Monday, June 24, 2013

UPSTAIRS LOUNGE FIRE MEMORIAL SERVICE - 40 YEARS AGO TODAY

 

On Saturday afternoon, I attended the memorial service for the people who died in the fire at the UpStairs Lounge, a gay bar in New Orleans. The cover of the service bulletin shows the names of the people who died in the fire.  The listing of  "Unknown White Man" (three in number) is especially poignant.  Fr Bill Richardson, the then rector of St George, who presided at a memorial service for the dead a short time after the tragedy, was also remembered.

Fox8 in New Orleans covered the event. (Don't turn away at the "Fox" label; the news coverage by the local station is quite different from Fox News on the cable channel.)
June 24, 1973, an arsonist set fire at the bottom of the staircase leading to the Upstairs Lounge, a known gay bar.  "The bartender at the time got 20 victims out of the back of the bar," explained Wil Coleman of Pride New Orleans Celebration.

Flames trapped patrons on the second floor.  Others could see out the windows and reach out, but they couldn't physically get out.  "The windows were all barred and people couldn't get out." said New Orleans resident Mary Christie.  "What a horrible thing, and the fact that they had no sprinkler systems," she said.

Twenty-nine people died in the fire.  Three others died later of their injuries.  The final death toll was 32.
 
The Upstairs Lounge fire was the worst fire in New Orleans, and its impact was far-reaching not only because of the tremendous loss of life in this building, but it sparked a gay rights movement in this city.
....
[Fr Richard] Easterling and others gathered for a mass at St. George's Episcopal Church uptown Saturday to remember all 32 victims, including three people who were never identified. The day after the fire on June 25, 1973, St. George's held a memorial for the survivors and loved ones when no one else would.
I agree with the writer's conclusion that the tragic deaths in the fire lit a spark to begin the movement on the local scene toward equality and justice for LGTB persons.  Fr Bill Richardson's courage in agreeing to hold the memorial service at St George Episcopal Church 40 years ago placed the Episcopal Church squarely in its midst.  Many, even those within the movement, are not aware of this pivotal event in the history of the struggle for gay rights.

I commend the station for their coverage of the 40th anniversary of the tragedy.  The video report of the Fox8 news segment may be seen at the link above. 

Last week, I put together a group of quotes about the tragedy, which includes more information.