In March 1991, thousands of former students returned to their neighborhood schools to celebrate the 150th anniversary of public education in New Orleans. For an entire week, the city’s attention was focused on the countless teachers who had given their personal and professional lives to teach the children of New Orleans. It was a rare moment in the school district’s tumultuous history — there was unanimity in the schools. The residents of New Orleans came together because their schools had endured for 150 years.
This year, on March 26, the date marking the 172nd anniversary of public education in New Orleans, there will be little celebration. Hardly anyone remembers.
Forget the old history because there is a new history: The new public schools burst forth from nothingness on Aug. 29, 2005, when the floodwaters rushed into New Orleans and washed away all that was wrong with education — at least that’s the way the story goes. Why look backward when we have convinced ourselves that everything before 2005 was corruption and failure?
Whether through ignorance or arrogance, we have chosen to forget the generations of very real women and men who, from the 1840s, remained in the classroom and never gave up on our children. We have forgotten the innovations in the schools, and we have forgotten the stubbornness and the struggles.
The single-minded focus on prohibiting any form of education for African-American students or the efforts to maintain costly segregation in school buildings by race and by gender had a high cost — economically and morally. Had the desegregation that started in Reconstruction been allowed to succeed, there would have been nothing unusual about four little girls walking into two New Orleans schools in 1960.
Beginning in the 1840s, parents challenged corporal punishment in the classrooms, and parents and school board members hotly debated prayer in schools. In the early 1900s, teachers vehemently protested efforts to link student performance to merit pay because of the arbitrary nature of the evaluations.
Are those opposed to teacher unions today aware of the classroom conditions that gave rise to unions in the first place? Without this knowledge, we can’t learn from the successes or the failures of the past.
The ULL Press recently reissued “Crescent City Schools: Public Education in New Orleans, 1841-1991” by Donald E. DeVore and Joseph Logsdon. The Earl K. Long Library at the University of New Orleans holds the Orleans Parish School Board Collection, and its documents related to the history of public education in New Orleans exceed the length of five football fields.
Our memory was not washed away in the flood of 2005. There is no excuse for our amnesia.
author, historian, retired Orleans Parish School Board employee