It is late morning as I cross the lawns of Calvary Hill Cemetery in Dallas. Looking for the grave of a twenty-four-year-old man who burned to death in a working-class gay bar nearly half a century ago, I pass an inscription chiseled in stone. It reads, “Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord for their works follow them—Apoc 14:13.” I adjust my shades. The words seem to follow me as I walk.
Reginald “Reggie” Adams was one of thirty-two people killed in the infamous fire at the Up Stairs Lounge gay bar on June 24, 1973, an act of arson that was the deadliest fire on record in New Orleans history and the worst mass killing of homosexuals in twentieth-century America. The crime received scant media attention in its day because of the anti-gay bigotry that followed, and it remains officially unsolved. Adams was the tragedy’s only known Black victim. In 2018, I published a nonfiction book on the Up Stairs Lounge fire called Tinderbox: The Untold Story of the Up Stairs Lounge Fire and the Rise of Gay Liberation. In 2021, I published a follow-up investigation on the religious journey of Reginald Adams. That investigation ended with me standing at Adams’s grave in Dallas, which was then unmarked.
In many ways, Reginald Adams’s trailblazing young life was overshadowed by the circumstances of his passing. In addition to being a sexual and racial minority in the Deep South, he was once an aspiring priest—a factor that played a role in how he was interred. In 1969, at the age of twenty, Adams entered the Jesuit seminary in Grand Coteau, Louisiana, the only Black member of his formation class. He witnessed the burning of a cross nearby after local Jesuits began to integrate their parishes. Adams ultimately declined to take “first vows” with his formation class in 1971 and was instead sent to study at Loyola University in New Orleans.
In the Crescent City, he experienced a personal awakening. Adams abandoned his path to the priesthood and began a relationship with a white Mormon named Regina, who came to identify as transgender. Straddling religion, orientation, race, and gender, theirs was a union almost impossible to understand even among the gay people of the French Quarter.
As an “out” resident of New Orleans, Adams broke another barrier by becoming the first Black customer to drink in Café Lafitte in Exile, a racially segregated gay bar on Bourbon Street. Living in violation of Catholic doctrine, Adams nevertheless did not abandon his faith. He spent Sabbath days with a congregation called the Metropolitan Community Church (MCC) of New Orleans, which conducted worship services that included a communion ceremony. Evicted from their first two locations, the MCC congregation met for a time at the Up Stairs Lounge, which served as a makeshift community gathering place.
Then, within a span of minutes one random Sunday at his favorite bar, Adams died violently in an intentionally set blaze. He suffered third- and fourth-degree burns over 95 percent of his body. Given the condition of the several dozen corpses removed from the bar, the Orleans Parish Coroner urgently needed medical and dental records to identify the victims, and they appealed to local Jesuits for help with Adams. According to several Jesuit sources, a house superior named Fr. Joseph Doyle at Loyola University’s Jesuit residence stepped forward to transfer those files. Through this process, the coroner positively matched Adams to “Body No. 8.” He was exempted from the fate of fellow Up Stairs Lounge victims who went unidentified or unclaimed. Three unknown victims and one identified victim whose family could not be located were buried without markers in a remote potter’s field called Resthaven. The city and cemetery subsequently lost their burial records, and those men still lie in what is now an unkempt field behind a chain-link fence near a storage yard for port-o-lets. But thanks to the mercy of the Jesuits who knew him, Adams was able to travel home to Texas in the care of his mother. The Dallas Morning News called Adams a “seminary student” in its obituary that July, which also noted that he received a funeral at St. James Catholic Church. Hours later, he was buried at Calvary Hill Cemetery, in Catholic soil.