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William Frantz Public School

A Story of Race, Resistance, Resiliency, and Recovery in New Orleans

by Connie L. Schaffer (Author) Meg White (Author) Martha Graham Viator (Author)
Monographs XXII, 302 Pages

Table Of Content


Preface

William Frantz Public School: A Story of Race, Resistance, Resiliency, and Recovery tells a complex story. We started out writing this book because we wanted to tell readers what happened to William Frantz Public School in the decades following its desegregation in 1960. As we learned more about the school, we found common threads that drew disparate events together and created a multi-faceted story. The story could not be told without centering the narrative on race and the never-ending resistance to any effort that might end years of de jure and de facto segregation. The resiliency of those the system oppressed—the poor students, Black students, and at times demoralized educators of William Frantz Public School—is equally important as is the so-called recovery of public education in the post-Katrina era.

You may not know the name of the school, but you are likely to recognize photographs of the building that were taken in 1960. Those pictures show a Black 6-year-old girl and four U.S. Federal Marshals walking into the school. The first-grade student entering the school was Ruby Bridges, and while she is a prominent figure in this story, Bridges is not the central character. This book is about events spanning the history of William Frantz Public School. If the walls of this elementary school could talk, they would retell the well-known story of its desegregation in 1960. They would also recount lesser-known, yet important stories, that provide further examination of public education in New Orleans and its intersections with race, resistance, resiliency, and recovery.

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This book is a place-based narrative, an in-depth examination of stories specific to William Frantz Public School, located in the Upper Ninth Ward in New Orleans, Louisiana. These stories are interwoven into the broader saga of public education in New Orleans. By understanding the context of public education in the city, you will more fully understand events happening at William Frantz Public School. To some extent, the school and the Orleans Parish school district represent a microcosm of public education in the United States. However, the unique context of New Orleans cannot be discounted. It is located in the Deep South; it has a large Catholic population. In the late 20th century, many people considered its public schools to be the epitome of all that was broken in the U.S. education system. Hurricane Katrina ravaged the city in 2005, and the aftermath created a public education model based almost exclusively on charter schools.

In attempting to tell the story of William Frantz Public School, some stories were intentionally omitted from this book. For example, the account of Leona Tate, Tessie Prevost, and Gail Etienne, Black first-grade students who entered formerly all-White McDonogh 19 Elementary School on the same day Bridges entered William Frantz Public School, is not included in this book. The decision to exclude this and other stories does not diminish their importance, but rather reflects an intent to keep this book focused on a single school.

Beyond the choices of what stories to include, other choices influenced what is contained within this book. Words, labels, and definitions matter. It is critical to explain the decisions behind several racially charged word choices that you may question as you read. Racial labels represent social constructs. The United States is far from a post-racial society, and the terms White and Black reflect the ongoing power differential between the two groups in our society. One group is granted privilege and afforded power. The other continues to struggle just to be considered equal, let alone have the past atrocities committed against them recognized. As such, the terms White and Black were chosen to describe racial groups defined by the color of their skin more so than the continent of their ancestry. The choice also serves as a reminder of the racialized disparities between two groups of people living within New Orleans and the United States. Likewise, the term desegregation is used rather than integration. Although the terms are often used interchangeably, particularly in accounts of public school desegregation in the 1960s, the terms are not synonymous. Desegregating schools refers to ending the physical separation of students based on race. Integration implies that students, regardless of race, not only share the same physical space of a school but also share the power within the school, school system, and the larger institution of public education. Because public school integration is not yet fully realized, in either New Orleans or the United States, the term, integration, only appears in the text when it is part of a direct ←xii | xiii→quote. All other references to bringing together White and Black students within public school buildings are described as desegregation.

Finally, offensive words and phrases that were spoken at the time to denigrate people and describe grotesque actions were given careful contemplation but ultimately incorporated into this story. Reading disgusting racial slurs and other vulgarities may shock some of you. Unfortunately, for others these are all-too-familiar. The pain these cause is not discounted, but the inclusion of these words is important. To omit or ignore them minimizes the level of vitriol and the extent to which ignorance, fear, and White supremacy drove people to use them—to shout them in the presence of children, to record them in personal correspondence, to state them in public records. If these were shared so openly, you can only imagine what was spoken privately.

