SHREVEPORT – In the first decades of Shreveport’s existence, the town at the intersection of the Red River and the Texas Trail was a bustling port establishment filled with steamboats and accompanying commerce. But in 1873, the third-largest yellow fever epidemic in United States’ history gripped the young town, killing one-fourth of the population (approximately 1,200 people) in the course of three months.
Members of the community and the media gathered in the Spring Street Museum to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the beginning of the epidemic, a press conference which kicks off a multitude of events this fall to remember the victims and to reflect on the rapid rebound that helped Shreveport overcome the tragedy.
The building that houses the museum – originally a bank -- is the oldest intact structure in Shreveport. On August 21, 1873, it was less than a block from where the first three deaths of the epidemic occurred. “The importance of this space is that we historians live for those tangible time-space connections to be able to have those touchstones to pass,” said Dr. Cheryl White, the academic coordinator of the Spring Street Museum and an LSUS history professor who serves on the mayoral commission to commemorate this historic event. “This bank would have been the center of the economic engine of a prosperous river port town in 1873. Right outside those windows, the bodies of three men who had been turned away from the infirmary the night before were found on Texas Street near the corner of Market Street and Milam Street.”
The first victims were 16-year-old James Lewis, Frank Nally (unknown age) and an unknown victim. It was the beginning of arguably the most transformative event in the town’s history.
A permanent yellow fever exhibit will be housed in the Spring Street Museum, which is owned by the LSUS Foundation and managed by LSUS.
Yellow fever spread among the town’s population by way of mosquitoes, although at the time of the epidemic, scientists didn’t know how the illness was transmitted. Scientists didn’t identify mosquitoes as the original source of the fever until the early 1900s. The Daily Shreveport Times, which began printing just a year earlier, turned from a publication touting the town’s remarkable economic progress to a death record as the casualties mounted in the coming weeks and months. Commerce eventually ground to a halt after city officials and the newspaper finally announced that yellow fever was present about 10 days after the first deaths. They delayed that announcement initially because of the negative commercial impact that announcement would bring.
Instead of the hustle of a thriving port city, the most common sounds were those of hearses and carriages moving about the city to collect the dead. The city opened a mass grave in Oakland Cemetery to handle the number of victims, and about 800 souls are believed to be contained in the Yellow Fever Mound. The Oakland Cemetery Preservation Society and the City of Shreveport will remember these Yellow Fever victims with a tangible memorial consisting of eight pillars with close to 100 names on each.
White and Dr. Gary Joiner, the LSUS history department chair, embarked on a project to name as many of the victims as possible for the memorial. Joiner oversaw the LSUS initiative to compile the list of names for the memorial. “Although the local newspaper effectively ceased to report news during the peak of the epidemic, in this regard, The Times became for us an important and enduring historical record,” Joiner said in a news release. “It allows us to finally commemorate these victims 150 years later.” White added that the group cross referenced the names published in The Times’ daily lists to names of known burials, creating a database of about 800 names that had no known burial. These names are the ones likely to be buried in the Yellow Fever Mound.
The memorial is paid for by a combination of public funds and private donations.
The memorial will be dedicated Oct. 7 at 1 p.m. in Oakland Cemetery following a public symposium at LSUS that morning. White, Joiner and Dr. Kenna Franklin, LSUS assistant vice provost for diversity, inclusion and community engagement, were part of the mayoral commission to plan the yellow fever commemoration. The epidemic could have had an even greater impact if not for an early frost in October and a hard freeze in November, which pushed the mosquito population into dormancy and stopped the spread of the disease.
The City of Shreveport and the Downtown Development Authority will host “The Merciful Frost,” a celebratory dinner on Nov. 19 at The Noble Savage to mark the end of the epidemic. Shreveport mayor Tom Arceneaux said the community’s response to the outbreak and the city’s quick recovery both in terms of population and commerce is cause for celebration today. Arceneaux referred to a passage in the Bible (Ezekiel 37) to provide context. “It’s a famous passage in which the Lord asks, ‘Can these bones live?,” Arceneaux said. “The question after this epidemic was, ‘Can Shreveport live?
“The answer is yes. Shreveport can live and does live. We together as a community can overcome any obstacle that we face if we work together. That’s what the people of Shreveport have a history of doing.”
The community, particularly the religious institutions at the time, did rally together and attempt to care for each other. Five Catholic priests, all French natives, gave their lives to minister to the sick during the epidemic. Fathers Jean Pierre and Isidore Quemerais of Shreveport’s Holy Trinity Church were among the first group of volunteers to care for yellow fever victims. Both ministered and offered rites to the people in quarantine. Quemerais died on Sept. 15 and Pierre on Sept. 16 in 1873. Father Jean-Marie Biler was stationed three miles away from downtown at the Fairfield convent, answering the call of an ill Jean Pierre to offer Mass and to care for the sick. Biler died on Sept. 26. Biler signaled to Father Louis Marie Gergaud, the founding pastor of St. Matthew Church in Monroe.
Gergaud responded, knowingly traveling to Shreveport despite the certainty of exposure to the deadly yellow fever. He died Oct. 1. Father Francois LeVezouet of Natchitoches arrived in Shreveport to minister to Gergaud and the remaining people in quarantine, succumbing to the illness himself on Oct. 8. After LeVezouet fell ill, Natchitoches Bishop Augustus Martin (whose territory included Shreveport) endeavored to recruit priests from New Orleans who had previously been exposed to yellow fever.
All five of the fallen priests are potential saints as the cases to advance their beatification and canonization were voted upon by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops this past June. The cause now goes to the Vatican’s “Dicastery for Causes of Saints” for further formal inquiry into their lives. The Holy Trinity Church will hold masses to honor these fallen priests on the dates in which they died. “These priests had a choice to come or not to this territory,” said Francis Malone, current bishop of Catholic Diocese of Shreveport. “To see the letters that were written to them, they were promised nothing.
“More than likely, they were headed to their early deaths. They ministered to the community and to one another. The Catholic Church is really engaged in this anniversary because it signifies a community that rises above the bones as (Mayor Arceneaux) referenced.”
A full list of commemoration events as well as an in-depth history can be found at shreveportyellowfever.com.