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

Jun 19, 2020

For years, activist group Take ’Em Down Nola has been calling for the removal of all symbols of white supremacy in the city of New Orleans. And last weekend, another monument came crashing down.

Videos show a group of protestors using a chisel, rope and a skateboard to separate a bronze bust from its granite pedestal. It’s doused in bright paint, dragged through the streets and finally, dumped in the Mississippi River.

What remains is an empty pedestal in Duncan Plaza bearing the name John McDonogh.

McDonogh was a wealthy slave owner who worked as a merchant and real estate developer. He bought and sold slaves and the money he made was directly tied to the plantation economy.

“He was a really tall, wiry guy, easily recognizable,” said Walter C. Stern, a New Orleans native and an assistant professor of educational policy studies and history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “He never married, never had children. He was kind of considered to be a miserly, oddball person.”

When he died in 1850, he left a large portion of his wealth to the city of New Orleans for the purpose of building public schools. At one point, there were more than 40 McDonough schools in the New Orleans area. Today, only a handful still bear his name.

Stern’s book, Race and Education in New Orleans: Creating the Segregated City dives deep into the impact McDonogh’s money had on the city’s public education system.

According to Stern, McDonogh was a man of many contradictions. He let some of his slaves make money so that they could purchase their freedom, but he didn't want them to stay in America. He supported the American Colonization Society, which wanted to send freed slaves to Liberia.

When he left his money to the city, he asked that it be used to teach all poor children — boys and girls, white and black.

But, Stern says, there’s a lot more to consider.

“Much of sort of the significant aspect of, ‘OK, what is his legacy?’ unfolded after his death,” Stern said.

That’s because McDonogh’s money was used to build a school system that advanced white supremacy.

"Funding for schools was inequitable in order to support white supremacy, in order to give great advantages to white students rather than to Black students,” Stern said. “The McDonogh funds were part and parcel of that."

For starters, when New Orleans founded its public school system in 1841, it was exclusively for the education of white children. It wasn’t until Reconstruction that McDonogh funds were used to support Black students.

The schools themselves quickly became battle chips as white residents sought to push Black residents out of certain areas of the city.

McDonogh #6 was the first “adequate” school built for Black students when it opened in 1876, Stern said. But as the surrounding neighborhood became whiter and wealthier, they were kicked out.

"White residents in the Uptown area said this is no place for a Black school and in 1924, the school board listened to them,” Stern said. “So the Black students who had been in that McDonogh #6 building at Napoleon and Camp were told, ‘Look, this really nice solid brick building that has been used as a Black school for many years, we’re gonna hand it over to whites.’”

Stern has plenty of other examples of how McDonogh money was used to advance white supremacy. A particularly glaring one: City officials raided the McDonogh fund during the Civil War to support the Confederate military effort.

McDonogh School, No. 24, on McDonogh Day honoring John McDonogh, a benefactor of New Orleans Public Schools. The African American students are marching to Lafayette square to place flowers on the John McDonogh Statue. The children and adults pictured are all dressed in white. May 7, 1937.
Credit LDL / State Library of Louisiana / Louisiana Works Progress Administration

Another part of McDonogh’s legacy was Founder’s Day. In his will, he requested that school children plant and water flowers around his grave. New Orleans public schools honored this request with an annual holiday on McDonogh’s birthday, May 7.

Every year, children would place flowers at McDonogh’s statue in Lafayette Square — white children would go first and Black children would go second.

“This was one of the many daily indignities that black people experienced and a way that sort of through this celebration, ideas of white superiority and black subordination were reinforced,” Stern said.

So in 1954, right before the Supreme Court issued its decision in Brown v. Board of Education, Black New Orleanians boycotted the event.

“They said, ‘Enough is enough. We are not going to allow our children to be subjected to standing in the heat, waiting their turn, being told in a very public way that they are less than white children,” Stern said. “It was a real indicator of the growing Civil Rights Movement, this growing pressure not just for educational equity but racial justice more broadly.”

Removing a monument or renaming a school isn’t about erasing history, Stern said. He thinks that people who take down monuments are calling for a “more complete reckoning.”

"When we embrace a simplified and inaccurate picture of, ‘This is somebody who left money and did a good thing, therefore we can celebrate them,’ it kind of gives a pass on confronting all the systems of oppression that McDonogh was tied up in,” Stern said. “It allows us to sort of sidestep not just acknowledging that past but then figuring out how we act to redress past wrongs and inequalities in schooling and beyond schooling.”

But for that to truly happen, you can’t just topple a statue or strip a name from a building, Stern said. You have to take the time to interrogate the past and consider the ways in which it extends into the present. Only then can things really change.

Support for WWNO’s education reporting comes from Entergy Corporation.