Archival research provided the majority of the information contained in this book and was substantiated with the work of other scholars and personal communications between the authors and people in New Orleans. Research conducted in the Times-Picayune archives, the Orleans Parish School Board Records (Louisiana Special Collections, Earl K. Long Library, University of New Orleans), numerous collections at the Amistad Research Center, New Orleans, LA, and the City Archives (New Orleans Public Library) uncovered much of what is included in the chapters of this book. Admittedly, newspaper accounts and archive collections are limited. Journalists can never completely divorce themselves from their personal perspectives or the ideological underpinnings of their editors. Numerous accounts were taken from the Times-Picayune, which provided daily and more extensive coverage than other local newspapers. When possible, other press sources were also used. Archival collections have limitations as well. Archives include only those items the originating curator chose to keep and are further influenced by the organization and prioritization of the collection’s archivist. This is particularly true for the massive Orleans Parish School Board Records. Much of this collection remains uncatalogued. It is impossible to know what additional information might be contained in the stacks of documents and cardboard boxes sitting on row after row of shelves. And of course, Hurricane Katrina destroyed many records within New Orleans, and the information in countless documents is forever lost. According to officials from the New Orleans Public Schools and Akili Academy (the current occupant of the building), all records contained within William Frantz Public School were ruined and had to be discarded.

The story of William Frantz Public School unfolds through chronological chapters, but within these chapters information is organized conceptually more so than in a strict chronology. Chapter 1, A Fortress at 3811 North Galvez, introduces you to William Frantz Public School, the neighborhoods that surround it, and the ←xiii | xiv→historic legacy of school racial segregation in New Orleans. The chapter covers the period from 1938 through November 14, 1960, the first day Ruby Bridges attended William Frantz Public School. Picking up after that historic day, Chapter 2, The Exodus, recounts the initial resistance to the school’s desegregation as well as the continued resistance to desegregating public schools evidenced during the desegregation of the city’s Catholic schools and the mass exodus of White residents from Orleans Parish during the 1970s. Both chapters draw from the accounts of Ruby Bridges and others directly involved in the desegregation of William Frantz Public School. Much information was also provided by a 1961 report written by the Louisiana Advisory Committee on Civil Rights sent to the U.S. Commission to Civil Rights, the research of Liva Baker and Robert Crain, and interviews conducted by Alan Wieder. It should be noted, Wieder published his analysis of these interviews decades later, and he only interviewed White people. Despite the fact that these personal accounts might have been influenced by the passage of time and were inherently influenced by the perspectives of Whites, they provided a rich description of events at William Frantz Public School during the 1960–1961 school year by the people who directly experienced them.

During the 1980s, the Orleans Parish school district faced enormous challenges, growing dissatisfaction of the public, and increasing accountability demands. Many students, parents, teachers, administrators, and school officials demonstrated great resiliency in confronting the litany of challenges. Chapter 3, Do You Hear Me?, covers this period along with the 1990s, a decade in which movies and children’s books introduced the story of William Frantz Public School to a new generation. Chapter 4 concentrates on the first five years of the 21st century. During this time, the school’s test scores drew significant attention, and the district was fraught with corruption, mismanagement, and plummeting public opinion. However, A Building in Crisis, also describes how the school’s past was preserved, and ultimately its future was protected, by being placed on the National Register of Historic Places. Content included in Chapters 4 and 5 relies on information from the Times-Picayune and the Louisiana Department of Education as well as numerous other sources.

Chapter 5 covers a single school year, 2005–2006. Most of the chapter, And Then It Was After, focuses on the post-Katrina resiliency of the people of New Orleans as well as the response of the city, state, and nation and the opportunism of school reformers. The recovery of the city’s schools drew national attention and resources. Even the name of the public school governing body, the Recovery School District, conveyed a response to devastation caused by Katrina. However, many people outside of Louisiana failed to realize the Recovery School District came into existence before Hurricane Katrina and took over the governance of ←xiv | xv→most public schools in New Orleans during this year. Chapter 6, Fading From the Public, describes the new reality for William Frantz Public School and the Orleans Parish school district that evolved in the years after Katrina. The period included a confusing maze of charter schools and traditional public schools that transitioned to and from the authority of the Recovery School District. The story concludes in 2018 when the Recovery School District relinquished governance of the city’s public schools to the Orleans Parish School Board. In addition to press accounts, FEMA documents, personal interviews, and reports from the Cowen Institute for Public Education Initiatives provided a great deal of valuable information for the two final chapters.

