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From Street Names To School Controversies: Watching Louisiana’s Racism Reckoning

Protesers outside Jackson Square in New Orleans. June 5, 2020.

George Floyd’s killing by a white police officer in Minneapolis on Memorial Day has done more than spark a tidal wave of anti-racism and anti-police violence protests across the country and the world — protests that have yet to quell. It’s also prompted a national reckoning with racism in all its forms.

In Louisana, that’s meant calls to rename buildings and streets and investigate policing practices. We’ve got eyes on all of it, and we’ll keep track of the progress (or lack thereof) here.

Done: New Orleans Public Schools will now have the ability to rename schools honoring slave owners, Confederate officials and segregation supporters following a successful vote by the Orleans Parish School Board.

Orleans Parish School Board President Ethan Ashley introduced the now revised amendment at July’s board meeting. It overturns a 2015 policy prohibiting the renaming of charter schools and grants the board sole authority to name or rename any school facility.

Ashley’s amendment requests that the superintendent appoint a committee to oversee the renaming process for each individual school. Each committee will include community representatives, school employees, and a member of the school board.

InspireNOLA, a charter group, sent a letter to the OPSB in June asking that the policy be amended to allow them to rename a school. Other schools, like Lusher Charter School, are looking into the renaming process as well.

Algiers Charter board members voted to remove “Oliver Perry Walker” from their high school’s name in late July. Walker was a former New Orleans public school superintendent who supported segregation.

Walker merged with Landry High School in 2013, becoming Landry-Walker. Moving forward the school will be named solely for Lord Beaconsfield Landry, a prominent African American activist and physician who worked in Algiers in the early 1900s.

In the works: Louisiana State University will evaluate the names of campus buildings to eliminate “building and place names that are a reminder of a racist and segregated past,” LSU Interim President Thomas C. Galligan, Jr. said in a statement on Aug. 11.

A 16-member committee will review and study building names to determine if they are “symbols or monuments to racism.”

Any committee recommendation to remove a building name will first be evaluated by the existing naming committee, followed by Executive Vice President and Provost Stacia Haynie, Galligan, the Board Academics Committee and the LSU Board of Supervisors.

Done: The New Orleans City Council voted unanimously to rename Jefferson Davis Parkway after  Norman C. Francis, the former long-service president of Xavier University. The actual change will take place in January 2021. The move comes after the city launched a Street Renaming Commission in the wake of calls to remove the names of Confederate figures and slave holders from public spaces. This particular name change was supported by five former mayors.

New: Former members of Nyx have launched their own krewe, Themis, focused on “diversity, social justice, philanthropy, inclusion and merriment.” Named for the Greek goddess of justice and wisdom, the krewe was formed amid mass defections from Nyx this spring, after Nyx Captain Julie Lea posted “All Lives Matter” on social media and did not align the krewe with the Black Lives Matter movement.

In the works: A white police officer in Opelousas had his resignation thrown out this week after a video showed he hit and choked a Black man in handcuffs in a hospital. The Opelousas Board of Aldermen voted July 14 to reject the resignation in favor of seeing the officer fired, over fears that he could more easily be rehired elsewhere if he resigned.

Done: Lee High School in East Baton Rouge will soon be known as Liberty High School. The school board voted to change the name on July 16. Gary Chambers, a publisher and activist who gained national prominence during the debate over the school’s name, said on Twitter that the school board failed to recognize Black history in Louisiana when it chose not to rename the school after the state’s first Black governor, P.B.S. Pinchback.

Proposed: Board member Connie Bernard continues to reject calls for her to resign. The embattled member of the East Baton Rouge School Board is facing a recall push after a video of activist Gary Chambers excoriating her for allegedly online shopping during a school board meeting went viral and spawned national news headlines. The meeting was discussing whether to rename Lee High School, named for Confederate General Robert E. Lee. Bernard has been under fire before — for allegedly choking a man and earlier this month when she said people who wanted to change the school’s name should “learn a little bit more” about Lee. Four Black members of the school board called for her resignation on Monday. Bernard has said she will not resign.

Done: Both of the city’s monuments to John McDonogh have been toppled. In June, a bust of McDonogh was removed from Duncan Plaza by protestors and early on the morning of July 10, a statue of him was knocked from its pedestal across from Gallier Hall.

Read more: Slave Owner John McDonogh's Money Left A Long Legacy Of Inequitable Education In New Orleans

While two people were arrested for removing the first monument, no one has been identified with last week’s incident.

The city is in possession of both monuments, but has not stated whether they will be reinstalled.

In the works: InspireNOLA, which operates seven New Orleans charter schools, has asked the Orleans Parish School Board to amend a policy prohibiting school name changes and to allow them to rename McDonogh 42, which honors slave-owner and public education benefactor John McDonogh.

The request makes no mention of the charter’s other McDonogh school. McDonogh 35 first opened in 1917 and was the first New Orleans high school to teach Black students. Over the years, it has established a reputation for academic excellence and produced generations of proud alums.

In the works: Lusher Charter School CEO Kathy Riedlinger said she will begin the process of considering a name change for the top-rated New Orleans public school, after thousands signed multiple online petitions calling for the school to be renamed. Robert Mills Lusher, a former Louisiana schools superintendent, was a Confederate figure and a white supremacist who fought desegregation.

