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Education

Lusher Charter School, Named For Avowed White Supremacist, Will Soon Have A New Name

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

Lusher Charter School, one of the city’s most selective and sought after public schools, will soon be renamed following a unanimous vote from its school board Thursday night.

Prior to the vote, several dozen students, parents, teachers and alumni spoke in support of the change from its namesake, Robert Mills Lusher, an avowed white supremacist. There were no public comments in opposition.

“School is meant to be for students. It is for our education,” said 11th grader Henry Morse. “All students want the name to be changed — it’s that simple.”

The school’s original campus on Willow Street in Uptown New Orleans was first named after Lusher in 1913. The name has remained in place since then despite frequent protests.

Lusher, also a Confederate tax collector who supported segregation, worked as a writer and journalist until 1860 when he entered public education with the explicit purpose of upholding white supremacy, New Orleans’ author Michael Tisserand wrote.

The South Carolina native oversaw Louisiana’s normal school program, which focused on training white teachers, and he enforced school segregation when he later served as the state’s superintendent of education.

“The state’s most influential advocate for free public schools as a means of promoting the myth of white supremacy, Lusher wrote, circa 1866, that a primary goal of education is to ‘vindicate the honor and supremacy of the Caucasian race,’” Tisserand wrote.

The latest push to remove Lusher’s name has largely been led by students and recent alums, many of which said they were sickened when they first learned of the legacy behind the name.

The name change discourse has resulted in protests, petitions and even an anonymous Instagram account where students share accounts of alleged racism on campus.

Several spoke at Thursday’s meeting, including Morse’s classmate Faith Jackson.

“It is undeniable that the history behind our school and its foundation are heinous and nothing short of heart wrenching,” Jackson said

Many students have spoken publicly about how the name has corrosive impacts to this day by sending a message to students of color that they are not truly welcome. Lusher’s student body is majority white and the city's public school system is nearly 90% Black.

Jackson said as a Black woman, she has personally felt unwelcome on campus and that having to work “three times as hard” as her white counterparts has been “draining.”

“I am incredibly grateful for the education I've received but I cannot tell you that it is worth the adversity I faced in our community,” she said.

“If you care about making your students, especially your students of color and Black and brown students, feel safe and welcome, which are the same students you plaster on every pamphlet and every open house presentation and every panel, please change the name.”

Now that the board has approved a name change, the next step is selecting a new one. Board member Alysia Loshbaugh requested that the board establish a study group to collect input from the community before presenting three name options to the full board at its November meeting.

“I don’t want us to be in limbo forever,” Loshbaugh said.

The board unanimously accepted the recommendation, and Board President George Wilson selected its membership: three administrators and two board members. He said the team of five will start communicating with the community on next steps shortly.

But Nia Talbott, a Lusher alum who graduated in 2020 and spent much of her junior and senior years helping lead the current renaming push, said she doesn’t fully trust the process.

“I'm hopeful this signals something, but I'm not sure that it actually will,” she said in a phone call after the vote. “What this process is next, I'm very skeptical about how fast they’ll move and how dedicated they truly are to doing something.”

Talbott said she’s had a hard time getting members of the school’s leadership team to listen to her in the past, and she’s worried the community could be shut out again.

When the board moved to start Thursday’s meeting with a closed door session to discuss the legal implications of a name change, members of the public pushed back arguing that the full decision-making process should be out in the open.

But the board’s legal counsel said they had standing. After a 90-minute executive session, they voted in favor of a name change.

Talbott said the fight to rename her school has brought with it “a roller coaster of emotions,” and the vote was no different.

“I was excited, but then I was like ‘I should not be celebrating or thanking these people for doing their job,’” Talbott said. “This should have happened so long ago, and this is just them doing what is right.”

The Orleans Parish School Board changed the names of the buildings Lusher occupies earlier this year. OPSB has the right to change the names of its buildings, while individual charter operators determine program names.

Lusher’s elementary school is now named for Dr. Everett J. Williams Jr., the first Black superintendent of the city’s public school system. Its middle and high school campus was renamed for Elijah Brimmer Jr., the school’s former band director.

More than a quarter of New Orleans public school buildings were renamed last spring following a months-long review process which was kicked off by a policy prohibiting schools from being named after slave owners, confederate officials and segregation supporters.

While Thursday’s board decision has been widely celebrated, those pushing for systemic change have made it clear renaming the school is the beginning of a long process, not the end.

“Voting to change the name is a first step and an important step to moving the school to a more inclusive community,” Lusher parent Erin Greenwald said. “Once this step is taken, I hope the board is ready to take on the hard work of addressing toxic culture.”

In her comments to the board, Greenwald noted the departure of former principal Steve Corbett at the end of last school year as evidence of the school’s failure to tackle alleged racism head on.

Seven months before he was hired as CEO of Audubon Schools, a position he currently holds, Corbett wrote a letter to Lusher’s leadership asking for an investigation into allegedly discriminatory and retaliatory behavior on the part of longtime CEO Kathy Riedlinger, The Times-Picayune | New Orleans Advocate first reported.

An earlier version of this story incorrectly listed the make-up of Lusher Charter School's student body. It is approximately 60% white and 23% Black.

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