I was listening to the WBOK morning show and was struck by something Oliver “O.T.” Thomas said because it resonated so much with my own experience. The topic was the usual charter school debate, but O.T.’s take was more personal. He said he envied his co-host, “the Prof,” for his close bonds with his alma mater, St. Augustine High School. O.T. attended Orleans Parish Public Schools, as I did, and lamented that not a single one of the schools he attended is still in existence. He claimed that the absence of these schools, so integral to his own growth, amounted to a psychic absence in the community, that these schools, whatever their failings may have been, represented generations of community memory that is now lost.
Of the five schools I attended, only one may remain after this summer, depending on how the latest round of name cancelling turns out. The first school I attended was the only Catholic school I ever went to, Mother Cabrini Nursery School. It had been around for almost a century by the time I started going to school. The structure is now…want to take a guess? That’s right, luxury apartments.
I began my 12 years of public schools in the first grade at McDonogh 15, a block away from Cabrini. That school effectually disappeared after Hurricane Katrina, when the building was given to national charter school organization KIPP Schools rather than the charter board put together by former McDonogh 15 administrators, parents, and alumni. Even so, KIPP opted to keep the name, calling their school “KIPP McDonogh 15,” because of the community’s multi-generational attachment to the place. Even though a different school operates in the building now, the historic words, “McDonogh 15 School,” have not yet been scrubbed from the St. Philip Street façade.
I went to junior high school at F.W. Gregory in Gentilly. It’s now a barren field. The name is gone, but so is every building that used to make up a fairly expansive campus, which included a football field, auditorium, science labs, and a great band suite outfitted with sound-proofed practice rooms. My high schools remain — NOCCA and Benjamin Franklin, though the latter is also facing a name change, at least for its building.
Having been reduced to little more than a landlord, the New Orleans school board is now exercising its power to take names off buildings, even though few of those buildings bear the same names as the charter schools housed in them. Andrew Jackson School on Camp Street, for example, has been the home of International School of Louisiana since 2007. No one calls it “Jackson” anymore, though the name, “Jackson School” is etched into the Camp Street side of the structure. The only concern is whether it’s worth the cost to concrete over that scary word, “Jackson,” which passersby might encounter if they crane their necks high enough. The wise choice would be to keep the name and say it refers to Mahalia Jackson, Maynard Jackson, or any number of other Jacksons.
In a city where transplants often come in and take the best jobs, drive up the cost of housing, and invite others like themselves to come join the party, natives cling to a last shred of authenticity by asking each other where they went to high school. If the answer is “Franklin,” or “McDonogh 35,” for example, a certain degree of local esteem is conferred, with the assumption that the respondent must be smart. Of course, every Franklin or 35 alum remembers classmates (or teachers) who didn’t live up to the hype.
The whole question, though, of dismissing generations of community memory for the cause of changing names that are not popularly associated with racism or repression, highlights the counterproductive consequences of political symbolism for its own sake. Who knew Ben Franklin owned slaves? I admit that I didn’t, not before very recently. It’s important to know that he did — however briefly. But that leaves the question of what to do with that knowledge. There have been spirited arguments, which include the author of a major Franklin biography, saying that his participation in slavery should not negate his other achievements, including his outspoken efforts to put an end to slavery.
I have nothing to add to the arguments of Franklin scholars, but I do think we need to account for the way in which names of famous guys can evolve into names of something else. They can evolve into names of supportive and inclusive communities, with little connection to the dead guy who shares the moniker. Such a symbolic transfiguration can apply to names of cities, nations, neighborhoods, or schools. For example, a New Orleans Saints cap with a fleur-de-lis is not an expression of support for the Bourbon monarchy in France. It’s an expression of support for New Orleans. This is why such decisions should be left to community members: the students, faculty, parents, administrators and alumni of the schools in question.
Mythical memory is less about factual records and more about what someone is remembered for. Robert E. Lee never represented anything other than the defense of slavery and the Confederate assault on one of the only democracies existing in the world at that time. Franklin, unlike Confederate icons, is not associated with slavery at all. Therefore, it is valid to question whether it’s worth depriving a community of institutional memory and solidarity over such a strict and pointless litmus test, over a fact, although true, that no one had in mind when the school was named.
