Citizens stand up to preserve Black History
This week a group of concerned Donaldsonville residents caught wind that former La. Representative and Chairman of the HRC committee Roy Quezaire Jr. has put in a request with the Historic District Commission to demolish the former home of jazz pioneer Claiborne Williams.
The discourse played out on Facebook last week. Facebook has become a primary forum for Donaldsonville Historic Preservation. Just search Facebook for "Donaldsonville Building Registry" to find a plethora of information about the Historic District.
Many people chimed in to the comment section of user Paul Marc's post. Marc has been calling for preservation to the Williams home on his Facebook page for several years. One post about the situation of the home is dated back to October, 2014.
Some of the current discussion is a back and forth about ownership and making sure that the home on 507 Opelousas Street did in fact belong to Williams, who died October 10, 1952 at 83. However, a three minute phone call to the Clerk of Court in Donaldsonville confirmed that the home was in fact once owned by Williams.
Who is Claiborne Williams?
Williams played with the St. Joseph Brass Band near the end of the 19th century. Williams was a violinist who taught nearly any instrument to aspiring musicians. He toured across the country into Canada and overseas to Europe.
Moreover, he was known in the 1920s for leading the Claiborne Williams Band from Donaldsonville. They were billed as "The Greatest Band in Southland" by one advertiser, as quoted in The Chief on October 23, 1920. That newspaper clipping was added to the discussion by DeeDee DiBenedetto April 4 on Facebook. The clipping states that they were "The Best Jazz Band in America."
Williams has his own space inside the River Road African American Museum, located at 406 Charles Street in Donaldsonville. Unfortunately, much of his history is by word of mouth, but there are a few written records.
On the wall of the museum is a quote from The Chief in 1973 about Williams from Evans Casso, a former violin pupil of Williams: "As one who knew him as a teacher and friend, it is my duty to say of Claiborne Williams that he towered like a cathedral spire among men in his service to society."
A writer named Andrew Capone wrote an article over 20 years ago about Williams. He posted this on the Donaldsonville Building Registry page: "His daughter Josephine was most helpful. She was quick to bring to my attention that Claiborne had a black dad and a white mom with blue eyes just like hers and Claiborne."
Williams was prominent in almost any social circle and "taught music to people of all ages, races, social status and talent," as it is written in the museum. He was born on December 31, 1868 on the Valenzuela Plantation in Ascension Parish. He not only learned music, but also wrote and spoke fluent French and English.
Why would anyone tear down this home?
Could be a number of reasons. The Chief reached out to Sid Marchand, Quezaire's attorney, on April 6. Marchand said he was unaware of the historical significance of the home, and that he was not involved in the demolition part of it.
"I'm not aware of any Claiborne Williams involvement or any demolition plans at the moment," Marchand said.
Additionally, Quezaire was sent an email asking about his knowledge of the home's historical significance to not only the City of Donaldsonville, but also to Black History and the history of music preservation. He has not responded.
With that said, one reason to tear it down could be that the house is in bad shape. But The Chief was directed to Brian Davis, Executive Director of the Louisiana Trust for Historic Preservation to discuss this. Davis's organization has a revolving fund to restore properties such as this. Davis said his group has restored homes in worse condition.
"In my opinion the house is definitely salvageable," Davis said. "The part that looks so bad at the outside was actually an open porch early in the life of the house . . . There's significant termite damage. The tree on the other side needs to come out. The house is not beyond saving, especially to have such a strong historical connection to the community in Donaldsonville."
Ultimately, the responsibility to preserve the home belongs to the owner. The home is listed with the Ascension Parish Assessor as parcel 1042800. A spokesperson at the assessor's office stated that it looked like nobody has paid taxes on the home since 2006. The primary owner is listed as "Estate of George J Thompson," but the mailing address is listed to Hortense Quezaire. It is a little confusing. This part of it is perhaps the extent of attorney Sid Marchand's involvement.
Regardless, Director of the HDC Lee Melancon will likely get the brunt of this discussion at this month's Historic District Commission meeting, which will be held at 6 p.m. Wednesday, April 25 at City Hall.
"They have a right to put in the request," Mayor Leroy Sullivan said. "And then the Historic District will look at it. They can approve it or deny it. I've explained to [Quezaire] that if he does not like the Historic District's opinion, he can appeal to the city council. And if he doesn't like the city council's opinion he can take the city to court. That's the avenue or mechanism that is available to him or anybody else that wants to demolish a house."
It was suggested that someone make a gofundme.com page for the preservation of this national monument. This is a call to the international jazz community to get involved. Donaldsonville's history and legacy in modern music must not be forgotten!
Even if you think jazz is just a bunch of chaotic noise, just for a moment think about tourism in Donaldsonville. Think about something that with just a little time and effort would draw more visitors to the city. Visitors that would love to pay homage to the internationally known pioneer of jazz. Now make the case that Donaldsonville is better off without it.