Rapides Parish’s own Gov. Walker established free public education in Louisiana – The Town Talk

This is part 1 of a series about Louisiana Gov. Joseph Marshall Walker and his gravesite.

The broken remnants of two marble headstones that once marked the graves of Gov. Joseph Marshall Walker and his 5-day old grandson John Holt, Jr., born July 31, 1851, are visible from Bayou Rapides Road. 

Their headstones, weathered by the elements, were moved from their original locations marking their graves decades ago. The graves were part of a family plot on land that was once a large plantation owned by Walker.

Many years ago a farmer plowed over the cemetery, said local historian Mike Wynne.

 “He moved the markers but plowed over the cemetery. So the location of the actual cemetery – which we can estimate – is lost,” he said.

The exact location of those graves and the family plot were lost as time went on, becoming part of the field where crops are planted. 

Wynne, Mike Tudor, Paul Price and other local historians would like to see the headstones re-erected at their current location or moved and re-erected at the Old Rapides Cemetery in Pineville where Walker’s daughter and other grandchildren are buried.

This is a request that has been made many times over the years to the current landowners who don’t live in Central Louisiana, said Tudor. And each time, for unknown reasons, the requests have been refused.

“It’s been publicly known that those stones are there – for decades,” said Wynne.

Walker, who served as governor from 1850-53, died in 1856 at the age of 71.

“Seventy-one was a pretty nice ripe age to live to back then,” said Tudor. “He was governor late in his life, wasn’t he? In his late 60s.”

Walker was one of four governors from Rapides Parish, continued Tudor.

The other three governors from Rapides Parish were: Gov. Thomas Overton Moore who served from 1860-64 and is buried in Mt. Olivet Cemetery in Pineville; Gov. Newton C. Blanchard who served from 1904-08 and is buried in Shreveport; and Gov. James Madison Wells who served from 1865-67 and is buried in the Old Rapides Cemetery.

Because of the location where the heavy marble headstones were moved, Walker is assumed to be buried from where they are now.

“Gov. Walker lived out there,” said Wynne. “There was a family cemetery where he and his wife were buried and various other descendants that we really don’t know.”

The Walker family owned a substantial amount of land with a house that was burned during the Civil War along with everything around it. But Walker was deceased by the time the Civil War started in 1861.

“And Gov. Walker was prominent for many reasons,” said Wynne. “Gov. Walker did a lot of things during his term.”

“One was the authorization for the seminary here in Pineville,” said Tudor. “He pushed the legislation that authorized the Louisiana State Seminary in Pineville.”

The Louisiana State Seminary for Learning and Military Academy ultimately became Louisiana State University.

“Yes, he only served one term in the 1850s, but he is the man who got LSU, then known as Louisiana State Seminary for Military Learning, started in Pineville,” said Wynne. “He’s the one who financed it.”

Walker was friends with George Mason Graham, owner of Tyrone Plantation which is also along Bayou Rapides. Graham is known as the “Father of LSU” and was the first chairman of the board of trustees of the seminary when it was located in Pineville.

“This governor is the man who got LSU started here in Central Louisiana – not in Baton Rouge where it should have been. Not in New Orleans where it should have been. Not anywhere else. Here in Central Louisiana,” said Wynne.

Walker was also the head of the committee to create the Andrew Jackson monument that’s in Jackson Square in the New Orleans French Quarter.

“He’s known for those two things and other things,” said Wynne. “So this man is important.”

Tudor said that although it was horrible, Walker was a slave owner just as all the other plantation owners were.

“But you know, I think a lot of them felt guilty. By the middle of the 19th century, people knew better,” he said.

But because of money, they found reasons to justify it.

“How do you give up all of your wealth? It’s all about the money,” said Tudor.

Although he was a slave owner, said Tudor, Walker believed in public education.

In a Town Talk article from April 4, 1976, written about Walker by Verdis Dowdy, assistant director of the Alexandria-Pineville-Rapides Conventions Commission, it states Walker “opened the door to free public education.”

The article states that Walker “had very little formal schooling” and “was intensely interested in education for future generations.” He was self-taught and well-rounded in many subjects. He was also fluent in French, Spanish and English.

In 1827, he became one of the founders of Spring Valley Academy that was located here in Rapides Parish.

He was elected to the La. House of Representatives, eventually becoming Speaker of the House. He was later elected to the Senate and then in 1845 named to the Office of State Treasurer.

When a new state constitution was going to be written in 1845, he was named president of the Constitutional Convention.

The article states that a permanent school fund was created from the sale of Federal land along with a real estate tax that was for educational purposes. The office of the superintendent of education was also created.

The new state constitution “also decreed that a university devoted to the study of medicine be established in New Orleans.” This is evolved into Tulane University.

Even though Walker was a slave owner and plantation owner, he had some objections to the Louisiana government being primarily in the hands of the wealthy. The new state constitution took some of that power away and gave it to the “ordinary man.”

He also led a convention that rescinded the stipulation that candidates for governor and the legislature had to be property owners. 

The article goes on to state that “the convention also stripped the governor of much appointive powers, created the office of lieutenant governor and made the offices of the coroner, clerk sheriff and justice of the peace elective.”

The convention also moved the state capital from New Orleans to Baton Rouge. Walker was the first governor inaugurated in the new state capital of Baton Rouge.

Back then, being a one-term governor was the norm though it wasn’t mandated by the state constitution, said Wynne. Governors served their term and were finished.

One-hundred-seven years ago, how much could a one-term governor have accomplished, asked Wynne.

“Look at what this man has done,” he replied. “We need to pay him respect and find at least a little family graveyard where we know his body is.”