A new historical marker planned at the former Thomy Lafon School site in Central City is set to honor the legacy of a notable Black educator and suffragist in New Orleans.

The commemorative plaque will honor Sylvanie Williams, a leader in the Black women’s suffrage movement who served as the school’s first principal from 1897 until she passed away in 1921. The first school was destroyed in 1900 when a group of white men burned it down, but it was reopened in 1906 at 2916 South Robertson — the proposed location for the historical marker. 

“The marker is part of a national effort to commemorate sites related to women’s voting rights,” said Libby Neidenbach, an interpretive training coordinator with the Historic New Orleans Collection, at a presentation of the proposed marker in front of the Orleans Parish School Board Tuesday (Nov. 14). Neidenbach curated an exhibition about the local suffrage movement women’s right to vote that recently ended earlier this month.

The school board is expected to approve the placement of the marker at its Thursday (Nov. 16) meeting.

The request to place the marker was made by the Historic New Orleans Collection, which has already procured the plaque through the National Votes for Women Trail program. That initiative was created in 2020 by the National Collaborative for Women’s History Sites to honor the 100th anniversary of the ratification of the 19th Amendment, which guaranteed the right to vote for women. The organization will also pay to erect the marker and will arrange for a dedication ceremony, Neidenbach said.

The Historic New Orleans Collection chose the location because it was easily accessible to the public, Niedenbach said. The former school grounds also served as the site of a former cemetery, which Neidenbach said would prevent future developments from getting in the way of the plaque. The most recent Thomy Lafon School itself was closed after Hurricane Katrina and demolished in 2011, according to the New Orleans Historical project.

“The site is ideal because it represents Williams’ long-standing career as a leader in education, and the marker mentions her role as principal of the school,” Neidenbach said. “As evidenced by the work to improve their communities, Sylvanie Williams and the Phyllis Wheatley Club understood the connection between education and political rights.”

Williams founded the club, a social, political and literary organization for Black women, in 1896. The club was named after Phyllis Wheatley, who was kidnapped and sold into slavery and later become the first African American woman to author a published book of poetry. Williams advocated for Black women’s right to vote during a time when they were being excluded from the larger suffrage movement, Neidenbach said.

The National Votes for Women Trail program approved the Sylvanie Williams marker in January 2022, according to the presentation. When installed, it will be one of the 250 historical markers erected by the organization.

School board members expressed their support for the move, with NOLA Public Schools Superintendent Avis Williams emphasizing how Black women were historically excluded from the mainstream suffrage movement.

Board member Katherine Baudouin also urged everyone to honor Williams’ legacy by voting in the upcoming Nov. 18 runoff election.

“We can honor her legacy by voting this Saturday,” she said. “Almost everybody in this room’s right to vote was very hard fought and won.”

Creative Commons License

Republish our articles for free, online or in print, under a Creative Commons license.

Help inform our coverage as we build a newsroom for and by the people of New Orleans:

Please take a few minutes to share your thoughts with us by answering each question.

Minh (Nate) Ha is a recent magna cum laude graduate from American University with a Bachelor's degree in journalism. Originally from Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, Ha has spent the past four years in Washington,...