Why should the story of William Frantz Public School matter to you? You may read this with an interest in public education, history, or both. Perhaps you are a native of New Orleans or otherwise connected to the city. Maybe you are a teacher or somehow associated with the teaching profession. Regardless, this story matters. It matters that society has historically marginalized Black students and continues to do so. It matters that the discrimination and systemic racism in public education is indicative of that which occurs in other social institutions. It matters that racism deeply divides the United States. Our society can and must do better.

Difficult issues related to race, poverty, corruption, and a natural disaster culminated in New Orleans at the turn of the century. For some, this provided an opportunity to abandon traditional public education and replace it with a system comprised of charter schools led by private boards of directors. Hailed as innovative and overdue reform, this new system fundamentally changed public education in New Orleans. Consider what happened in New Orleans and carefully contemplate the ramifications. Why should it matter to you what happened to William Frantz Public School? When you give up on one public school, one school district, one city—it becomes easier to give up on the next and the next and the next.

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 xvi→ ←xvi | xvii→

Acknowledgments

This book represents the culmination of several years of work and dedication. All of our efforts were motivated by a tremendous determination to tell this story to the best of our ability. We recognized our limitations, White women who are not native to New Orleans. In fact, we considered not writing the book because of this. However, William Frantz Public School kept coming back to us, and ultimately, we decided to record the rich story it represents.

We would like to take this opportunity to acknowledge all who offered their resources, time, talent, and funding to us. Rowan University, Stockton University, and the University of Nebraska at Omaha provided financial support through travel grants and research support. We are grateful for these contributions that allowed us to immerse ourselves into the research and writing of this book.

We spent weeks engaged in research in New Orleans. During this time, we were fortunate to have met many people who supported our work. Many thanks to Phillip Cunningham and his colleagues at the Amistad Research Center, Connie Phelps and her staff in the Special Collections at the University of New Orleans, Earl K. Long Library, and Christina Bryant at the New Orleans Public Library for providing access to numerous collections including archived documents, newspapers, microfilm, audio tapes, photographs, and public records. Not only did they provide the items we asked for, they also made helpful suggestions to expand our research. Without their assistance and expertise this book would be much less ←xvii | xviii→comprehensive. Thank you to Dr. Kenneth Ducote, former Chair of the Ruby Bridges Foundation and current Executive Director of the Greater New Orleans Collaborative of Charter Schools. Dr. Ducote offered his time, institutional knowledge of the Orleans Parish school district, and a number of documents that are not available to the public. Thank you, as well, to Vincent Rossmeier at the Cowen Institute for Public Education Initiatives for sharing the resources of the Institute as well as his perspective of the charter school movement.

We extend our gratitude to Mandy Liu for her amazing photographs and Kelly Fritzsche for her equally amazing attention to the details of our references. Ian Graham read very rough drafts and deserves special thanks for providing us constructive and very helpful feedback. Hal Durden, words do not describe how much we valued your taxi service and personalized tours of the city. More importantly the excellent dinner conversations that provided respite from long days of research and the friendship we now have is priceless.

Finally, thank you to the people of New Orleans. You possess a great resiliency that was evident in speaking with you about your city and the New Orleans Public Schools. Many of you—Uber drivers, restaurant servers, hotel receptionists, and friends of friends—spoke openly and candidly about public schools, what happened to your families in the 1960s, or the events before and after Hurricane Katrina. Almost all of you recounted an individual story to us and, you encouraged us to tell the story of William Frantz Public School. We admire your unwavering determination to protect your children and your schools. Through it all, you showed your undying loyalty to a city you love.

