NOLA Public Schools' West Bank headquarters. (Marta Jewson/The Lens)

The NOLA Public Schools’ appointed Facilities Renaming Committee — formed to identify school buildings named for slave owners and Confederate sympathizers and recommend new names — held a public hearing Tuesday, one week after the district announced 20 school buildings that would be renamed. 

District officials shared a list of suggested new names for buildings, including the late chef Leah Chase, Homer Plessy, McDonogh 35 coach Wayne “Coach” Reese, Sr. and late Saints owner Tom Benson. The list also suggested some names that had previously been attached to schools, such as Israel M. Augustine, the first Black elected judge at Criminal District Court.  A dilapidated, unused school building at Tulane and Broad —  across from the court – now carries Augustine’s name.

The suggested names have not yet been recommended for specific district-owned buildings. 

About two dozen people spoke during the hearing, and they overwhelmingly asked that two former local educators — Leah Metoyer McKenna and Elliot “Doc” Willard — have buildings named in their honor. 

Leah Metoyer McKenna, a longtime educator in the 7th ward, was the first Black principal of a racially integrated high school in the city, her son, Orleans Parish Coroner Dwight McKenna said. McKenna said that while he “may be biased,” he knew his mother had an impact on many students’ lives beyond his own.

Lois Jones said McKenna made a “huge contribution to the 7th ward,” and asked that the McDonogh 42 building be renamed after her.

Sabrina Mays, who was a student of McKenna’s, agreed. 

“To this day, I don’t know why she selected me, we were poor, but she invited me to attend [a student conference] at a downtown hotel — I was the only Black student there and she was so proud.”

Elliot “Doc” Willard was a teacher, principal, Louisiana Department of Education assistant superintendent and Orleans Parish School Board member over a long tenure in education in Louisiana.

Henry Evans praised Willard’s horticulture program. Justin Smart, who had Williard as a principal, said he championed his students.

“He was my principal at Booker T. Washington. He made everybody feel special, no matter what neighborhood you were from,” Smart said. “I have cerebral palsy and he always made me feel special. He always said we were ‘first class.’”

Still, some members of the public asked that the process slow down, pointing to confusion in the district’s April 30 deadline for public comment, which comes after a recent OPSB vote approving the list of buildings to be renamed. 

“The vast majority of our population do not think renaming [the Lafayette Elementary] building is necessary,” Earl Williams, the director of engagement at Lafayette Academy, told the committee. 

“The last round of input has felt rushed,” he said. And asked the committee to delay recommendations for one month. 

Two Benjamin Franklin High School alumni asked that the school be taken off the list. 

Tim Brechtel said he was disappointed in the process, having only learned Franklin was decided to be renamed from a news report. 

“It sounds like they just look at the tombstone — slave owner — a terrible terrible thing,” Brechtel said, referring to Franklin. “But 70 years before the civil war he petitioned Congress to end slavery.”

Franklin alum Mark Orzech echoed Brechtel in Franklin’s consideration, noting that Franklin became an abolitionist later in life. 

“I think he’s an excellent example of someone who redeemed themselves.” 

A few alumni of McDonogh 35 — named for John McDonogh, a slave owner who left a sizable trust for public education in the city — asked that “35” be the focus in renaming the school. 

NOLA Public Schools district Community Engagement Director Justin McCorkle said anyone who wasn’t able to attend the virtual hearing can still submit suggestions for new building names.

“All of that feedback is being taken into consideration along the way,” he said. “We’d like to encourage the public to give their feedback at nolapublicschools.com through April 30 and we will have an updated list of recommendations.”

“I, personally, have been uplifted by people coming out to speak on behalf of former educators,” board member Olin Parker said as the meeting closed.

The public comment period remains open until April 30. The committee will then narrow suggested names for each building to three per school and submit them to the district.

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...