Historic Women Educators in New Orleans

Xavier University of Louisiana Administration Building. Photo credit: Xavier University of Louisiana1

The records of the Clerk of Civil District Court’s Office, which date back to the 1700s, represent the rich history of New Orleans and its diverse communities. Our archives can be used for property, family history, architectural, and landscaping research.

In 1987, the United States Congress designated the month of March to be Women’s History Month and was done so to commemorate and encourage the study, observance, and celebration of the vital role of women in American history.2 This March, the Clerk of Civil District Court Office would like to highlight the contributions that women made toward the education of African Americans in the city of New Orleans. In this blog, we will focus on two women and the organizations they founded that sought the betterment of the city’s youth. These women are Sylvanie Francoz Williams and St. Katharine Drexel. Each of these women played a role in helping New Orleans children and young adults thrive by providing them with educational resources that may not have otherwise been available to them. During our discussion of these women, we will highlight some of the notarial acts within our collection that showcase the women themselves and the organizations they were involved with.

Sylvanie Francoz Williams

Sylvanie F. Williams, from a book page featuring early activists for African American Women’s Rights. Photo credit: The Historic New Orleans Collection3

Sylvanie Francoz was born in Louisiana around 1848. While there is little that is known about her early life, especially her exact birthdate and place, the 1870 United States census shows that she was twenty-two-years-old and living in New Orleans. The 1870 census also revealed that she was married to Arthur P. Williams, a school teacher, and had a son, Arthur Clement.4 Williams was a middle-class African American woman living during the Reconstruction period and she witnessed first-hand the struggles that her fellow African American people faced in fighting for both their rights and their livelihoods.

Williams was known in the city of New Orleans as a valued public school educator and administrator. She was a graduate of the Peabody Normal School, an academy in New Orleans that was dedicated to preparing African Americans to teach in public schools. She would later go on to serve as Peabody’s principal and only teacher. However, Williams was best known for being the first principal of the Thomy Lafon School in 1897 and remained in that role until 1921 when she retired shortly before her death.5

The Thomy Lafon School
Thomy Lafon School 2916 S. Robertson Street ca.1932 Photo credit: Louisiana Digital Library and the Historic New Orleans Collection6

As mentioned above, Sylvanie F. Williams served as the first principal of the Thomy Lafon School and would play an integral role in the school’s continued success. Thomy Lafon was born in 1800 to Modeste Foucher, a free woman of color. Thomy became a well-known philanthropist and real estate merchant within the city and championed many causes that would benefit people of color throughout the city of New Orleans. Due to his philanthropic and civic activities, it was fitting that a public school that provided educational opportunities for African Americans in the city was named for him.

The first Thomy Lafon School was located on Howard Street (now LaSalle) between Harmony and Seventh Streets. The school, which opened its doors in 1897, was said to have been a large wooden structure and it offered grammar and primary school instruction to African American children. Disaster struck the school three years later. During the Robert Charles race riot of 1900, the Thomy Lafon school was burned to the ground by white rioters in pursuit of Robert Charles leaving 947 students without an educational facility. It would take six years before the school would be rebuilt. 8

In 1906, under the diligent leadership of Sylvanie F. Williams, the Thomy Lafon School was rebuilt in a different location. Between the years of 1900 and 1906, it was discovered that the original school had been built on a former cemetery. Due to this discovery, the City made the the school move locations. The second school was to be built in the Fourth district at the municipal address of 2601 Seventh Street.9

In a newspaper clipping, seen below, it is revealed that the city of New Orleans contracted Michel Chesse &Co to construct a two-story frame school building for the Thomy Lafon School.

Newspaper clipping attached to the 1906 building contract for Thomy Lafon School. Seeber, William V. 1906 January 4 Vol 3.

The building contract was passed before the notary William V. Seeber on January 4, 1906. In this contract, which can be seen below, many of the materials that would be used are specified, including timber sizes for various parts of the building.

