When Calvin Magee visits New Orleans, it’s a joyous time.
In his hometown, Magee, the offensive coordinator on the University of Arizona coaching staff, lands some of the city’s top football prospects as well as getting the chance to see family and some old friends.
However, as he has passed through his old neighborhood each of nearly the past 10 years, there’s a disturbing sight. Magee’s alma mater, Booker T. Washington, is no longer there, having been torn down in the aftermath of the damage caused by Hurricane Katrina.
“It’s disappointing,” said Magee, a 1981 graduate who was an NFL tight end for five years, four with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. “I go over there and look at the yard and the bricks that are still up, and just wish it can come back because it did so much for so many people, especially me.
“So, it makes me feel sad that it’s not open.”
In time, that feeling is expected to turn into excitement for Magee and others such as his former coach at Washington, Wayne Reese, former New Orleans City Councilman Jim Singleton and Washington alumni association President Wayne Jones. Washington is scheduled to be rebuilt and open in 2017.
When that happens, it will mark the rebirth of a school with a proud alumni and legacy in academics, sports, the arts, culture and vocational studies.
Constructed in 1942 as the second black public high school, Washington’s graduates include Singleton, Judge Paulette Irons, former New Orleans Police Chief Warren Riley, former Saturday Night Live actor Garrett Morris, jazz musician James Rivers, ex-NBA player Bruce Seals, ex-City councilperson Dorothy Mae Taylor, Rev. Skip Alexander, retired Brigadier General Donald Delandro, civil rights activist Carl Galmon, who pitched at Grambling State and then in the Boston Red Sox’s organization, as well as 2015’s Zulu Queen, Dr. Janice Sanchez.
Its history, uniqueness with its vocational education aspect and reputation for excellence in extra-curricular activities was a reason Washington students and alumni were known for their pride in being associated with the school.
The sports programs, under coaches in football such as Winston Burns and Reese and in basketball, Hall of Famer Ted Washington, enjoyed consistent success and was an important ingredient for kids from the third Ward, one of the city’s more difficult areas.
“It gave us something to focus on and not focus on what was going on around us,” Magee said. “We had to be accountable, and we won every year in football and basketball. And, I was blessed to get a scholarship to college (at Southern University).”
Washington has had its share of students who pursued college educations, such as Melvin Gaines, a noted engineer in San Francisco. However, it is also known for the many brick layers, auto mechanics, beauticians, licensed practical nurses, landscapers, sheet metal workers, graphic artists, agriculturalists and others who helped shape New Orleans’ work landscape.
“There was a lot of black pride,” said Eddie Williams, a 1969 graduate who became a noted construction contractor who has built and repaired many area homes and buildings. “You could prepare yourself to go to college or into a profession. Booker T. made you feel like you were somebody and that you also would become somebody.”
To Singleton, that’s a lot of what the community located around the school has missed. For much of its history, male students had to wear ties to school. With Washington closed, the adolescents from its area — what of was left of them in the aftermath of Katrina — were scattered among other high schools.
“There was a pride of the neighborhood, what the school represented,” Singleton said. “There were rallying points, such as the auditorium, all those things that are memories as a part of the school.
“The auditorium held concerts for people like (gospel legend) Mahalia Jackson, because there was nowhere else, and Booker T. Washington had enough seats.”
It also was where elementary school students annually attended concerts by the Louisiana Philharmonic Symphony.
The new Booker T. Washington will also have an auditorium of which to be proud, and much more, said alumni association President Jones.
“The new school will take up 90 percent of the existing grounds, and will be state of the art,” Jones said. “It will have an excellent gymnasium and auditorium, bigger class rooms.”
However, it will be constructed on the same land the old school existed, where tests determined toxic metals existed. Jones said the dirt will be replaced in areas where there won’t be concrete and the project will go forward.
The construction of a new Washington, however, has brought concerns from another quarter. The idea of closing Washington’s rival, Walter L. Cohen, and combining the two schools has been discussed, much the same way as L.B. Landry and O.P. Walker became one school.
Jones said that in his meetings with the state-headed Recovery School District, that is not the case. However, Singleton said he is saddened by attempts to block the project from Cohen interests, whom he said want a new school.
Said Cohen alumni association President James Raby: “I just don’t think a large school is the way for minority students.”
Reese, who during his tenure in the early-to-mid 1980s coached Magee, said he just wants Washington restored to what it was before Katrina, with the vocational aspect, which gave students who could not afford to go to college an option to make a living as a professional. Tina Baptist, the last athletic director at Washington, said many of the same courses now require students to get a loan to go to career colleges and trade schools.
Jones said the plan is to have programs that will enable students to transition into the huge new medical complex being built.
“We discussed with (Recovery School District Superintendent) Patrick Dobard and (assistant superintendent) Dena Peterson as far as the return of the new Booker T. Washington is concerned is the return of the licensed practical nursing program, auto technology, a radiology technology program and an X-ray technology program, as well as medical billing and coding,” Jones said. “And they were in agreement.”
That would make huge difference for the school overall and also its sports programs, Reese said.
“A lot of the kids I coached were there more for the vocational programs, carpentry, auto mechanics and brick laying than they were for sports,” he said. “I think Booker T. will bounce back strong.”