleans still don’t know about it because it never got as much attention as it should have.

Perez said he’s also relieved someone is finally doing something.

Skip Bailey recalls the visit, recalling that his mother, Marilyn, felt her brother’s presence.

LeBlanc’s nephew Skip Bailey (L) and LeBlanc’s sister Marilyn walk through the remote New Orleans potter’s field where LeBlanc was buried with three unidentified victims. Photo courtesy of the LeBlanc family

“She broke down and she said Ferris kept saying, ‘Don’t leave me here,’ and she cried on the way to the airport. So it’s really important to her,” Bailey said.

The latest effort leaves the family cautiously optimistic.

“The city says they’re going to play nice in the sandbox, but we’ll see what happens,” said Lori Bailey, Skip’s wife.

The LeBlancs felt alone for years as the story of the UpStairs Lounge fire faded from memory, both out of apathy and the unwillingness of the town and its residents to face the ghostly memories. In these days, all the victims, survivors and families have raised a protracted campaign of community activists, journalists, artists, music composers and documentarians who continue to tell the same story to recognize the UpStairs Lounge fire as an important moment.

Robert Fieseler, journalist and author of Tinderbox: The Untold Story of the UpStairs Lounge Fire and the Rise of Gay Liberation, described the tragic event not only in his book but also to the city council and “anyone who would listen.”

“It really felt like we were shouting into the wind at times. People were like, ‘Why drag up the past?’ Why dwell on the negativity of the era? Focus on the present,” Fieseler said.

“It’s amazing to see the momentum of the massacre,” he added, as institutions, as well as public officials and leaders, “really pick up the torch and realize how pivotal [the tragedy] was and how much it mattered in the past. It continues to matter now.” “

His book details the aftermath of the fire, which was no less traumatic – families ashamed to claim their loved ones, churches in this deeply Catholic city refusing proper burial rights, and the botched inquest all reflected the world of toxic prejudice and rampant homophobia that flourished. after the fire.

An inside view as New Orleans firefighters examine the charred shell of the UpStairs Lounge after the deadly June 24, 1973 arson that killed 32 people. Photo: Bettmann Archive/Getty Images

LGBTQ advocates, including Fieseler, also criticized news coverage of the event, which received less coverage. The story was largely ignored by the national press, given the scale of the massacre. In New Orleans, local coverage has been described as insensitive, callous and homophobic, with little focus on research.

Fieseler believes the historic apology and efforts to renew the search for the victims’ remains are huge and could even create additional public bills for police and fire investigators and the church.

“I think for the first time they were forced to look at all the different angles and dynamics of injustice and recognize that this is not just history. This event was so swept under the rug that it continued to be modern news,” Fieseler said. “It’s hard to watch. and think in a city that often prefers to just have fun.”

Author Johnny Townsend, who was 11 years old and living in New Orleans at the time of the fire, poured through the old records and has some of the only photographs of the patrons. He tracked down survivors of the fire and relatives and friends of those who died to compile his book, Let the Fagots Burn: The Upstairs Lounge Fire, about a forgotten moment in gay history.

Townsend admits that the title of his book was deliberately provocative to gain attention; one survivor told him he heard the firefighter still roaring the fire. He’s relieved the city council finally noticed, as others rarely do.

“It’s important because you’ve been told you’re not worth anything, and now at least you’re worth something. It might not be enough, but it’s important that you’re nothing anymore,” Townsend said. “Apologizing isn’t enough, but it’s important to me that they apologized. It’s still just part of what needs to be done.”

It’s also important because LeBlanc’s sister Marilyn and nephew Skip Bailey are in poor health. Marilyn is the last of 12 siblings still alive and has suffered from many health problems, including cancer. Fieseler said the city “needs to work as quickly as possible.”

“It would be devastating for the LeBlanc family and all of their allies in the community if Marilyn or Skip tragically put so much work in not to see it,” Fieseler said.

That sentiment was echoed by Skip Bailey, who watched the council’s action from his hospital bed in Tucson, Arizona, and hopes he will have time to bring his uncle home.

“My promise to my mother is that we will find her and bring her home with the rest of the family. I’m not going to stop until I do, even though I’m disabled right now,” Skip Bailey said while choking. “There were points recently where I was probably dying and I kept telling my wife, ‘I’m not done.’ i have to find ferris; I can’t go now.”

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How many people died in the UpStairs lounge?

How many people died in the UpStairs lounge?
Upstairs Lounge arson attack
DateJune 24, 1973 7:56-20:12
Type of attackIgnition
Deaths32
Injured15
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When was the UpStairs lounge fire?

When was the UpStairs lounge fire?

On June 24, 1973, an arson attack at the UpStairs Lounge, a popular gathering place for New Orleans’ LGBT community in the French Quarter, killed 32 people and injured at least 15 others. This may interest you : The Russian Parliament wants to extend the ‘gay propaganda’ law. At the time, it was the deadliest known attack on a gay club in American history.