Building Contract for Two Story Frame School Building. Seeber, William V. 1906 January 4 Vol 3.
Building Contract for Two Story Frame School Building. Seeber, William V. 1906 January 4 Vol 3.
Building Contract for Two Story Frame School Building. Seeber, William V. 1906 January 4 Vol 3.

When the school reopened, Williams lead a staff of 28 who held the title of assistants instead of teachers. Williams and her staff aimed to combine education with the value of recreation, exercise and community to keep their students healthy and engaged. 10

Faculty of the Thomy Lafon School prior to 1913. Sylvanie F. Williams can be seen in the seated in the center wearing all white. Photo credit: Historic New Orleans Collection11

With the philosophy of recreation, exercise, and education, Williams joined forces with the noted African American attorney James Madison Vance to organize the Colored Playground Board. African American contributors raised $500 and the city contributed $4,000 to establish the first playground in the city for African American children. The playground opened in 1916 at the corner of Sixth and Magnolia Streets, near the Thomy Lafon School.

Williams remained the principal of the Thomy Lafon School until 1921, shortly before her death on August 12, 1921. The next year, the Thomy Lafon School graduated 91 African American children from their school.12

In addition to being a valued educator and administrator in the New Orleans Public School system, Sylvanie Francoz Williams also earned a national reputation as an activist. She dedicated much of her time fighting for the rights of African Americans. She particularly worked to support African American Women and to find way to provide them with further opportunities within the city of the New Orleans and beyond. Williams earned her national reputation when she founded the New Orleans chapter of the Phyllis Wheatley Club around 1895.

The Phyllis Wheatley Club of New Orleans

Phyllis Wheatley Clubs were created by African American women around the United States during the late 19th century and the members worked to improve their neighborhoods and lives of the people in their community. The New Orleans chapter specifically offered membership to women of intelligence and respectability that were interested in service, suffrage, temperance, and social purity. Under Williams’s leadership, the Phyllis Wheatley Club of New Orleans established the Phyllis Wheatley Sanitarium and Training School for Negro Nurses in 1896.13 This served as the only training school for African American nurses and also provided necessary medical care for the black community. The training school and medical clinic was operated out of New Orleans University, which is now known as Dillard University. In 1901, the Phyllis Wheatley Sanitarium and Training School for Negro Nurse was struggling to fund the school and the hospital, so they reached out to John Flint of Fall River, Massachusetts who donated a large sum of money to the facility. The Phyllis Wheatley club also secured a donation from Mrs. Caroline Mudge of Boston. The name of the hospital was then changed to the Sarah Goodridge Hospital after Mudge’s mother. In 1915, the name of the hospital was changed again to the Flint-Goodridge Hospital. The hospital remained open, although no longer under the administration of the Phyllis Wheatley Club, until 1983, serving the African American community of New Orleans for nearly a century. 14

In addition to establishing the Phyllis Wheatley Sanitarium and Training School for Negro Nurses in 1896, the club also established a kindergarten and a daycare program for working mothers in 1901. The club, under Williams, was also affiliated with the National Association of Colored Women and they advocated for African American women’s right to vote. 15

While Sylvanie Francoz Williams founded the Phyllis Wheatley Club around 1895, the club was not officially incorporated until 1927, six years after William’s death. On August 11, 1927, several representatives from the club appeared before the notary Rene C. Metoyer to file an Act of Incorporation.

Act of Incorporation for the Phyllis Wheatley Club of New Orleans. Metoyer, Rene C. 1927 August 11.
Act of Incorporation for the Phyllis Wheatley Club of New Orleans. Metoyer, Rene C. 1927 August 11.

In Article 4 of the incorporation, seen above, it is stated that the “objects and purposes for which this club is created are hereby declared to be: to promote and encourage the spirit of civic pride among young colored girls and women; to foster their moral, intellectual and physical welfare by establishing and maintaining a home or homes and recreation centers, and generally to do all manner of uplift work among colored people, and for this purpose to cooperate with other organizations doing similar work.” This stated purpose sums up, in a paragraph, what Sylvanie Francoz Williams spent much of her adult life fighting for and providing to her community.

