Artist: Chris Daemmrich
Storyteller: Dr. Amber Wiley
The Pythian Temple building at Gravier and Loyola (formerly Saratoga) streets was erected in 1909, and was soundly celebrated throughout the United States in the African American press as a true monument to the literal heights of the “Negro race.” The Pythian Temple was an exciting symbol of the power of the black race in the face of growing hostilities in the post-Reconstruction era of Jim Crow racial apartheid. Smith Wendell Green, born into enslavement, became a self-made millionaire as a grocer and through his work in insurance and print media. In 1908 he was elected leader of the Colored Knights of the Pythias of Louisiana, where he promptly set about securing finances to construct the eight-story steel and brick building. The towering, stately Pythian Building was an institution which long supported New Orleans African-American entertainment, arts, social activities, public and private education, business, and political activism. Booker T. Washington spoke there on one of his tours of the South. African Americans who were turned away from the Republican Party’s Southern Convention, because the hosting hotel did not allow black patrons, met at the Pythian Temple instead. Clarinetist Sidney Bechet played in the rooftop garden. Members of a neighborhood club known as “The Tramps” attended a vaudeville show at the theater. Later this group formed a benevolent aid society with themes based on a skit in the show at the Pythian. Today the group is known as the Zulu Social Aid and Pleasure Club. The Pythian Temple was the physical manifestation of Black achievement against great odds. The rooms that formed the offices, theaters, auditoriums, and halls did more than provide square footage to employers and consumers. Indeed, the rooms provided community spaces where Black life insurance companies, Black banks, newspapers, barber shops, benevolent societies, social, political, civic and religious organizations shaped the institutional framework for creative expression that continues to be the heartbeat of the city, and a self-reliant and self-sufficient Black community.
"The Eighth Wonder of the world is not located in the Orient, in the Occident, nor at the North Pole, but right in the city of New Orleans, in the prosperous State of Louisiana. It is not a temple that is dedicated to gods, but it is a mammoth, modern, up-to-date building, dedicated to the living and built by Negro brains and Negro capital. The name of this pretentious and magnificent structure is The Pythian Temple of New Orleans, LA." – Green Polonius Hamilton, 1911