When did the UpStairs salon open? Instead of openly expressing their sexuality and engaging in public displays of affection, most LGBT people were “in the closet” and socialized in bars that catered to the gay community. On Halloween 1970, the Upstairs Lounge opened to cater to New Orleans’ less affluent gays and lesbians.

Who started the UpStairs lounge fire?

LeBlanc’s family did not learn of his death in an arson attack until January 2015. This may interest you : Gay men need a specific warning about Monkeypox. In 2018, Robert L. Camina, director of the UpStairs Inferno documentary, reported in The Advocate magazine that after extensive research, one of the three unidentified victims may ultimately be 32-year-old Larry Norman Frost.

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How did the great New Orleans fire start?

How did the great New Orleans fire start?

The Good Friday fire started around 1:30 p.m. at the home of Don Vincente Jose Nuñez, Treasurer of the Army, at 619 Chartres Street, corner Wilkinson, less than a block from Jackson Square (Plaza de Armas). Since the fire started on Good Friday, the priests refused to allow the church bells to ring as a fire alarm.

When was the New Orleans fire? March 21, 1788 – The Great New Orleans Fire destroyed 856 of the 1,100 buildings in New Orleans, Louisiana (aka New Spain) today. The fire engulfed the south part of the Vieux Carré from Burgundy to Chartres Street and almost touched the buildings fronting the Mississippi River.

When did New Orleans burn to the ground?

But Good Friday 1788 turned out to be a bad Friday for New Orleans. That candle caught the curtains in Nunez’s home on fire. It spread quickly. Five hours later, most of the city was in smoldering ruins.

How many times has New Orleans burned to the ground?

New Orleans is no stranger to tragedy. Early in history, two huge fires tore through the heart of the city, changing the look of the French Quarter for years. The great fires of 1788 and 1794 collectively destroyed nearly a thousand buildings, leveling most of the city.

What destroyed New Orleans in 1788?

The Great Fire of New Orleans (1788) (Spanish: Gran Incendio de Nueva Orleans, French: Grand incendie de La Nouvelle-Orléans) was a fire that destroyed 856 of 1,100 buildings in New Orleans, Louisiana, New Spain on March 21. , 1788, stretching from the Vieux Carré south of Burgundy to Chartres Street, almost to …

Did New Orleans burned down in 1919?

On the morning of December 4, 1919, the French Opera House burned to the ground. The insurance policy wasn’t enough to cover the rebuilding of the building, so the corner sat empty for about 40 years as people waited in the hope that an opera house would rise on the site.

When did New Orleans burn down?

The Great Fire of New Orleans (1794) was a fire that destroyed 212 structures on December 8, 1794 in New Orleans, Louisiana, in the area now known as the French Quarter from Burgundy to Chartres Street, almost to the riverfront buildings.

Did New Orleans burn down in 1919?

On this day in 1919, the French Opera House burned down. This theater was located on the corner of Bourbon and Toulouse streets in the French Quarter.

Did New Orleans burn down twice?

On December 8, 1794, the second of two major fires in New Orleans history took place, starting on Royal Street in the French Quarter. This fire was not as damaging as the first great fire that occurred in 1788 and burned 80% of the city, but was still a major setback to the rebuilding of the city.

Did New Orleans have a fire in 1919?

On the morning of December 4, 1919, the French Opera House burned to the ground. The insurance policy wasn’t enough to cover the rebuilding of the building, so the corner sat empty for about 40 years as people waited in the hope that an opera house would rise on the site.

How many times did New Orleans burn down?

New Orleans is no stranger to tragedy. Early in history, two huge fires tore through the heart of the city, changing the look of the French Quarter for years. The great fires of 1788 and 1794 collectively destroyed nearly a thousand buildings, leveling most of the city.

When did New Orleans burn down?

The Great Fire of New Orleans (1794) was a fire that destroyed 212 structures on December 8, 1794 in New Orleans, Louisiana, in the area now known as the French Quarter from Burgundy to Chartres Street, almost to the riverfront buildings.

What started the great New Orleans Fire?

The second New Orleans fire broke out in December 1794. No one knows what started the fire, but there are quite a few theories. The fire started on a Catholic holy day known as the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, which was the unofficial start of the Christmas season.

Did the French Quarter ever burn?

The Great Fire of New Orleans (1794) was a fire that destroyed 212 structures on December 8, 1794 in New Orleans, Louisiana, in the area now known as the French Quarter from Burgundy to Chartres Street, almost to the riverfront buildings.

What destroyed New Orleans in 1788?

On Good Friday 1788, a fire broke out throughout New Orleans, and with the support of Governor Miro, the rest of the government, and caring citizens, the city was quickly rebuilt and rebuilt.

Who started the UpStairs lounge fire?

Who started the UpStairs lounge fire?

LeBlanc’s family did not learn of his death in an arson attack until January 2015. In 2018, Robert L. Camina, director of the UpStairs Inferno documentary, reported in The Advocate magazine that after extensive research, one of the three unidentified victims may ultimately be 32-year-old Larry Norman Frost.

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