In the works: Dillard University will launch its Center for Racial Justice next month in response to police brutality cases in the United States. The center’s mission is to “bring systemic change to the way policing is done in communities of color” and promote partnerships with law enforcement.

CJR plans to develop a 30-hour certificate program offering courses on topics such as criminal justice and cultural diversity, civil rights and civil liberties, sociology of Black Americans, policing in society, and social welfare.

Proposed: An embattled member of the East Baton Rouge School Board, Connie Bernard, is facing a recall push after a video of activist Gary Chambers excoriating her for allegedly online shopping during a school board meeting went viral and spawned national news headlines. The meeting was discussing whether to rename Lee High School, named for Confederal General Robert E. Lee. Bernard has been under fire before — for allegedly choking a man and earlier this month when she said people who wanted to change the school’s name should “learn a little bit more” about Lee. Four Black members of the school board called for her resignation on Monday. Bernard has said she will not resign.

Done: Louisiana State University is renaming its Middleton Library. The school’s board approved the name change at a meeting on June 19. The move was first proposed earlier in the month by Black student leaders at the school’s Baton Rouge campus. The building was named after Troy H. Middleton, a racist former LSU president who supported segregation, explicitly so in an uncovered letter where he said the school doesn’t like accepting “Negroes” and “we keep them in a given area.” 

In the works: NOLA Public Schools will hire an outside consultant to assess disparities by race and develop an equity plan to “ensure that racism does not affect outcomes and experiences for our students and families,” according to the approved resolution. While the racial equity plan is meant to address inequities across all schools and district administration, charters are largely free to set their own policies.

In the works: Tulane University President Mike Fitts announced new equity measures for the majority white school. The measures are meant to promote a more inclusive campus and attract students and staff of color. The measures include $2.5 million for campus organizations that support marginalized groups on campus and developing a racial equity education program for faculty and staff. Tulane already requires all undergraduate students to take a course focused on race.

Black students at Tulane have long called for cultural and policy changes.

Fitts and his wife will also donate $100,000 of their own money to create a scholarship to support students who demonstrate leadership in racial equity and justice or diversity initiatives.

In the works: The West Feliciana Historical Society has canceled its annual event over criticisms that it celebrated an era of slavery without representing Black history, in effect celebrating slavery. During the Annual Audubon Pilgrimage in St. Francisville, about half an hour north of Baton Rouge, “people dress in [the] costume of the 1820s and tour plantation homes. Slave houses are never shown and the Black community does not attend,” according to the petition started by Hannah Lemming to “end or change” the event. The West Feliciana Historical Society said the event has been canceled “going forward” and said it will “focus our efforts on providing a complete and accurate history of our parish in a meaningful way that is relevant today and in the future.”

Done: An officer with the New Orleans Police Department has been decommissioned and stripped of his police powers, pending an internal investigation, after he made social media posts calling protesters “animals.” NOPD Superintendent Shaun Ferguson announced the move on June 12. Sgt. Anthony Edenflied also posted that he would be “running [protesters] over, and shooting if lethal force were my only way out.” Ferguson said he would “continue to hold our personnel accountable for their actions.”

In the works: Jefferson Davis Parkway could be renamed after the former long-serving president of Xavier University, Norman C. Francis. The proposal started with an online petition, and City Council members Helena Moreno and Jason Williams have authored a motion to begin the process and it’s been supported by five former mayors.

Proposed: Another online petition with tens of thousands of signatures is calling for Robert E. Lee Boulevard to be renamed after chef and New Orleans legend Leah Chase, the famed “Queen of Creole Cuisine” and founder of Dooky Chase’s Restaurant.

In the works: City Council announced it will move to create a City Street Renaming Commission on June 18 that would look at other streets or parks connected to the Confederacy or other racist histories.

Controversy: A proposal to study police reform sparked claims of racism from a white lawmaker at the capitol this week. Rep. Ted James, who is Black, introduced a resolution that would create a group to study law enforcement and issue a report before the next regular session in 2021, and it included a preamble that talked about the killing of Black Americans by white police officers. Rep. Dodie Horton, who is white, said that she’s “never seen a more racist document than the one you’ve brought” and another white lawmaker, Rep. Mike Johnson, said he didn’t like the document’s “tone.” The House stripped the resolution of the reference to Black killings, and the measure is still being considered.

Controversy: LSU is facing backlash after an incoming student was seen in a video on Twitter shouting "I hate n------." Initially, the school responded by stating that it condemns hate and bigotry but is “subject to constitutional limitation on our ability to take action in response to free speech." The school has since apologized for the tweet and said it’s reviewing the incident under its student code, which includes the ability to bar a student from attending.

Controversy: The Univerity of Louisiana Monroe came under scrutiny after a faculty member posted racist language on Facebook. The school said it “condemns the stunningly bigoted and racist language in social media posts by select members of our faculty.” ULM said it’s investigating the incident. This comes after a biology instructor posted on social media that he was going to round up incidents of “racist attacks on white people by Blacks.”

Rosemary Westwood is the public and reproductive health reporter for WWNO/WRKF. She was previously a freelance writer specializing in gender and reproductive rights, a radio producer, columnist, magazine writer and podcast host.
Aubri Juhasz covers K-12 education, focusing on charter schools, education funding, and other statewide issues. She also helps edit the station’s audio stories.

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