After Pride-goers close out a weekend full of performances, parading, and celebrating, the LGBT community will memorialize a sorrowful time in New Orleans' history. Tomorrow marks the 40th anniversary of the Upstairs Lounge Fire, an arson attack on the city's LGBT community in 1973 that left 32 people dead.
At the time of the fire, cities across the United States, including New York, Chicago, Boston Dallas, Milwaukee, and San Francisco, were celebrating Pride weekend. In New Orleans, however, LGBT clubs and gatherings were still underground.
The fire occurred at what is now Jimani Lounge and Restaurant (141 Chartres), on the second floor of a three-story building. According to their website, the space temporarily housed the New Orleans chapter of the nation’s first gay congregation, the Metropolitan Community Church. Chapters in Nashville and Los Angeles were attacked earlier in the year.
That Sunday night, someone firebombed the building, and eyewitnesses told reporters on the scene that they smelled gasoline before the arsonist set the stairs ablaze. There were approximately 60 people in the bar at the time, and 29 died that night. Another three died later from injuries.
With no emergency exit and windows barred shut, most were unable to escape. MCC Reverend Bill Larson died in between the bars, his lifeless body visible to witnesses throughout the investigation.
The story disappeared from the public radar within a day of the incident, and news reports used denigrating language to describe the horrific scene. New Orleans Chief Detective at the time, Major Henry Morris, was quoted about the victims in the States-Item. “We don’t even know these papers belonged to the people we found them on. Some thieves hung out there, and you know this was a queer bar.” No one was ever arrested for the murders.
The first memorial service will take place at St. Mark’s United Methodist Church (1130 N. Rampart Street) at 5pm. The son/grandson of two of the victims will speak. At 6:30pm, a solemn street side memorial will take place at Iberville and Chartres, the former site of the Upstairs Lounge. At 8pm, Upstairs the musical will close out its five-show run at Cafe Istanbul.