The gymnasium where basketball games and pep rallies played out and the community once gathered isn’t there anymore. The football stadium that fielded the Mighty Eagles and their marching band can be found only in old yearbook photographs.
But they all live on in the memories of Cohn High School alumni and now in an exhibit collected and curated by the West Baton Rouge Museum.
And the museum continues gathering those memories while it pays tribute to the parish’s only high school for African-American students before integration in the exhibit, “Cohn High School: How We Love Thee.” The show runs through March 20, and the title has proven profound, because love warms the gallery each time a former student visits.
The memories flow, and sometimes laughter is replaced by sadness for a lost school that was more than just buildings. These structures represented an era when black students were given an opportunity to advance and succeed.
Even more important were the lifelong friendships that were forged there. A video by local videographer Kevin McQuarn features alumni sharing their memories and stories of how they would go out of their way to drive by for a glance at the closed buildings on Port Allen’s North 14th Street. Cohn High, which operated from 1949 to 1969, stood as a testament to their past.
Now parts of that past have been resurrected by museum director Julie Rose in the museum’s Cohn High collection.
A schoolyard water fountain is attached to one wall, an intercom hangs from another. And on the opposite side of the gallery stands a blue door, once the entrance to a classroom where students studied math or science or English.
Rose collected all of the artifacts before the school was demolished in 2014.
“In 2013, I read in the paper that the School Board was planning to tear down Cohn High School,” Rose says. “I called Superintendent David Corona about collecting materials from the school for posterity. He asked me to make my request to the School Board, and they heartily endorsed the idea.”
A window, a door, light fixtures, the water fountain — they’re all part of the museum’s permanent collection now.
Meanwhile, curator Angelique Bergeron began meeting with the Cohn High School Alumni Association, which has been gathering once a week since the school’s doors were shuttered in 1969. She talked to the organization’s leaders, Wilhemenia DeCuir and Joycelyn Green, about collecting alumni oral histories.
Some of those stories are included in the museum’s book, “The 20-Year History of Cohn High School: The Only School for African Americans in West Baton Rouge Parish,” published through a Rebirth Grant from the Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities. Additional contributions from nonprofit agency DOC DHL, Inc., funded the gathering and transcription of the oral histories.
The museum is offering free copies of the book, which outlines Cohn’s history, beginning with the circumstances leading to its founding in 1949.
Before then, only 67 percent of the parish’s African-American students were enrolled in high school. Afterward, that number increased to 99 percent.
In 1949, an old U.S. Army hangar was moved from Harding Army Air Field — now Baton Rouge Metropolitan Airport — to land donated by the Cohn family to house the parish’s first African-American high school. Black students were able to attend elementary school in West Baton Rouge, but had to go to other parishes, such as McKinley High School in East Baton Rouge, for high school.
The old hanger was divided into classrooms. New buildings were later constructed, and the hangar became the school gym.
Court-ordered desegregation closed the school in 1969, and Cohn’s students were integrated into the all-white population at Port Allen High School. Cohn Elementary School still occupies the space, and though DOC DHL was able to get National Register status for the old high school buildings, they were beyond repair.
Though the school is gone, alumni and community members can reminisce at a reception for this show, which was co-curated by Kathe Hambrick-Jackson, director of the River Road African American Museum. The reception, which is free and open to the public, will be held at 2:30 p.m. on Sunday, Feb. 28.
In addition to the artifacts on display, visitors will be able to see the drawings that began it all.
“The school board gave us a box of blue prints for our collection, and our education curator, Jeannie Luckette, started looking through them,” Rose says. “She found the blueprint for Cohn High School, which we have in this show. That was like discovering treasure.”