From the long-rusted slide in its playground to the discolored molding lining the top of a once-handsome 7th Ward brick building, Valena C. Jones Elementary School looks forgotten. It has been closed since Hurricane Katrina.
Yet the edifice’s condition doesn’t reflect its rich history, which is described by a new historical plaque that stands on the Miro Street side of the schoolyard.
“Let the history books say that this is the day of installation of an historic marker at Valena C. Jones School,” poet Mona Lisa Saloy said Saturday.
Saloy said the 7th Ward Neighborhood Association, which she founded in 2012, was created on the model of the 7th Ward Civic League, one of the groups that had advocated for construction of Jones School.
The Plessy Ferguson Foundation spearheaded a donor campaign to pay for the state historical plaque. In a companion effort, the nonprofit also reached out to the Orleans Parish School Board to ask that the building not be put on the auction block, given its history.
The foundation was formed by Keith Plessy and Phoebe Ferguson, descendants of the named plaintiff and original trial judge in the case of Plessy v. Ferguson, the 1896 U.S. Supreme Court decision that upheld “separate but equal” public facilities in the Jim Crow era of segregation. Plessy, a Jones alumnus, and Ferguson have devoted themselves to diversity and educational causes.
So the plaque was unveiled on Saturday, a day that the foundation each year calls Desegregation Day, in honor of the four young African-American girls — Leona Tate, Tessie Prevost, Ruby Bridges and Gail Etienne — who desegregated two 9th Ward schools on that day in 1960. They made New Orleans the first city in the Deep South to desegregate its elementary schools in response to the Supreme Court’s landmark 1954 decision Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, which found that the so-called “separate but equal” schools created under Jim Crow typically meant that black students were educated under inferior conditions.
“Inferior” was not the word that teachers and students gathered on Saturday used to describe their experience in this building, though it was segregated when some of them attended it.
“We felt privileged,” said Lyndia Green Faust, 74, who attended classes there as a child.
“We had everything,” said Sabrina Mays-Montana, 60, who remembers studying poetry, violin, ballet and art in addition to her regular classwork.
On Fridays, students could bring 25 cents in an envelope to put in individual savings accounts that gained interest over the school year.
“The school was ahead of its time,” said Mays-Montana, who, like many others in the crowd, still knew every word of the school’s alma mater — and spontaneously sang it Saturday.
“We were surrounded by people who loved us and took care of us,” said Jean Phillips, 84, a former student who still lives nearby. She and childhood friend Andrew Young, who would become the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, attended Jones together, sometimes buying raisin bread and bologna sandwiches at the store across the street for lunch.
One time, the two of them plotted to write a book report “on the smallest book we could find in the library,” she said, laughing. But their ruse was noticed by Principal Fannie C. Williams, who took them both into her office and assigned them weightier volumes to read and report on.
The plaque outside Jones is meant to honor what the school excelled at: holistic education with a community-centered focus, said Ferguson, who said that a mere mention of Valena C. Jones School lights up the faces of its former students.
“Something very special happened here,” she said.
Her partner in the foundation, Plessy, returned to the school in 1980, after he’d graduated from the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts, and lined its hallways with his paintings, 103 of them, depicting important black cultural and historical figures.
On one side, the new plaque describes the Jones School’s beginnings, starting just after the turn of the 20th century, when prominent neighborhood groups worked with the Rev. Alfred Lawless and Beecher Memorial Congregational Church to raise the money to buy the six lots that the school now sits on.
Once they had the land, they spent 20 years pushing the Orleans Parish School Board to build a school there. When Jones opened in 1929, it was one of the city’s first public elementary schools for African-American children.
On the plaque’s back side is a tribute to Williams, a “pioneer in public education” who led Jones School for 33 years and was known nationally for her work.
Faust recalled how Williams would regularly walk into the school’s classrooms and pose a question to the students, to encourage critical thinking.
On Saturday, historian Keith Weldon Medley read the text he’d written about Williams.
“A tribute to her stature can be seen from the list of guests that appeared at the school during her tenure,” Medley said. “They included First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, Harlem Renaissance writer James Weldon Johnson, renowned educator Mary McLeod Bethune, Dr. W.E.B. DuBois, scientist Dr. George Washington Carver, historian Dr. Carter G. Woodson, track star Jesse Owens and writer and lecturer Dale Carnegie, as well as many others.”
Though Medley, 66, has written the text for several other state historical plaques, his very identity was tied to this one. His mother, who taught at Jones, chose her son’s middle name after being impressed by James Weldon Johnson, one of a virtual parade of national luminaries who walked the hallways with Williams and talked with her students.
Medley is proud of his ties here. “This school was one of the hallmarks of this part of town,” he said.
Louise Mouton Johnson, an art teacher at Eleanor McMain Secondary School, said she remembered painting and drawing in class on a regular basis and how some students who excelled were chosen to work on theater sets or other art projects. “Our teachers recognized talent and helped you develop it,” she said.
On Saturday, her brother, Jazz Fest photographer Girard Mouton III, 63, stood on the ground where he played marbles as a child and traced his work to his days there, when he admired a large framed photograph of Valena C. Jones that he later discovered had been taken by celebrated photographer A.P. Badou.
Then, when he was in sixth grade, he put 25 cents into an arcade machine and won a plastic twin-lens reflect camera and a roll of film during the school’s annual picnic in City Park. His teachers encouraged his work, and his career had begun.
“This school was my foundation,” he said.
Editor’s note: This article was altered on Nov. 17 to reflect that Valena C. Jones Elementary School was one of the earliest public schools for African American children in New Orleans, not the first. The article was also corrected to show that Keith Weldon Medley’s mother taught at the school, rather than attended herself.