Walking through Carrollton Cemetery in New Orleans in 92-degree heat at 1 p.m. in August is rough enough. But doing it after several days worth of rain in the cemetery’s potter’s field — where little grass and no paved walkways exist and your feet slip and slide in the mud — is even more of a challenge.
So why would I do that this past Monday? Because somewhere in that section of one of NOLA’s many historic burial grounds is the grave of John Bissant, one of the Big Easy’s best baseball products, Bissant played for the Chicago American Giants and Birmingham Black Barons, among other teams, in the 1930s and ’40s before retiring from professional ball by the end of that decade..
In 1942, for example, the New Orleans kid joined with Jimmie Crutchfield and Hall of Famer Cool Papa Bell in the American Giants’ outer garden to form what wire columnist R. S. Simmons deemed “one of the greatest combinations of fly ball chasers in the league.”
But Bissant wasn’t just a diamond of a player; his leadership abilities also garnered the respect of his teammates and other peers. In 1947 he was named the American Giants’ team captain under manager Quincy Trouppe, a role to which he returned in 1948.
One particularly twist of fate brought Bissant together with another Big Easy native, Lloyd “Ducky” Davenport, on the Chicago roster. Bissant was 29 and Ducky was just 32 when he took the managerial reins of the Giants. That pairing might be especially poignant — like Bissant, Davenport appears also be in an unmarked grave, this one in Holt Cemetery, which is almost entirely a potter’s field at this point. I’m also trying to find Ducky’s final resting place.
(I’m very much hoping to eventually check out several years of the Louisiana Weekly, NOLA’s multicultural paper, from the 1930s onward to discover coverage of Bissant by the local black press. The Weekly is only available on microfilm.)
Unfortunately, memories of Bissant are fading rapidly into the burgeoning haze of passing time. Younger generations, even those with intimate connections to the blackball scene in the Crescent City, are simply not old enough to have any memory of him.
For example, I recently asked my good friend Rodney Page, the son of legendary NOLA team owner/promoter/executive/entrepreneur Allen Page, who told me this by email:
“Concerning John Bissant, I did not know him nor have any family connections. I’ve heard his name in long ago conversations and know that he was also a member of the New Orleans Creoles when my dad owned the team. Lots of familiar names, but no personal knowledge or experience like Wesley Barrow, who I still think of very often.”
How much has the New Orleans community — including African-American residents — let John Bissant’s legacy slip away? When I looked through issues of the Louisiana Weekly (the city’s multi-cultural paper) published in the weeks and even months after his death in 2006, I couldn’t find a single word about his passing.
Bissant died in Houston in April of that year — he relocated there after that year’s devastating hurricane — and was brought back to his hometown for burial in Carrollton Cemetery, which is nestled in the city’s Uptown neighborhood, just a few blocks from the Tulane University campus and maybe a half-mile from where much of his family lived during the first half of the 20th century.
The Bissants were clustered in the blocks just north of famed St. Charles Avenue — a thoroughfare known for its overhanging willow and cypress trees and ambling streetcar line — on Clara, Cadiz and Howard streets. (Later generations of the family shifted a bit to the east, settling in the Garden District, located adjacent to downtown on the east.)
Bissant seems to have been a source of pride for the Carrollton neighborhood; in fact, he has an entry on a New Orleans museum’s page on baseball in Carrollton.
So it was probably natural that the Bissants would be interred in Carrollton Cemetery. But’s it’s also depressing as well — founded in 1849 when the Carrollton neighborhood was its own city, the burying ground was one of the few Catholic cemeteries in the area to be sectioned off by race and by class. As a result, the vast majority of the African-Americans buried there were relegated to the “colored” section — which, as one might guess given the harsh socioeconomic realities of segregation, is described by modern cemetery employees as the indigent section.
The Carrollton Cemetery has a long, 160-plus-year history as one of the cornerstone landmarks of the neighborhood. The burial ground’s managerial duties passed through several institutions and officials, from the Church to sextons to volunteer organizations to, finally, the City of New Orleans. Right now, it seems like maintenance of Carrollton Cemetery is primarily a city duty, but doubtless many volunteer organizations and church groups lend a significant hand as well, as with every historic cemetery on the city. (Originally its own incorporated city — in effect, a suburb of New Orleans — Carrollton was annexed by NOLA in 1874, shifting control of the burial grounds as well.)
