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'Community Context' Will Play Key Role In Determining Which Schools Get New Names

Aubri Juhasz
Lusher Charter School's middle and high school campus on Freret Street. March 7, 2021.

Nineteen New Orleans public school sites named after historical figures who helped advance white supremacy are officially up for possible renaming, according to a list released by the district this week.

Justin McCorkle, the district’s director of community relations, said Tuesday that the list is preliminary and could be expanded to include additional sites based on community feedback.

According to McCorkle, New Orleanians will play a large role in determining whether the sites on the list are ultimately renamed.

When a wave of racial reckoning swept over the country last summer, locals demanded action at home, including in the city’s public school system.

School board members overturned a policy preventing school name changes and issued a new one urging the district to rename facilities honoring slave owners, confederate officials and segregation supporters.

The district is now in the process of putting the new policy into practice. McCorkle is shepherding the district’s facility renaming initiative which kicked off last month.

“We are literally trying to do what wasn’t done during integration,” McCorkle said at a recent school board meeting.

While a push by community activists in the 1990s to rename schools honoring slave owners and white supremacists was largely successful — stripping away names like Beauregard, Lee and Davis — some names avoided close scrutiny.

This time around, the district tasked a group of historians and culture bearers with compiling a list of school sites that violate the board’s new policy.

Historian Ken Ducote, a professor at the University of Holy Cross and a member of the district’s review team, said just because a site gets flagged doesn’t necessarily mean it will be renamed.

“The question as to whether or not a building is renamed or remains named after an individual, that's the school district's question after they get the information from the historian review team,” Ducote said.

The final decision of whether to rename a site and who to name it after will be determined by the district’s superintendent based on recommendations compiled by McCorkle’s team.

McCorkle grew up attending New Orleans public schools and has stressed the need for stakeholder engagement and feedback throughout the renaming process.

“New Orleans is not like any other city in the country. We understand that the connection between community and the names on these buildings are different than anywhere else,” McCorkle said. “So a big part of the evaluation process is the community context.”

What’s In A McDonogh Name?

Take for example the district’s eight school sites named for John McDonogh, a slave owner and public education benefactor who died in 1850.

As Walter Stern, another member of the district’s historian review committee, outlines in his book, Race and Education in New Orleans: Creating the Segregated City, McDonogh’s money helped cement inequities in the city’s public school system.

But despite his legacy, there isn’t a consensus as to whether the name McDonogh should be scrubbed from all buildings. Some community members argue that in the case of McDonogh 35 High School, the name has taken on new meaning and should therefore be allowed to remain.

When McDonogh 35 opened in 1917, it was the city’s first public high school for Black students. For more than 100 years, McDonogh 35 has been associated with academic rigor and achievement and has been a source of pride for the city’s Black community.

Aubri Juhasz
McDonogh 35 Senior High School in Gentilly on March 7, 2021.

Donald Hess, a world history and African American studies teacher at McDonogh 35 who is Black, said when he talks about the school’s name with his students there’s a sense that the school has outgrown John McDonogh’s legacy.

“I feel like the people who come out of McDonough 35, the people who represent McDonogh 35 and the people who have fought and died for McDonough 35, their legacies outweigh John McDonough's,” Hess said.

Many of his students have family members that graduated from McDonogh 35. While Hess himself didn’t get to attend McDonogh 35, due to Hurricane Katrina, his brothers, aunts and uncles are all graduates.

“When you say, ‘I graduated from McDonough 35,’ that means something not just in the city but across the globe,” Hess said.

Stern’s studies of the school and its legacy have found the same.

“With a school like McDonough 35, the African Americans who have made that school what it is, have repurposed that reputation,” Stern said in an interview with New Orleans Public Radio last year.

“While still tied to John McDonough and his bequest, the name has huge significance far, far beyond that. It sort of shows how history is malleable and how people do have power to chart a new course.”

McDonogh 35’s charter operator, InspireNOLA, has not requested a name change for the school, though it has requested one for its other McDonogh school, McDonogh 42.

Speaking about the role of community context when assessing the city’s McDonogh schools, McCorkle stressed that the two schools won’t be viewed the same.

“McDonogh 42 is not McDonogh 35 and that is going to be taken into account,” McCorkle said. “As a product of this school district, born and raised in the city, I understand it better than most, and we're going to make sure that this is done right with the community.”

Students Organize And Some Adults Cry ‘Cancel Culture’

After conducting an initial review of all district properties, the district’s historian review committee flagged 19 school sites as violating the school board’s new policy.

