White Supremacy Upheld: Pierre Sylve, killed in 1934 gun-battle, descendants seek justice

The only photograph Michael Sylve remembers seeing of his grandfather, Pierre Euchere Sylve, was on his aunt’s dresser in her home in New Orleans, Louisiana.

“He had a dress shirt on,” said Michael. “His hair was kind of wavy and he had very dark skin.”

“I wish I could have seen that photo,” said Lydia Sylve, Michael’s daughter, who also joined the Zoom call with CRRJ Research Assistant Lydia Beal and Legal Fellow Malcolm Clarke, on April 11.

This photograph, along with many other precious family keepsakes, was lost in the devastation of Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

But now, Michael Sylve and his daughter Lydia Sylve are collaborating with CRRJ to memorialize Pierre Solve, who was killed 90 years ago.

“I wasn’t even in this world when all that took place,” said Sylve.

I never thought this would come up because it happened almost a hundred years ago, and now it has kind of opened up the wound a little bit … now the truth is coming out.”

Lydia Sylve first contacted CRRJ after researching her family history on the Burnham-Nobles Digital Archive.

Pierre Sylve’s death was first investigated by students from the Southern University Law Center (SULC), during an externship coordinated by former CRRJ Legal Fellow Raymond Wilkes, and SULC Professor Ada Goodly Lampkin.

After finding her great-grandfather’s file in the archive, Lydia Sylve reached out to CRRJ to request assistance in accessing the original records pertaining to Pierre Sylve’s killing, housed within the archive and Northeastern University’s digital repository.

Pierre Sylve, 67, was killed May 11, 1934, by a posse in Pointe à la Hache, Plaquemines Parish, Louisiana. According to newspaper accounts, Deputy Sheriff Jules Morel went to Sylve’s farmhouse to serve him a warrant for carrying a concealed weapon. The two men fought. Some accounts suggest the elder Sylve shot Morel in the shoulder or back. After escaping to a neighbor’s home, Morel alerted Sheriff L. Dauterive, who gathered a heavily armed posse of police and citizens, who then headed to the Sylve property.

A four-hour gun battle ensued, and several tear gas bombs were launched by sheriff deputies, attempting to drive Sylve from his home.

Pierre Sylve died in a hailstorm of bullets, with two fatal shots to the head from Morel’s pistol.

In reporting his killing, the local white press referred to Sylve as the “Plaquemines Desperado” and printed photographs of the posse, proudly standing on his land, following the gun-battle. The Pittsburgh Courier, a widely circulated Black publication, covered the gun battle in the May 19, 1934 edition. Reporters here noted: 

“White supremacy was upheld. Down here, you know, they kill you if they can’t serve a warrant on you.”

Read more about Sylve’s death on the Burnham-Nobles Digital Archive

About the Archive

The Burnham-Nobles Digital Archive houses case files and documents for more than 1,000 cases of racial homicides in the Jim Crow South. Co-founded by Melissa Nobles, professor of political science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Margaret Burnham, CRRJ director and professor of law at Northeastern, these uncovered stories highlight how violence affected lives, defined legal rights and shaped politics between 1930 and 1954.

Killing of Pierre Sylve in Plaquemines Parish, Louisiana, 1934. Photo courtesy of Lydia Beal, CRRJ Researcher, Northeastern University.

Photos: (Header) The Time-Picayune’s coverage of the killing of Pierre Sylve, Louisiana, 1934. Courtesy of The Burnham-Nobles Digital Archive. (Above) The Pittsburgh Courier report on the killing of Pierre Sylve in Plaquemines Parish, Louisiana, from May 19, 1934. Courtesy of Lydia Beal, CRRJ Researcher, Northeastern University. (Center) The Daily Advertiser, May 12, 1934, report on the killing of Pierre Sylve, Louisiana, 1934. Courtesy of The Burnham-Nobles Digital Archive. (Right) The Plaquemines Gazette, Friday Dec. 22, 1967, report on the killing of Pierre Sylve, Louisiana, 1934. Courtesy of Lydia Beal, CRRJ Researcher, Northeastern University.

But these reports, and other contemporary accounts have raised more questions than answers.

“Some say he got shot in the leg, some said he poisoned himself, or that he shot Morel,” said Michael. “We still don’t know where his body is.” Clarity surrounding the circumstances of his death and locating his final resting place are two aims for CRRJ researchers assisting the Sylve family in this case.

Personal feuds and land disputes are what the family believe motivated Pierre’s killing.

“He lost his life because they wanted to take his property. He died for his property,” said Michael Sylve, “because back then they took peoples’ property just like that.”

A legal notice published December 22, 1967, in The Plaquemines Gazette, refers to an “Oil, Gas and Mineral Lease” granted to tracts of land bounding the Sylve estate. This suggests that financial gain was to be had through ownership of the Sylve family’s land.

“My grandfather went through a living hell with them, taking their land,” said Michael Sylve. “I am really glad the truth is coming out.”

One man suspected of maneuvering to gain the Sylve property is James Wilkinson.

Eighteen years before Pierre Sylve’s death, Wilkinson – a lawyer and founding member of the White League – attempted to have Pierre committed, claiming he was insane. Moreover, Wilkinson is quoted in The New Orleans Article referencing an altercation he had with Pierre, years before his death.

The Plaquemines Gazette report on the killing of Pierre Sylve, Plaquemines Parish, Louisiana 1934, CRRJ, Civil Rights and Restorative Justice Project Northeastern University.

Wilkinson was 18-years old when the White League, a white supremacist terrorist organization comprised largely of Confederate veterans, formed in 1874 in Louisiana. The group’s publicly expressed aim was to defend a “hereditary civilization and Christianity,” and defeat the Northern “carpetbag element” within the state.

Besides Wilkinson’s affiliation with this racist paramilitary organization, and the tumultuous history between the two men, noteworthy as well is the fact that Wilkinson’s attack on Sylve came while widespread land grabbing and the mass removal of African Americans from the Delta Basin was well-underway.

Wilkinson wrote much of the legislation that paved the way for the creation of the industrial canal, the Bohemia spillway and other similar projects in the area. Under the guise of flood defenses and highway construction, these laws displaced hundreds of African American families, effectively forcing them to leave the land they had cultivated for generations.

“They couldn’t control my grandfather because he was not afraid,” said Michael Sylve. “He didn’t care who you were, where you were from. That was his property.”

The Sylve family still live in Plaquemines Parish and the land remains vacant. They are working with CRRJ to restore their forefather’s legacy.

“He was a hard-working man, and he fought for his property,” recalled Michael Sylve. “My dad told me that he was a heck of a man.”

His daughter, Lydia said she would like local authorities to acknowledge their role in her great-grandfather’s killing.

“You want it to be known, you don’t want it to be swept under the rug,” she said. “We understand that [the perpetrators] are dead, but it still came through the sheriff’s department and they should be held accountable for the things they did.”

“We can’t arrest anyone, but we can move forward.”

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