Most people know of the $2 million financial legacy left by John McDonogh (Dec. 29, 1779 to Oct. 26, 1850). But few know that, as a “slave owner” he educated and supported manumission and the option of transportation to a newly created free nation in Africa.

If former slaves chose the option to leave, the American Colonization Society organized transportation for freed people of color to Liberia. He had devised a manumission scheme whereby enslaved people he held could “buy” their own freedom. To this day no one has recorded the number of slaves he educated and released from slavery.

McDonogh identified two of his slaves, David K. McDonogh and Washington Watts McDonogh, as “youths of great promise” for manumission to Liberia. In preparation, McDonogh taught David and Washington to read and write, in violation of Louisiana laws, to prepare the pair to become missionaries.

Washington struggled academically. He left college and spent the rest of his life in Liberia, eventually being elected to the lower house of the Liberian national legislature. David did well at Lafayette College, studying medicine, anatomy and even apprenticing to a local doctor/pharmacist, and graduated in 1844. David refused to be deported to Liberia, however, and eventually settled in New York City where he was active in politics and medicine.

David eventually received a medical degree in 1875. The first hospital in New York City with interracial physicians and patients was named McDonough Memorial in David's memory in 1898. The hospital closed in 1904

This mysterious enigma, John McDonogh, who began life as a Baltimore indentured servant, became an American entrepreneur whose adult life was spent in south Louisiana. He made a fortune in real estate and shipping. His will provided large grants totaling $2 million dollars for the public education of children of poor whites and freed people of color in New Orleans and Baltimore, and by the 1970s some 20 schools in the New Orleans public school system were named for him.

The enigmatic, puzzling question? Was he just a racist who purchased slaves? Or was he a friend of the blacks and poor whites and gave them a chance at life?


retired aerospace engineer