The list includes the remaining McDonogh schools, as well as Lusher Charter School, whose namesake was a Confederate tax collector and staunch segregationist.

The legacies of both men have already been intensely interrogated and have proven divisive in the New Orleans community. But other sites on the list honor figures who have historically been given more of a pass.

There are two schools on the list named for founding father Benjamin Franklin and another school named for naturalist John James Audubon. Both men owned slaves and Audubon publicly dismissed the abolitionist movement.

Credit NOLA Public Schools

Earlier this month, Audubon Schools CEO Latoye Brown wrote to families informing them that both of the school’s Uptown campuses, one named for John James Audubon and another for John McDonogh, could potentially be renamed.

“We are sharing this information with you because we expect that one or both of these campuses will be eligible for renaming consideration in the district’s Facilities Renaming Initiative,” Brown wrote.

Both schools ultimately ended up on the district’s renaming list.

In an email, Brown told New Orleans Public Radio that Audubon Schools supports the district’s facility renaming initiative.

“We think that it is a great endeavor to provide a more inclusive and welcoming environment for all students and families,” Brown said.

A survey sent to Audubon parents on the issue of renaming produced mixed results. Out of 340 responses, 109 people said it was very important the school sites be renamed. Seventy-five people said it wasn’t important at all and 156 people said they were in the middle.

One parent anonymously wrote, “We are teaching children to focus on people’s mistakes and that no matter their future actions, they are only worth their worst mistakes … I beg you, please don’t give in to this ‘cancel culture’ society we are in.”

Another respondent said they hoped the sites would be renamed and that the charter group would consider dropping Audubon from its name as well.

“I hope that’s a subject that could be part of a school discussion since this is an important issue that affects everyone … especially our students.”

Brown said the purpose of the survey was to see “how emotionally invested” people are when it comes to the issue of renaming Audubon and that they’re using the information to “begin a process of examining our organizational brand and what it represents.”

When asked about the possibility of removing the name Audubon from the organization entirely, Brown said “we are considering all of our options which are all open to further discussion.

“Our next steps include sharing the survey results with the district and creating a survey to gain further information from our school community about how they feel we should proceed as an organization.”

Renaming also appears to be contested at Lusher Charter School.

In addition to serving as a confederate tax collector, Lusher served as Louisiana’s superintendent of education and aggressively fought to maintain segregation, undoing the work of integrationists during the city’s early civil rights movement.

Students at Lusher began pushing for a name change over the summer, organizing marches and a day of silence.

Many students calling for the school’s renaming have also criticized the school’s current culture, recounting microaggressions and more overt acts of racism through anonymous Instagram posts.

Nia Talbott, a senior at Lusher, is president of the student government and co-founder of school’s Black student union.

In an interview she said she was horrified when she learned about Lusher’s actions and that it immediately changed the way she felt about the school’s name.

“I used to be proud to call myself a Lusher lifer,” said Talbott, who has attended the school since kindergarten. “I don’t feel that way anymore.”

She thinks there’s no reason to delay changing the name.

A handful of Lusher alumni have spoken publicly at school board meetings to oppose renaming the school. So far, their voices have been drowned out by the large number of students, parents and alumni on the other side.

School officials have committed to exploring a name change, but Talbott said they’ve been dragging their feet, refusing to have productive meetings with the Black student union and attempting to box students out of the renaming process.

In a statement, Lusher leadership said they’re working with the school’s president and CEO to establish a working group including “community and student input” that will ultimately present a report to Lusher’s board for action.

School Renaming Process Has Long Road Ahead

In an op-ed published in The Advocate, New Orleans Public Schools Superintendent Henderson Lewis Jr. referred to the district’s renaming initiative as an opportunity to have conversations “with our young people about the implications of honoring figures like these.”

“It’s our responsibility now to turn heartache into change and pain into action. We have the unique opportunity to do better, to see the urgency of this moment, to acknowledge the realities of our past, and to chart a better course toward our future that prioritizes equity and inclusion,” Lewis wrote.

The district plans to collect public feedback, including name change suggestions until April 19.

Community meetings have been scheduled for March 30 and April 27 and will be held over Zoom. Time has been set aside before each meeting for students to have an additional opportunity to speak.

The renaming committee expects to deliver its renaming recommendations to the superintendent for final approval no later than May 28.

This story has been updated to include comments from Audubon Schools CEO Latoye Brown. 

Aubri Juhasz covers K-12 education, focusing on charter schools, education funding, and other statewide issues. She also helps edit the station’s news coverage.

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