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

After a yearlong process to select new names for NOLA Public School buildings named in honor of slave owners or Confederate sympathizers, an Orleans Parish School Board committee unanimously advanced a list of new names for 24 buildings at its Tuesday meeting.

“We are restoring names lost in Hurricane Katrina, we are correcting racial and gender imbalance,” board member Olin Parker said after the vote. “This list doesn’t honor everyone who deserves to be honored but what this list does show is that this board wants to engage with and listen to the community.”

The renaming process has generally been met with enthusiasm and seen as an opportunity to honor local figures and historically underrepresented populations. But it hasn’t come without controversy. For instance, alumni at Benjamin Franklin High School argued the building should continue to bear his name, noting that although Franklin owned slaves he became an abolitionist later in life. 

Though a board vote later this week could change the building names — which are owned by the School Board — individual charter groups would still control their own nonprofit names.

The NOLA Public Schools district’s Director of Community Relations Justin McCorkle presented Superintendent Henderson Lewis Jr.’s recommendations on Tuesday. It included recommendations such as renaming Franklin for Katherine Johnson, a Black mathematician known for her work at NASA. 

Historic McDonogh 35 Senior High School, the first public high school for Black students, named for slave-owner and philanthropist John McDonogh, would become 35 College Preparatory High School. Alumni and community members said preserving the ‘35’ was important because it is synonymous with ‘Black excellence’ in the city.

“I want to thank the board for keeping ‘35’ as the signature element,” Wanda Romain said during public comment. “I’m a very proud 35 graduate and proud of the three alumni names that will now grace buildings as well.”

The renaming committee provided Lewis with a list of three suggestions for each campus — from that list he made his final recommendations. His recommendations honor an array of local educators, civil rights leaders, musicians, and other historic figures.

The process kicked off last year after new policy language was proposed in June of 2020, as a wave of protests swept the country in the wake of George Floyd’s murder by Minneapolis Police Department officer Derek Chauvin. Chauvin was convicted in April. 

The new language explicitly states that the board is “fundamentally opposed to retaining names of school facilities named for persons who were slave owners, confederate officials and segregation supporters.”

Then in the fall, the board formed a historian review committee to evaluate whether building namesakes fell under the new policy and in what manner. 

The process also involved several community surveys, public hearings and other feedback sessions. In April, the board approved a list of campuses that should receive new names under the policy.

The board meets again on Thursday for a final vote.

The administration also recommended six additional buildings to receive new names. Public comment will be taken on those until July when the board will vote on them.

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...