Singling out Franklin to make a point really misses the point that we should be focused on. The entire white United States has benefited from the exclusion and exploitation of African Americans and Native Americans from day one. Some form of reparations, as well as rooting out living vestiges of racism — not dead guys’ names — should be the urgent business of our time. Misleading perceptions of historical figures matter, but the question should be whether existing perceptions contribute to ongoing injustices or not. People not knowing that Ben Franklin, before he became an abolitionist, owned a couple of slaves, does not propagate racism in our time. A similar argument can be made for the McDonogh schools, even though John McDonough owned enslaved people during his whole life. More people are cognizant of that aspect of his biography.
I never really knew who John McDonogh was when I attended a school named after him. As far as my classmates and I knew, he was a philanthropist who funded lots of public schools. In other words, in the popular imagination, McDonogh’s name was nearly synonymous with public schooling in New Orleans. That is, if his name was really invoked at all. I didn’t know the true name of John McDonogh High School on Esplanade Avenue until I was older because everybody called it “John Mack.” I thought it was named after a guy named Mack.
The challenge facing the one remaining McDonogh school — McDonough 35 — is perhaps not so difficult to overcome. They could just call it Mac 35 or even simply 35, and that would not be a major break from common parlance. Alumni and students can just add their explication of what “Mac” means when they explain to people what a “Roneagle” is. When I speak with McDonogh 15 alumni, “15” is the shorthand we always use anyway. But the question remains whether proving anti-racist purity to a tiny group of academic sticklers is worth scrubbing away iconic names denoting New Orleanian communities, when those names aren’t primarily associated with racism, anyway, and when members of these communities have actually been engaged in real anti-racist work. This is true of McDonogh 35, McDonogh 15, and Franklin alumni, alike.
This question is especially acute since the academic and activist left’s obsession with language may also be a symptom of weakness. A colleague recently put it this way: “The Republicans were taking over state legislatures while the left was launching an assault on the English department.” We need to wonder whether dogged attention to ever-changing rosters of acceptable word choice might turn people off to public discourse entirely or drive them into the churning wheels of the fascist, Republican grievance mill.
A 2019 Pew Research poll showed that younger, less educated, Black, and Hispanic Americans are more likely than highly educated and older white people to feel “unfairly judged by others for the language they use to express themselves.” Louisiana’s own James Carville put the matter more bluntly a couple of weeks ago. Carville said, “You ever get the sense that people in faculty lounges in fancy colleges use a different language than ordinary people? They come up with a word like ‘Latinx’ that no one else uses. …There’s nothing inherently wrong with these phrases. But this is not how people talk. … And doing it anyway is a signal that you’re talking one language and the people you want to vote for you are speaking another language.”
A perfect case study for interpreting language in the context of intent took place in this year’s legislative session in Baton Rouge. The Republican-dominated state legislature appears to be well aware that many Louisiana classrooms—especially college classrooms—are run by people who do not hold them in high esteem. Many Republican politicos around the country are responding with censorship laws.
While the left may ostracize people who engage in speech they don’t like, by “canceling” them on social media, the right is in a position to actually pass laws banning speech. While “canceling” on the left involves adding speech to already existing speech—expressing outrage at what someone has said or tweeted, Republicans cry “cancel culture” as they pass laws to ban speech. That’s exactly what state Rep. Ray Garofalo, Republican of Chalmette, proposed to do, in a bill he withdrew after bloviating about it for his Trump-base voters. His bill would have banned, in public K-12 schools as well as public colleges, the teaching of “divisive issues” like “critical race theory” – whatever that means.
So this is the sad state we find ourselves in. Relatively powerless demagogues on the left are busy erasing names of dead people while Republicans in power plot to shut the mouths of the living. If only the ghost of Ben Franklin could help us.
C.W. Cannon is the author of four novels, all set in his native New Orleans. His next book, “I Want Magic: Essays on New Orleans, the South, and Race,” is forthcoming later this year, and includes several essays that originally appeared in The Lens.
The Opinion section is a community forum. Views expressed are not necessarily those of The Lens or its staff. To propose an idea for a column, contact Opinion Editor Amy Stelly at firstname.lastname@example.org.