St. Katharine Drexel, the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament, and the Founding of Xavier University of Louisiana

St. Katharine Drexel, founder of the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament and Xavier University of Louisiana. Photo Credit: catholic.org16

Katharine Drexel was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania on November 26, 1858. She was the second child of Hannah and Francis Drexel. Unfortunately, her mother died shortly after giving birth to Katharine. Her father Francis remarried two years later, in 1860. He married a woman named Emma Bouvier who gave birth to a third daughter in 1863. Drexel and her two sisters were educated at home by tutors and her family had the opportunity to tour parts of the United States and Europe, which gave the children a wider understanding of the world around them. Emma and Francis Drexel taught their children that wealth was meant to be shared with those in need and Francis and Emma aimed to practice what they preached. Three afternoons a week, Emma Drexel opened the doors of their home to serve the needs of the poor in their community. The three Drexel daughters began to assist their mother when they became old enough to help.17

When Katharine Drexel was twenty-one, her mother was diagnosed with cancer and Drexel took it upon herself to nurse her mother through three years of suffering. During this time, she stated that she frequently thought that she was being called to religious life. This ambition was further strengthen in 1887 when Katharine and her two sisters traveled to
Rome and had a private audience with Pope Leo XIII. During this audience, Katharine plead with the pope to send a missionary priest to the Native American tribes in the United States. The pope responded to this request with “Why not, my child, yourself become a missionary?”18 So she did. In 1887 and 1888, Msgr. Joseph Stephan, Director of the Catholic Bureau of Indian Missions, Bishop O’Connor of Philadelphia, Katharine and her two sisters traveled to multiple remote reservations throughout the United States. While visiting, they met with tribal leaders and witnessed the immense amount of poverty among the residents. In response to this, Katharine used her vast inheritance from her parents to build schools on reservations as well a provided food, clothing, and financial support to the Native Americans living on the reservations. Throughout her life, through the Bureau of Colored and Indian Missions, she supported churches and schools throughout the United States and abroad.19

By 1889, it was clear to Katharine that she was meant to lead a religious life. Bishop O’Connor of Philadelphia encouraged her to start her own organization to work specifically with African American and Native American people. Katharine agreed and she took her vows as the first Sister of the Blessed Sacrament for Indians and Colored People, now simply known as Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament, on February 12, 1891. She and thirteen other sisters moved into St. Elizabeth Convent in Bensalem, Pennsylvania in 1892, where the main chapter of the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament remains today.20 On the convent’s property, they erected a boarding school for African American children as one of the primary goals of this religious order was to provide for the poor, specifically among the African American and Native American communities. The Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament would go on to start various ministries and chapters throughout the United States, which included Xavier University of Louisiana.

Xavier University of Louisiana

As the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament grew and established more ministries throughout the United States, Katharine Drexel became aware of the lack of Catholic education for young African American people in the South. To remedy this, Drexel decided to establish a high school specifically for African American students in New Orleans. On April 13, 1915, Drexel, through her appointed agent Harry McEnerny, purchased the property of the former Southern University for $18,000. Southern University had moved to Baton Rouge the year before and Drexel saw promise in their former facility in New Orleans. The property was bought at auction at the New Orleans Auction Exchange.21 The following day an act of sale was executed before New Orleans notary Henry Leon Sarpy, as seen below.

Sale of former Southern University to the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament. Sarpy, Henry. 1915 April 14 Act 32.

The property was identified as Square 194 in the Sixth District bound by Magazine, Constance, Soniat, and Dufossat Streets.

Sale of former Southern University to the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament. Sarpy, Henry. 1915 April 14 Act 32.

Drexel wished to purchase this property through an agent because she did not wish to make her intentions for the property public. She knew that the general public was not likely to accept her plan to create a place to educate African American students. As it turns out, she was correct. Once it became common knowledge that the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament was the purchaser and that they intended on opening a high school at the property, vandals smashed all the windows of the buildings on the property.22 This act of vandalism did not deter Drexel or the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament. The Xavier Preparatory School was opened on September 27, 1915 and was named after St. Francis Xavier. The Xavier Preparatory School remained in operation at this location until 2013. Today, it is the site of the St. Katharine Drexel Preparatory School and is still operated by the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament.

