Honorable Pierre Caliste Landry – First Mayor of Color in U.S.

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 According to Landry’s unpublished autobiography, he resided with a free couple of color and was educated at a school conducted for free children.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

J.C.L.H.

23 thoughts on “Honorable Pierre Caliste Landry – First Mayor of Color in U.S.

  1. I am always so very happy to read this kind of information and to pass it on to the children and other family and friends.

  2. Thank you for sharing this most interesting man ‘s bio. We hope to never lose our history.

  3. Outstanding! Of course the Landry is well known in the New Orleans area, especially Algiers, but this is the first time I’ve ever read anything about him. Such a treasure thanks for sharing it with me.

  4. Thank you for sharing the write-up on Rev. Pierre Landry. I am in the process of completing the biography of my great grandfather, Rev. Peter W. Clark, who was a colleague of Rev. Landry. When I taught at Booker T. Washington in New Orleans, Rev. Landry’s grandson, also named Pierre Landry, was the Vice Principal, while Mr. Charles Rousseve was the Principal. My uncle, also named Peter W. Clark, served on the faculty with me.

      • Jari–A couple of years ago, there were no black ministers in the 19th Century Louisiana Ministers Photo Gallery. This was probably because the Methodist Episcopal Church South split from the main Methodist Episcopal group (northern). It is rather complicated, but the black M.E. ministers in Louisiana belonged to the northern church. The Methodists have since reunited, but sometimes the history reported is one-sided
        I discussed the absence of the black pioneers with the web site manager, and he recognized the need to address this. I sent in the photo of Rev. Peter W. Clark, and my cousin Hezekiah Clark sent in the photo of his grandfather Rev. Elijah Harp Clark. Please send a photo of Rev. Landry and any other black ministers from that era that you can secure. I will be happy to help you with Methodist contacts.

    • Thank you for this rare find in Black History. Rev. Landry was a distant relative. My mother’s sister May Landry was married to the Associate Principal of Booker T. Washington who passed away one week to the day that my father Philipt N. Orticke, Sr. died in March, 1969. The bio is a revleation and a missing link in American History. Rev. Landry was truly a remarkably accomplished person to have done so much and live to tell about it too!

  5. Wonderful history to share with others. I recognized names other than Landy — W. L. Cohen (the high school I attended) and have heard of Gilbert Academy and Straight Business school. This gentleman did lots for the era of his time….truly amazing and what most folks do not even know.

  6. Most informative & enjoyable for me & my Family, as we are products of Donaldsonville La.
    My brother attented Gilbert in N O La, I graduated from Walter L. Cohen in & Dillard University. Sister attended Straight Bus College, S U N O, & Tulane Univ.
    My Aunt taught in Donaldsonville La. Attended Le Land College.
    We have strong family ties & history all in the area.
    I really enjoyed this wonderful read from start to finish.

    Please keep me posted on any more information regarding Donaldsonville or surrounding parishes.
    Thank You,

    Rose Robinson Sceau

    • Hello Mrs. Sceau! This is Jari Honora. I created this website along with three friends of mine. You may remember I spoke with you and Mrs. Henrietta about the Ladies Auxiliary’s history. So glad you found the site. Take care.

      • Hi Jari, Yes,this is soooo wonderful! How long has it been since we spoke regarding the Ladies Auxiliary? I do not remember I just asked my Sis she doesn’t remember! Smile.
        I really love your site keep up the very good work! Where do you live?
        looking forward to nex’t time, soon I hope.
        Our Aunt Birdie Robinson Brittain teacher & friend of Mr. Landry.
        Thank You very much.

    • Mrs. Sceau–Would you please aks your senior relatives if they knew any of the Clarks from Ascension Parish? If so, I’d loved to chat or correspond with them.

  7. Yes we knew of A Dr. Clark ph.d, we too would like to know if any are still around! Since most Of our old family members are deceased that would have that info it’s sort of hard to obtain, oh but, check with the Black very nice little
    museum in Donaldsonville, La I visited there right after Storm Katrina “Enjoyed.”

    Rose Sceau

    • Rose–Thanks for the quick response. The Clark family that I am related to would have been farmers and/or ministers/teachers. I have hit one of those genealogical roadblocks. Revs. Peter Clark and Elijah Clark served in the area. I can’t pin down the sister of Peter Clark and need to verify the brother of Peter and Elijah–Toney M.J. Clark. I think that I will be visiting that museum in the near future! Does it have a name? Elaine

  8. My name is Marcel Joseph Jr. I was born in Donaldsonville. I attended St Peter’s Methodist Church from my childhood and always knew of Rev. Landry as the cornerstone attributed the building of the church to him in 1872. I also knew from my mother and aunts that he was a great relative of mine. Further the known family members were invited and attended a Pierre Caliste Landry Day in New Orleans some years ago hosted by then Mayor Morrial and the then Mayor of Donaldsonville, Mayor Raymond Jacobs.and other dignitaries. It was there that his bust was unveiled and his brilliant history reviewed. That bust now rest in the Afro-American History Museum.in Donaldsonville, La where a detailed account of his life can be received. My mother, Wilhemeana Joseph was, as far we know,was his oldest living relative until March of this year when she died at 95 years old.At the affair in New Orleans we met other family members from his second marriage to Ms. Simpkins and celebrated our joint heritage embodied in this great man.
    Thank you so much for this article and your efforts to preserve our history

  9. I am doing research to track the names of the children on Pierre Caliste Landry. Any way you can help me would be greatly appreciated. I love the piece you’ve put together in this document.

    • I am Pierre Caliste Landry’s great-great granddaughter. His daughter, Lilian Burdette Landry Dunn was my great-grandmother. Her daughter, my grandmother was Lillian Velma Dunn Perry. I am humbled by this legacy.

  10. Mr. Brimmer: Thank you for visiting CreoleGen.org! Please visit and support often! The fourteen children of Pierre Landry are Oscar Landry, Lord Palmerston Landry, Marcelite Landry, Amanda Landry, Elsie Landry, Joseph Landry, Charles Landry, Louis Landry, Nellie V. Landry, Georgia Landry, Lord Beaconsfield Landry, Oliver Willard Landry, and Lillian Burdette Landry.

  11. Thank you for posting the bio on Pierre Caliste Landry. Interesting for personal reasons, as my Great, Grandmother’s name is Ruth Landry Johnson, born between 1850-1860, originally from Donaldsonville, and husband of Paul Johnson, Sr. Unsure if there is any relation, although some of the family eventually moved to the New Orleans area. Other descendants are, Ruth and Paul’s daughter, Leila Johnson Lee (1878), Ruth Whitfield, Emery Whitfield, Ruth Williams, Thelma Ruth Williams Jolly…

  12. The African American Museum in New Orleans, is really the Meilleur Villa Museum. My Great Grandmother is Carman Meilleur and husband, Ernest Jolly of New Orleans. Reading more information about Pierre Caliste Landry in another site, it stated that Pierre Caliste Landry resided at the Meilleur house at some point, really peaking my curiosity of a family connection, in more than one way!

  13. Hello, My Name is Myra Lawrence, I was reading again about Pierre Caliste Landry. I am a product of this history. I was born in Donaldsonville, Louisiana. I noticed my 1st cousin, Marcel Joseph had responded on this site in Nov, 2012. My Mother, Alberta Landry, along with my aunts, would tell us stories of our rich history. I feel very proud of the accomplishments of “Caliste”, which paved the way for so many of us. Our roots will continue to live thru this legacy.

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