Pierre Caliste Landry(19 April 1841-22 December 1921), statesman, minister, educator, businessman, and attorney, was born on the plantation of Dr. Francois Marie Prevost near Donaldsonville, Ascension Parish, Louisiana. He is purported to have been born to Rosemond Landry, a white laborer on the Prevost plantation and Marcelite, his slave mistress. He was born with the name Caliste. According to Landry’s unpublished autobiography, he resided with a free couple of color and was educated at a school conducted for free children. Despite his owner’s wish that he be freed, when Dr. Prevost’s estate was settled on 16 May 1854 Caliste was auctioned off to Marius St. Colombe Bringier, a wealthy sugar planter in Ascension Parish. He was sold for $1,665. Landry continued his education on Houmas, the Bringier plantation, and was trusted enough to live in the mansion. He served various roles on Houmas Plantation, eventually earning the position of superintendent of the yard. As a young man, Caliste was taught the trades of confectioner and cook, two trades he employed during his time with the Bringiers. Caliste enjoyed relative freedom at the Bringier plantation, even being given permission to form a business partnership with another slave, the head butler, to run a plantation store. In 1862 Caliste received a release from his yard duties and became an apprentice to both the plantation’s head white carpenter and machinist.
In 1866 Caliste changed his name to Pierre for unknown reasons and moved to Donaldsonville. He soon became a prominent member of Donaldsonville’s black community. Within his first year there he founded two day schools and a night school for black children. He built the first home owned by a freed slave in Donaldsonville and opened a small but prosperous store. Landry’s was one of the first black families in town to own a piano. In 1867 he married Amanda Grigsby. At a 1 January 1867 commemoration of the Emancipation Proclamation a large group of black residents unanimously elected Landry their leader in all matters, social, educational, and political because of his strong leadership and usefulness.
In 1868 Landry was elected mayor of Donaldsonville and served for a one-year term, making him the first African American mayor in the United States. He subsequently served as a member of the Ascension Parish School Board, superintendent of schools, and justice of the peace. In 1870 Pierre became president of the Ascension Parish Police Jury and was appointed tax collector for Donaldsonville by Governor Henry C. Warmouth. In 1872 President Ulysses S. Grant appointed Landry as the postmaster of Donaldsonville. That same year he was elected to the State House of Representatives. One of the more notable among his bills to aid black people was the establishment of New Orleans University, the third black private college in Louisiana.
In 1874 he became state senator for the 8th Senatorial District of Louisiana. In his term as a senator he was one of two African American members to dine with President Ulysses S. Grant in 1875. During his tenure in the state senate he also edited a Christian newspaper called the Monthly Record. In 1879 he was elected as the delegate from Ascension Parish to the state constitutional convention. He served in the state senate until 1878. Landry had a private law practice for twelve years. He was a founding member of the Board of Trustees for New Orleans University, which later merged with Straight College to form Dillard University in 1935.
After the Civil War, Landry converted from Catholicism to Methodism through the influence of a local congregation of Methodists. Perhaps this congregation was the Donaldsonville Methodist Episcopal Church, which had been formed in 1844. He was an active member of St. Peter’s Methodist Episcopal Church in Donaldsonville. St. Peter’s had been founded in 1865 by the Methodist Episcopal Church Society of New York. He was elected a lay delegate from the Louisiana Conference to the General Conference held at Brooklyn, New York, in 1872. He joined the traveling circuit in 1878. He was appointed by Bishop W. L. Harris as pastor of St. Peter’s, which he served for three years.
At the Annual Session of the Louisiana Conference at Shreveport in 1881, Bishop C. D. Foss appointed Landry the Presiding Elder of the Baton Rouge District, a position he held for four years. In 1885 Bishop W. F. Mallalieu appointed him Presiding Elder of the Shreveport District. After the death of his first wife, Amanda Grigsby, he married Florence Simpkins in 1886. Landry had twelve children with Amanda Grigsby. In 1889 after four years in that position, he was appointed pastor of the St. Paul Church at Shreveport, which he served for three years. After two years he completed the rebuilding of the church after a devastating fire, and rebuilt the parsonage. He supervised the work himself, and at the end of his term he turned over one of the finest pieces of colored church property in the Louisiana Conference.
At the Annual Session of the Louisiana Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church in 1891 he was named Presiding Elder of the South New Orleans District, after which he moved his family to New Orleans.
In 1900 Landry became the dean of Gilbert Academy in Baldwin, Louisiana. Gilbert Academy was a prestigious school begun in 1865 as an agricultural and industrial college for freedmen. The college was under the auspices of the Methodist Episcopal Church. In 1919 Gilbert Academy merged with New Orleans University and was given the name Gilbert Academy High School. The school was located on the campus of New Orleans University on St. Charles Avenue (later the site of De La Salle High). Gilbert Academy eventually acquired the entire campus after New Orleans University merged with Straight College to form Dillard University. Gilbert Academy closed in 1949. Landry served as dean of Gilbert Academy until 1905. That year, his second wife Florence Simpkins died. She and Landry had two children. Landry also served on the Board of Trustees of Flint Medical College, a Methodist-affiliated institution in New Orleans.
The Reverend Pierre Landry was a minister in the Methodist Episcopal Church for fifty years. The 24 December 1921 issue of the New Orleans Times Picayune reported that “He is believed to have preached to more people of his race than any other man.” This is not hard to believe as Landry served at St. Peter’s Church in Donaldsonville, Bayou Goula, Napoleonville, Woodlawn, Voiron (Belle Rose), Shreveport, New Orleans, and Gonzales. A few years before his death, Pierre became a member of the Missionary Baptist Church.
All of his fourteen children went on to receive a higher education. Among them was his son, Lord Beaconsfield Landry, a physician for whom a public school in the Algiers section of New Orleans is named. Several of them became educators.
Pierre Caliste Landry died in the Algiers section of New Orleans, Louisiana. Among the speakers at his funeral was Governor Henry C. Warmouth, and among the pallbearers were Walter L. Cohen and Dr. Charles Vance, two leaders in the New Orleans black community. Pierre Caliste Landry’s place in history is solidified. His life includes time in slavery, emancipation, election to political office, appointment to the pastorate of the Methodist Church, and service as an educator to many.
Photograph Source: River Road African American Museum