Residents Upkeep occurred regularly as well into the 20th century — a wooden shed was approved in 1903, and in 1912, efforts began to extend city water service to the burial ground.
On that note, Carrollton Cemetery is quite unusual for the Crescent City, too — it’s located on remarkably high ground (at least for NOLA), which allows underground burials along with tombs and mausoleums. But, alas, most of the underground graves are guess where? Yep, the indigent/colored section. The rest of the yard is graced with the type of tombs and structures that make “cities of the dead” New Orleans landmarks and tourist stops.
That became the case early on, too — in a November 1879 edition of the New Orleans Times-Democrat, the writer described the cemetery thusly:
“While life flowed into the graveyards in the other portions of the city, the neat graveyard at Carrollton, situated on Adams street, was visited by a large number of persons throughout the day and the evening. The floral decorations also compared very favorably with those considered most prominent in thus beautifying the homes of the silent majority.”
You want quirky and creepy? We got that too. Stated the March 8, 1885, Times-Picayune, after an unusual overnight occurrence at the cemetery:
“… some persons broke into the Carrollton cemetery and destroyed the tomb of F. Carrouleau. The tomb contained the remains of a man named Dominick Fosse. There was quite a sensation Carrollton last summer over the supposed appearance of Fosse’s ghost at Carrollton avenue and Fourteenth street, and the ghost business is said to have some connection to the strange destruction of the tomb.”
While the most well known New Orleans historical figures buried in Carrollton are white, there have been several celebrated black interments as well. For example, in November 1896 the Times-Picayune reported of the interment in Carrollton Cemetery of a towering figure in the city:
“The colored population of the city mourns the loss of one one of its most intelligent and worthy leaders in the person of Rev. Stephen Priestly, one of the most prominent ant able colored preachers in the state, and it might be even be said in the south. … It was the largest [funeral] that ever was witnessed among the colored people of this city. It was a tribute of an appreciative people to a worthy man who has devoted all the energies of his life to the education and good of his race. For thirty years he has been their counselor and minister, and has figured conspicuously in every movement for their betterment.”
Of course, the paternalistic and somewhat condescending tone of that article does reflect the attitudes of New Orleans’ white population at the time, but it’s still significant that Rev. Priestly’s burial in a city-owned location would garner so much attention.
Unfortunately, it’s now 120 years later, and things are a bit different in Carrollton Cemetery’s “colored” section. There’s no more famous African Americans buried there, no more ballyhooed funeral services, no chances for the local black (and white) population to celebrate important figures in the ever-evolving social nature of the city.
Now, this “indifent” portion of the cemetery plat, located in the south corner of the facility, stands as a depressing chunk of a bleak history that, quite frequently, is a muddy, bleak, rubble-strewn mess. While the other (i.e. white) section of the cemetery picturesque and tidy — with massive, ornamental crypts and organized, marked rows — the indigent section is a crowded, haphazard mess composed of graves that are either sunken into the earth and marked with cracked, faded or toppled tombstones, if marked at all. In some places, the graves are squished literally back-to-back and side-to-side, or often at odd angles that leave very little, if any, room to walk around and over them without stepping on the graves. When I quizzed a staffer about Bissant’s grave, she said the “indigent” section doesn’t even have a written, mapped out layout. “It’s just empty space,” she said.
It’s hard not to be completely deflated and blown away by that statement. It’s just really, really depressing. quite.
When I visited earlier this week Carrolltom Cemetery was devoid of any people (living ones, I mean) except a single, African-American employee who was power-washing the tombs in the white section. With no on-site office — the cemetery is owned and maintained by the city from downtown — and almost no tourists or family visitors at the site, maintenance workers are often the lone people in the facility. When I asked this employee, a middle- to older-aged African-American man wearing a sun hat and rubber boots, where Bissant might be, he pointed to the south corner. When I told him the plot number for Bissant’s grave, he said he didn’t recognize it.
“Maybe if you just walked up and down and see if you can find it …,” he said with a twinge of resignation. He knew history’s reality. He knew why things are the way they are.
By this time, my tubby ass was already sweating as I shuffled down toward the “colored” section. It would by an exasperating task. I knew that. But I was determined to find John Bissant, slugger for the Chicago American Giants and local hardball legend — one that had disappeared in death.
The story will continue in my next post. Keep up the good fight.