St. Katharine Drexel Preparatory School Today. Photo credit: http://catholicschoolguide.ednavigator.com/schools/st-katharine-drexel-preparatory-school23

On May 27, 1916 a group of sisters appeared before the notary Charles Denechaud to incorporate the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament for Indians and Colored People of Louisiana. This was a branch chapter of the larger organization based out of Pennsylvania and was still under the immediate direction of Mother Katharine Drexel.

Act of Incorporation. Denechaud, Charles I. 1916 May 27 Vol 11, Act 5.

In Article III of the incorporation, seen below, it is stated that the purpose of the organization was “To hold and administer property real, personal and mixed for religious, scientific, literary and educational purposes, to conduct, maintain, and operate schools, colleges, academies and universities for the training and educating, in all its branches, of Indians and Colored people, in the State of Louisiana and elsewhere…”

Act of Incorporation. Denechaud, Charles I. 1916 May 27 Vol 11, Act 5.

Following the incorporation of the Louisiana branch of the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament, a teaching school was founded by them in 1917. The purposes of this school was to educate African American teachers. In 1918, the school became known as Xavier University of Louisiana. The school was expanded into a teachers’ college in 1925, which included the addition of the College of Liberal Arts. In 1927, the School of Pharmacy was added to the university.24

In 1929, Drexel bought a tract of undeveloped land, once again through an agent, to build a new campus for the expanding university. This purchase was executed before Charles Denechaud on June 12, 1929.

Act of Sale. Denechaud, Charles I. 1929 June 12 Vol 57, Act 26.

Drexel purchased three squares of ground in the First district: Square 744, 745, and 746. This sale and survey attached are shown below.

Attachment to an Act of Sale. Denechaud, Charles I. 1929 June 12 Vol 57, Act 26.
Survey of Squares 744, 745, and 746. Attached to an act of sale. Denechaud, Charles I. 1929 June 12 Vol 57, Act 26.

A plan book plan from 1850, drawn by the architect and surveyor Carl A. Hedin also shows Square 746.

Plan Book Plan of Square 746.Plan Book 70, Plan 12.

On September 8, 1931, Katharine Drexel and the Sister of the Blessed Sacrament entered into a building contract with the Geo J. Glover Company Inc. to build a school, a science building and a convent in square 745 which the sisters purchased in 1929. The building contract was passed before Charles Denechaud.

Building contract between Geo J. Glover Company and the Sister of the Blessed Sacrament. Denechaud, Charles I. 1931 September 8 Vol 63, Act 98.

In this contract, it is stated that the owner of the property agreed to pay the builders $378,023 to build the facilities. Katharine Drexel’s signature can be found on the signature page of the building contract below.

Building contract between Geo J. Glover Company and the Sister of the Blessed Sacrament. Denechaud, Charles I. 1931 September 8 Vol 63, Act 98.

Attached to this act, is a 177 page specifications book that details every aspect of the buildings and the building process, including materials to build. This image below shows the specification for the marble work to be done in the building. Katharine Drexel’s initials can be found on every page of the specifications book.

Marble Work from Specification book attached to building contract. Denechaud, Charles I. 1931 September 8 Vol 63, Act 98.

Thirty-two blueprints detailing every aspect of the buildings were also attached to this act. The blueprint below shows various elevation drawings of the Convent, the Science Building, and the School.

Blueprint 6. Attached to Building contract. Denechaud, Charles I. 1931 September 8 Vol 63, Act 98.

On October 5, 1936, The Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament entered into another Building contract with the Geo J. Glover Company, Inc.; this time to build a library for Xavier University of Louisiana for the sum of $127, 872.82. This building contract was once again passed before the notary Charles Denechaud.

