Frances Joseph-Gaudet

12391015_197810360561054_5979232757497553144_nShe was born around 1860 in a log cabin in Holmesville, Mississippi to a father who was an African American slave and a mother of Native American descent. She was raised by her grandparents and would later go live with one of her brothers in New Orleans where she attended school and Straight College. She married at age 17, but after ten years of marriage, Joseph-Gaudet petitioned for a divorce on grounds of her husband’s alcoholism and would raise her three children alone working as a seamstress.

Despite raising three children on her own, Joseph-Gaudet dedicated her life to prison reform. Beginning in 1894 she held prayer meetings, wrote letters, delivered messages, and secured clothing for African American prisoners, and later for white prisoners as well. Her dedication to helping with the prisoners won her the respect of prison officials and city authorities. Soon the governor of Louisiana and the Prison Reform Association took notice. A delegate to the Women’s Christian Temperance Union international convention in Edinburgh, Scotland, in 1900, she worked for the reform of young blacks arrested for misdemeanor or vagrancy.

When she returned from Scotland she began to attend juvenile hearings, and taking responsibility for the young African American people that came through court. Joseph-Gaudet worked for their reform and she was the first woman of any race to advocate for juvenile prisoners in Louisiana. She helped set up the Juvenile Court in the state.

Joseph-Gaudet’s home was soon overflowing with young men she was helping. When it got too small, she purchased 105 acres of land on Gentilly Road, Louisiana and founded the Colored Industrial Home and School. This would become the Gaudet Normal and Industrial School of Black Youth in 1902. It was both an orphanage and a school known for its academic excellence. The school was a boarding school, and expanded to have many dormitories through Joseph-Gaudet’s tireless efforts.

Joseph-Gaudet was the principal of the school until 1921 when she sold the school to he diocese of the Protestant Episcopal church of Louisiana. Within the agreement to sell was the understanding that the diocese would keep the school running or use the proceeds from the sale to fund a similar school. Joseph-Gaudet spent the last years of her life in Chicago, Illinois, where she died in December 1934.

The school closed in 1950, but in 1951 the diocese opened the Gaudet Episcopal Home, which served African American children from ages four to sixteen. This home has also closed, but the Episcopal Social Services in New Orleans honors her legacy, and continues to award annual scholarships in her memory.

Adela