There are memories that ebb and flow in the undercurrent of our consciousness, that are a constant in our life, and are not diminished by the passage of time.
The Upstairs Lounge arson fire on June 24, 1973 in New Orleans and the 32 who perished in the inferno is one of those “memories” that I have held close and protected across the decades. In September 1972, I was on vacation in New Orleans and attended worship services at MCC New Orleans. Nine months later one-third of that congregation—no doubt some of whom I had met there—would perish in the Upstairs fire.
I am unable to divorce myself from the emotions I experienced and the indelible, imprinted graphic images, then or now. I felt compelled to return to New Orleans in 1973, as a pilgrimage—just two months after the fire—to the site of the then, charred remnants of the Upstairs Lounge. I prayed for those who were incinerated in the fire and for those who survived, who would own physical and emotional scars for life. The message I received from those who died on that June, 1973 Pride Sunday was that they did not want to be forgotten.
When I again worshiped with the congregation of MCC New Orleans—still in a state of shock from the loss of so many of its members—my eyes were drawn to the altar which held an urn containing the ashes of their pastor, Rev. William Larson, who died in the fire. I left New Orleans with the promise to each of the 32 who would become immortal, that I would remember their sacrifice and carry them with me in all that would unfold in my life.
The research and documentation that is an integral part of this Upstairs exhibit is “my” living into completion the promise to these “32 martyrs of the flames” that they “would not” be forgotten. I personally want to acknowledge and thank Wayne Self, playwright and composer of the dramatic musical ‘Upstairs,” as the catalyst and impetus for this exhibit.
For those who would say that this event was so yesterday, i.e., we have achieved so many advances in our civil rights and in our acceptance for this to happen again, I would remind them that hate and intolerance are not constrained to finding shelter in any one moment, any one location in our “queer” history. To focus only on how far our LGBTQI communities may have progressed in 40 years; to fail to remember the sacrifice of all the lives lost or shattered in this journey; to lapse into complacency about our personal security: places us at risk of reviving the tragedy of our past in the present.
Lynn Jordan, co-curator
COVER IMAGE: The memorial plaque shown on the home page was installed on the sidewalk at the site of the Upstairs Lounge in 2003.