Building contract between Geo J Glover Company and the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament. Denechaud, Charles I. 1936 October 5 Vol 77.

Similar to the previous building contract, this one for the library also featured a specifications book totaling 80 pages. Katharine Drexel’s initials can be found on each page of the specifications book as you can see in the image below.

Specifications book attached to building contract between Geo J Glover Company and the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament. Denechaud, Charles I. 1936 October 5 Vol 77.

Twenty-five blueprints for the library building were also attached to this building contract and featured both elevations drawings of the building as well as various floor plans of the building. The blueprint below shows an elevation drawing of the library building and Katharine Drexel’s initials can also be seen on the blueprint.

Blueprint attached to Building contract between Geo J Glover Company and the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament. Denechaud, Charles I. 1936 October 5 Vol 77.

Xavier University of Louisiana continued to expand under the direction of the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament. Today, it remains the only Catholic Historically Black College/University (HBCU) in the country. While Xavier is now administered by a lay board of supervisors, the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament are represented on the board and still play an active part in the University as well as the City of New Orleans.

Xavier University of Louisiana Library today. Photo Credit: Xavier University of Louisiana25

As for Katharine Drexel herself, she suffered a severe heart attack in 1935 which curtailed her missionary travels. However, she continued her charitable work until her death on March 3, 1955. After two confirmed miracles were attributed to her, Katharine Drexel was canonized as a Saint of the Roman Catholic Church by Pope John Paul II on October 1, 2000. Her feast day, celebrated on the anniversary of her death, aptly falls during Women’s History Month. 26

Both Sylvanie Francoz Williams and St. Katharine Drexel were very important women who made a significant impact for the education of African Americans in the city of New Orleans. They are, however, just a small sampling of the amazing and formidable women who shaped the our city. The Clerk’s Office has a rich amount of history pertaining to the women of New Orleans. If there are any particular interests that you would like to learn more about, please contact the Clerk’s Office. We are happy to assist.

