Bricolage Academy occupies John McDonogh High School on Esplanade Avenue. (Marta Jewson/The Lens)

An Orleans Parish School Board committee on Tuesday voted to recommend a list of 20 school buildings — found to be named for a slave owner, separatist or segregationist — to be renamed in line with a policy and process the NOLA Public Schools district undertook last year. 

One board member and one member of the public asked that the Property Committee’s recommendation be delayed until the end of the month because the district is accepting public comments on the process until April 30. 

But after a short, tense discussion, members advanced the recommended list of schools in a 6-1 vote. Any recommended name change will have to be finalized by another OPSB vote at its regular business meeting. The next business meeting is scheduled for Thursday. 

“The community was of the understanding that April 30 was the deadline,” said one of two public commenters. “There is a lot of confusion.”

Another commenter wanted to ensure building name changes weren’t going to force program name changes. “Is there a bifurcation between school building name and school name?”

The renaming process only covers physical school buildings — not the names of the charter schools that occupy those buildings, officials assured. The nonprofits that operate charter schools are separately named organizations that are registered with the secretary of state. 

The schools slated to receive new names include schools named for John McDonogh, a slave owner who left much of his fortune to the city to build schools when he died in 1850. Other names include Robert Mills Lusher, a Confederate official and segregationist; ornithologist John Audubon, a slave owner; educator Sophie B. Wright, a segregationist; and Benjamin Franklin, a one-time slave owner who became an abolitionist later in life. Others, including buildings named for Andrew Jackson, Alcee Fortier and Henry Allen no longer house programs with the same name. 

Board member Olin Parker, who serves as board liaison to the renaming group made up of historians, said about half the city’s schools operate under their own names, rather than the names of the district-owned buildings they use. Board decisions will not change the name of the charter schools operating in buildings.

But some of charter groups do use those names, including InspireNOLA, which runs McDonogh 35 Senior High School. McDonogh 35, the first high school for black students in the city, was highly regarded for decades, with a list of alumni that includes Ernest “Dutch” Morial, the city’s first black mayor. It performed so strongly that it was one of a handful of schools the state did not take over after Hurricane Katrina, but with so few students in the city the district removed its selective admissions policy and the school began to struggle. It was a traditional, direct-run school until 2018, when the school board voted to hand it over to InspireNOLA. (The district recommends renaming both McDonogh 35’s former Kerlerec Street campus and its current location on Cadillac Street.)

“My concern is strictly with McDonogh 35,” Jamar McKneely, CEO of InspireNOLA, said. “What happens if the board comes in the next couple of years and puts forth a policy to change the program name?”

McKneely, along with board member Ethan Ashley, pushed for the renaming policy last year. At the time he did not address McDonogh 35. The call for renaming buildings and board’s new policy came in the weeks and months following the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis Police Department Officer Derek Chauvin in May, which spurred national protests against police brutality. Chauvin was convicted Tuesday. 

The proposed changes come as many city street names and public monuments are being reevaluated as well. And its not the first time the district has undergone this process. In a community-led effort in the 1990’s more than 30 New Orleans schools changed names tied to racist namesakes. But several of the city’s early charter schools, named for their buildings rather than national charter networks, still carry original names.

Legacy names were also a concern for board member Carlos Zervigon, who previously served on the board of Benjamin Franklin High School. Alumni and supporters of the high school are also struggling with a name change because of the legacy the school’s name carries, much like McDonogh 35 alumni.

“Communities felt they had until the end of the comment period,” Zervigon said, noting he expected more public comment from Franklin and McDonogh 35 alumni in the coming week. “Then we end up in a situation where we’re not listening to the communities we serve.” 

“Growing up, McDonogh 35 is a name that stood for Black excellence and Black leadership,” Zervigon said. 

Board member Ethan Ashley said the question was whether the school’s name aligned with the board’s new policy.

“I don’t share that same sentiment, just to be very clear,” Ashley said to Zervigon, noting the process had gone on for months. “It’s an issue of our values — if we believe our buildings should carry the names of slave owners, separatists and segregationists.”

“The issue at hand is whether they fit into the categories of the policy,” Ashley said. “We are not debating the policy.”

Board member Katie Baudouin agreed, noting her grandmother graduated from Sophie B. Wright High School when it was an all-girls, all-white high school. And although she appreciated that history, she said, the school name did not reflect the board’s current values. 

“The policy the previous board put forward was pretty clear,” she said.

Zervigon was the lone “no” vote on Tuesday. 

The NOLA Public Schools district will hold public meetings on April 27 and May 3 to discuss next steps in the renaming process.

Marta Jewson

Marta Jewson covers education in New Orleans for The Lens. She began her reporting career covering charter schools for The Lens and helped found the hyperlocal news site Mid-City Messenger. Jewson returned...