NOLA Public Schools' West Bank headquarters.

The Orleans Parish School Board unanimously approved changing the name of Martin Luther King Jr. School to Dr. Alfred Lawless, Jr. School at its Thursday night meeting, restoring the Lower 9th Ward school’s former namesake, prior to its 2015 renaming. The move was part of a final round of school-building name changes that followed a yearlong citywide renaming process. 

The renaming process largely focused on renaming schools that had been named for Confederate sympathizers, and more than 20 schools were renamed earlier this year. But it also included restoring historic names in local school communities. Lawless, named for an early 20th century champion of education for the city’s Black students, was one of six schools renamed for that reason Thursday night.

The change was strongly supported by alumni of Alfred Lawless High School, which opened in 1964 and was closed after flooding that followed Hurricane Katrina severely damaged the building. It was later demolished and rebuilt, and in 2015, as a new charter operator — Friends of King Schools — was moving in, the OPSB voted to name the building after King. 

The Lawless and King groups have disagreed at times, both seeking to memorialize their legacies and illustrate their fights to rebuild after Hurricane Katrina altered the city’s education landscape. But on Thursday, a handful of Friends of King representatives presented a peace offering. 

The charter group is proposing to add Lawless to its “program name,” meaning the name of the charter school that operates inside the building. The elected school board does not control charter school names, only the names of the school buildings owned by the school district. 

A handful of members of the public, including well known community leaders, spoke in favor of the Friends of King group’s proposal on Thursday. That included attorney Willie Zanders, Sr., who said he was representing the charter group.

“There should be no fight involving the name of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Dr. Alfred Lawless — they would be turning in their graves,” Zanders said. 

“So yes we said, we welcome a name change,” Zanders said, noting he brought the school and Lawless alumni together to talk.

“The Friends of King board did not have to do this,” board member Olin Parker said. “It’s a very touching step.”

The unanimous approval vote also changed the name of five additional campuses.

Bethune Elementary will be renamed for Enrique Alferez, and the Stuart Bradley campus will be renamed Mary Mcleod Bethune, where the charter named for Bethune now resides. The Lake Area High School building will be renamed after John F. Kennedy, taking the name of a school that operated in the city for decades prior to Katrina. The school in the building recently renamed itself after Kennedy and has been working with the Kennedy High School alumni group. Village de l’Est will be renamed for Dominic Mai Thanh Luong and Arthur Ashe will be renamed for Vorice Jackson-Waters.

Board member J.C. Romero was excited about the vote, sending a long set of messages on Twitter after it was approved, specifically pointing to the Enrique Alferez and Dominic Mai Thanh Luong changes.

OPSB “voted to rename two school facilities after two BROWN pioneers: one of the Latinx community and one from the Asian community,” Romero, who is Latino, tweeted. “Growing up in New Orleans, I can’t remember ever hearing of a school named after someone that looked like me.”

“This is a move that is allowing Brown children and families in New Orleans to feel seen.”

He said the district still has more work to do in serving families with limited English proficiency, but this was a good step forward.

NOLA Public Schools Director of Community Relations Justin McCorkle said he was happy the building renaming process was complete. 

“We kept the community in mind throughout this,” he said. “Everybody understands that at the end of the day this name change is nominal — what matters is affecting positive outcomes for our children.”

“The energy you had for this,” McCorkle said. “I need you to have that same energy about supporting these kids.”

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...