References:
  1. “XULA Digital Commons,” Xavier University of Louisiana, accessed on March 8, 2022, https://digitalcommons.xula.edu/.
  2. “About Women’s History Month,” Women’s History Month, accessed on March 4, 2022, https://womenshistorymonth.gov/about/.
  3. “Sylvanie Francoz Williams,” Voices of Progress, The Historic New Orleans Collection, accessed on March 4, 2022, https://www.hnoc.org/virtual/voices-progress/sylvanie-francoz-williams.
  4. Maureen Elgersman Lee, “Biographical Sketch of Sylvanie F. Williams,” Alexander Street, accessed on March 4,2022, https://search.alexanderstreet.com/view/work/bibliographic_entity%7Cbibliographic_details%7C3314570/biographical-sketch-sylvanie-f-williams.
  5. “Sylvanie Francoz Williams,” Voices of Progress, The Historic New Orleans Collection, accessed on March 4, 2022, https://www.hnoc.org/virtual/voices-progress/sylvanie-francoz-williams.
  6. “Sylvanie Francoz Williams,” Voices of Progress, The Historic New Orleans Collection, accessed on March 4, 2022, https://www.hnoc.org/virtual/voices-progress/sylvanie-francoz-williams.
  7. “Thomy Lafon School, 2916 South Robertson Street, The Historic New Orleans Collection, Louisiana Digital Library, accessed on March 4, 2022, https://louisianadigitallibrary.org/islandora/object/hnoc-clf:4745.
  8. “The Thomy Lafon School,” History/Genealogy, CreoleGen, accessed on March 8, 2022, http://www.creolegen.org/2015/04/12/the-thomy-lafon-school/.
  9. ” The Second Thomy Lafon School,” History/Genealogy, CreoleGen, Accessed on March 8, 2022, http://www.creolegen.org/2015/07/06/the-second-thomy-lafon-school/.
  10. ” The Second Thomy Lafon School,” History/Genealogy, CreoleGen, Accessed on March 8, 2022, http://www.creolegen.org/2015/07/06/the-second-thomy-lafon-school/.
  11. “Sylvanie Francoz Williams,” Voices of Progress, The Historic New Orleans Collection, accessed on March 4, 2022, https://www.hnoc.org/virtual/voices-progress/sylvanie-francoz-williams.
  12. ” The Second Thomy Lafon School,” History/Genealogy, CreoleGen, Accessed on March 8, 2022, http://www.creolegen.org/2015/07/06/the-second-thomy-lafon-school/.
  13. Maureen Elgersman Lee, “Biographical Sketch of Sylvanie F. Williams,” Alexander Street, accessed on March 4,2022, https://search.alexanderstreet.com/view/work/bibliographic_entity%7Cbibliographic_detail.
  14. “Curing Ailments & Conquering Adversity: Flint Goodridge Hospital 1896-1983.” History/Geneology, CreoleGen, accessed on March 9, 2022, http://www.creolegen.org/2012/08/28/curing-ailments-conquering-adversity-flint-goodridge-hospital-1896-1983/
  15. “Sylvanie Francoz Williams,” Voices of Progress, The Historic New Orleans Collection, accessed on March 4, 2022, https://www.hnoc.org/virtual/voices-progress/sylvanie-francoz-williams.
  16. “St. Katharine Drexel, Catholic Online, accessed on March 8, 2022, https://www.catholic.org/saints/saint.php?saint_id=193.
  17. “St. Katharine Drexel,” Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament, accessed on March 7, 2022, https://www.katharinedrexel.org/katharine-drexel/about-st-katharine-drexel/.
  18. “Lay Apostolate,” Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament, accessed on March 7, 2022, https://www.katharinedrexel.org/st_katharine_drexel_overview/lay-apostolate/.
  19. “Lay Apostolate,” Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament, accessed on March 7, 2022, https://www.katharinedrexel.org/st_katharine_drexel_overview/lay-apostolate/.
  20. “Founding of the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament,” Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament, accessed on March 7, 2022, https://www.katharinedrexel.org/st_katharine_drexel_overview/founding-of-the-sisters-of-the-blessed-sacrament/.
  21. “‘Southern University Property Is Sold Buildings and Lot Bought in at Auction by Harry McEnerny”. Times-Picayune. 14 April 1915.
  22. Peter Finney, Jr., “The Legacy of Saint Katharine Drexel, ” Franciscan Spirit Blog, Franciscan Spirit, accessed on March 7, 2022, https://www.franciscanmedia.org/franciscan-spirit-blog/the-legacy-of-saint-katharine-drexel.
  23. “St. Katharine Drexel Preparatory School,” Catholic Schools in New Orleans, Ed Navigator, accessed on March 11, 2022, http://catholicschoolguide.ednavigator.com/schools/st-katharine-drexel-preparatory-school
  24. “Xavier University, New Orleans, LA,” Educational Directory 1928, Bulletin, 1928, no. 1, Department of the Interior, accessed on March 7, 2022, https://books.google.com/books?id=gu7L9rITk_sC&pg=RA6-PA381&lpg=RA6-PA381&dq=Sisters+of+the+Blessed+Sacrament+for+Indians+and+Colored+People+of+Louisiana+incorporation&source=bl&ots=Rv0fEhxkIk&sig=ACfU3U3pXUA7x2nCaj810nzZxsEPKni-bw&hl=en&sa=X&ved=2ahUKEwigx-ihpK32AhVal2oFHYEICr0Q6AF6BAgfEAM#v=onepage&q=Sisters%20of%20the%20Blessed%20Sacrament%20for%20Indians%20and%20Colored%20People%20of%20Louisiana%20incorporation&f=false.
  25. “Xavier University of Louisiana Library, ” XULA Digital Commons, Xavier University of Louisiana, accessed on March 11, 2022, https://digitalcommons.xula.edu/university_library/
  26. “Founding of the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament,” Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament, accessed on March 7, 2022, https://www.katharinedrexel.org/st_katharine_drexel_overview/founding-of-the-sisters-of-the-blessed-sacrament/.

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