History & Staff
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When you sift through time in Louisiana, you are bound to discover captivating biographies of inspiring individuals. The story of the Rhodes family of New Orleans is no exception. At its heart, it is the story of one man’s vision becoming reality for an entire geographic region, and for generations to come.
Let’s begin with Duplain W. Rhodes Jr., who was born on September 13, 1899, as the third child to Carolyn Toups and Duplain Rhodes Sr. Baptized at St. Peter AME Church as a child, the junior Mr. Rhodes’ spiritual growth was nurtured by the African Methodist Episcopal Church.
Mr. Rhodes Jr. often told the story of how his father created The Rhodes Undertaking Company out of nothing, after the Civil War: “At that time, there were no Black funeral homes, so often times Blacks ended up being prepared in the stable where the horses were kept. My father decided to go into the funeral business to provide burial services for Negro New Orleanians.” Indeed, Mr. Rhodes Sr. established his first funeral home on Valence Street in uptown New Orleans.
The Rhodes Undertaking Company progressed steadily owing to hard work, careful planning and forward thinking. Mr. Rhodes Jr. often shared this example of his father’s visionary mindset: “About 1917, my father recognized the advantages of automobiles, in spite of his pride at having some of the finest horses. In fact, my father was one of the first Black people in New Orleans to own an automobile.”
A son follows suit.
The only son and namesake of his father, Mr. Rhodes Jr. was destined to carry on the tradition of funeral service and community commitment. While the Rhodes Undertaking Company was establishing itself as a quality burial service for Black New Orleanians, Mr. Rhodes Jr. was still a young boy. After graduation, he attended Straight University on Canal Street, and then the newly founded Xavier University on Magazine Street. He was one of the first graduates. He was also one of the first Black students at Creighton University in Nebraska; but after a brief stay at Creighton, Mr. Rhodes Jr. decided to go back to New Orleans and take up the profession of his father.
Joining forces with his father, Mr. Rhodes Jr. expanded the Rhodes Funeral Home services in 1928 by developing a close relationship with the Enterprise Benevolent Association to provide a means for people to pay for burial services. The benevolent societies were the forerunners of Black insurance companies.
In the early 1940s, Mr Rhodes Jr. moved the funeral home to a new location, 2616 South Claiborne Avenue. He later acquired the entire Negro business of several life insurance companies.
In the 1950s, he moved from the South Claiborne site to North Claiborne—next door to the present-day location of Rhodes’ primary Downtown New Orleans funeral home. Mr. Rhodes Jr. also began to open branches, starting with the Westbank Funeral Home on Virgil Street in Gretna. In 1969, he bought the old Tivoli Theater and remodeled it to become the Uptown New Orleans location of Rhodes Funeral Home. Next, he acquired a funeral home in Baton Rouge.
Going against the crowd.
Like his father before him, Duplain Rhodes Jr. sought ways to stay ahead of the competition. He broke tradition in the early 1960s when he bought an entire fleet of white limousines for his funeral services. His fellow funeral directors ridiculed him, sure than no one would want to use his cars for their burial services. Not only did Mr. Rhodes Jr. continue to gain the lion’s share of the Black funerals of the day, but the white limousines allowed him to capitalize on the weddings and special events market, which the more affluent Black middle class could afford by the 1960s.
Although Mr. Rhodes Jr. was well-known for his business acumen, he also worked behind the scenes throughout his life in the interest of social justice. The National Funeral Directors and Morticians Association, where he served as president, was one of the first Black organizations to contribute financial resources to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in his Civil Rights efforts. He also provided resources to the NAACP, the Black Panthers and many other organizations and individuals who were active in the human rights struggle. He was a standard bearer and a shining example for Black businessmen in the City of New Orleans.
The Rhodes family has always been very involved in the community with philanthropic contributions and volunteering on boards and committees. One contribution that they are well known for is the sponsorship of the Gospel Tent at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival. For over thirty years, Jazz Fest goers have connected the name of Rhodes with the beloved festival and a cornerstone of culture in the City of New Orleans. Rhodes continues its support of music and gospel including the Satchmo Festival and other events.
The Rhodes Family's indomitable spirit continues today.
Duplain W. Rhodes Jr., his wife and business partner Doris Millaud Rhodes, his daughter Edith Rhodes-Gomes and Rev. Halley Rhodes Harris, his cousin, have departed this life. However, they leave the third, fourth and fifth generations along with the employees of the family business to carry the torch of trusted entrepreneurship.
In fact, Duplain W. Rhodes III recalls that his parents brought him up along with his four siblings in the business. “You were raised in the business whether you wanted to be or not,” says Mr. Rhodes III. “It wasn’t an option. After school, each sibling had a chore, a task, something. Mine was washing cars.”
Hurricane Katrina: Rebuilding.
Perhaps the best contemporary example of the Rhodes family’s sense of honor and determination came in the form of a storm. One of the most catastrophic natural disasters in our nation’s history, Hurricane Katrina ravaged Southeast Louisiana and the Gulf Coast. The Rhodes’ properties were hit hard, especially the premier location on Washington Avenue. While the family worked to keep the business operating, the whole family was called upon to assist in the cleanup.
“Everything was damaged. There was not one thing that was not damaged because of the storm,” recalls Kathleen Rhodes Astorga. “We kept hoping that maybe something was spared, but it wasn’t.”
Adding to the physical destruction was the family’s concern about their city and the unclaimed dead who had not yet been buried. “So here were people who had died in the hurricane that had no one,” says Kathleen. “Can you imagine that? They had no one.”
The Rhodes family joined a special coalition, and the Katrina Memorial mausoleum was conceived and built to honor those lost in the storm, including the unclaimed. “It was important to me that people were buried with dignity,” says Kathleen.
Tivoli Theater: Reclaiming a dream.
The Tivioli Theater on Washington Avenue in New Orleans is another illustration of the Rhodes family’s resilience and heart. The Tivoli was a neighborhood “movie palace” completed in 1927 to the plans of Emile Weil, a leading Louisiana architect specializing in the historic revival styles of the early 20th century. Serving a social and entertainment center for many years, the building was purchased in 1969 by Duplain Rhodes Jr., who completely renovated the theater in 1970 into an elegant funeral home.
“He had a grand, grand vision that a funeral service should have a wonderful chapel. We needed a place where we could have large services,” says Kathleen Rhodes Astorga.
It took Hurricane Katrina and all her destruction for the Rhodes family to understand the historical significance of the Tivoli. “That is when I really understood what the Tivoli meant to the neighborhood,” says Stephanie Rhodes-Navarre. The hurricane had torn off much of the Tivoli roof, inundating the interiors with moving water; after the clean-up operation, what remained of the facility was largely a shell.
“We were very committed to the building, very committed to the area and decided not to walk away from it and build someplace else,” says Kay Rhodes.
The newly rebuilt Tivoli was re-opened in August 2009 as the Rhodes Pavilion, with all the heartfelt celebration one might expect when a beloved historical landmark—and neighborhood—is given new life. The Rhodes Pavilion is a multipurpose facility, beautifully restored and available for all celebrations including christenings, weddings, receptions, meetings and of course, funerals.
This innovation supports the legacy of innovation and progressive thinking first offered by the founder, Duplain W. Rhodes, way back in 1884.