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Abbreviations

ACT

American College Testing

CNN

Cable News Network

FBI

Federal Bureau of Investigation

FEMA

Federal Emergency Management Agency

KIPP

Knowledge is Power Program

LEAP

Louisiana Educational Assessment Program

NAACP

National Association for the Advancement of Colored People

PTA

Parent-Teachers Association

SOS

Save Our Schools

WFPS

William Frantz Public School

←xix | xx→ ←0 | 1→

CHAPTER ONE

A Fortress at 3811 North Galvez

William Frantz Public School: a “protection for democracy” and a “fortification against encroachment of those terrible ‘isms.’ ” Speakers proclaimed these exact words at the school’s dedication ceremony in September 1938, and the Orleans Parish School Board president predicted the school would be a kingdom of learning in which children would be taught right from wrong. To describe these words as foretelling is an understatement. What happened to William Frantz Public School over the next 80 years challenged the idyllic notions of the speakers.1 Given the national political climate of the time, the “isms” the speaker was likely referencing were communism, socialism, and fascism. Little did anyone know it would be racism and opportunism that would be the threatening “isms.” Racism embedded in the fabric of the neighborhood, Orleans Parish school district, New Orleans, and the State of Louisiana threatened the school in 1960, and 45 years later opportunism extended the threat and made an onslaught against the traditions of public education. Nor could they foresee William Frantz Public School as the stage on which citizens of New Orleans, Louisiana, and the United States would fiercely debate how to best protect democracy, what would be considered right and wrong, and how to sustain public education.

As with so many stories in the U.S. South, slavery played an inescapable role in the prologue of William Frantz Public School (WFPS). At the outset of public education in New Orleans, the city’s children attended schools considered by many ←3 | 4→to be the envy of the antebellum South. As might be expected, these schools exclusively educated White children. With the abolition of slavery and Reconstruction era policy following the Civil War, public education changed. Louisiana’s 1868 constitution prohibited White-only schools, and during the Reconstruction era, New Orleans desegregated its public schools. The progressive policy distinguished New Orleans from other southern cities where public schools remained segregated.

By the early 1870s, approximately one-third of the schools in New Orleans enrolled both Black and White students.2 Many schools employed both Black and White teachers. Even the school board consisted of Black and White members.3 Although these desegregated schools enjoyed a strong reputation, they also elicited strong reactions from White parents who could not fathom sending their children to schools where they would learn and play with children of former slaves. Tethered by pride, fear, ignorance, or hatred, many Whites longed for their previous normalcy of demarcations between those privileged because of their White skin and those oppressed because of their Black skin. Centuries of enslaving Blacks was impossible to erase from their individual consciousnesses or eradicate from the systems that perpetuated it.4

Like much of the post-war reconstruction effort, New Orleans’ desegregated schools could not withstand the era’s economic downturn and simultaneous political maneuvers and influence of a resurging White power structure.5 By the 1880s, New Orleans’ desegregated schools were in jeopardy. Orleans Parish School Board members publicly proclaimed concern about the deterioration of the city’s schools and associated this perceived decline with the mixing of Black and White students. Over the next decades, the anti-desegregation sentiment mutated into a deep-seated, racist ideology and the acceptance of White supremacy. This ideology led to systemic oppression of Black citizens as well as racial segregation in virtually all aspects of life in New Orleans. Public education was no exception. At the turn of the century, leaders in New Orleans spoke out against compulsory education laws fearing this would increase the number of Black voters. By the 1920s, Orleans Parish School Board members and district administrators openly and vehemently voiced their belief that White supremacy should guide public policy and stated their willingness to employ any means, including the use of force, to maintain inequality between the two races. It was in this context that WFPS came into existence.6

And so the story begins. In 1937, nearly 100 years after the formation of public education in New Orleans and within the backdrop of the segregated public school system, the Orleans Parish school district authorized construction of WFPS, an elementary school situated at 3811 North Galvez between Pauline and Alvar Streets in the Upper Ninth Ward. It was one of the few schools constructed ←4 | 5→during the Great Depression.7 The district purchased the property in 1926, for $14,000, and the new building replaced the existing temporary wooden structure and accommodated 560 students.8

Details

Pages
XXII, 302
ISBN (PDF)
9781433181238
ISBN (ePUB)
9781433181245
ISBN (MOBI)
9781433181252
ISBN (Book)
9781433158681
Language
English
Publication date
2020 (October)
Published
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Oxford, Wien, 2020. XXII, 302 pp., 8 b/w ill., 1 color ill., 1 tables.

Biographical notes

Connie L. Schaffer (Author) Meg White (Author) Martha Graham Viator (Author)

Connie L. Schaffer graduated summa cum laude with a BS from Kansas State University. She earned her MS and EdD from the University of Nebraska at Omaha (UNO). She taught middle and high school and is now a faculty member in the UNO College of Education. Meg White has been an educator for over 30 years. She earned a BA from Marymount University, an MA from San Jose State University and an EdD from Northcentral University. Currently she is an Associate Professor of Education at Stockton University. Martha Graham Viator earned a BA in history from the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, and an MA and PhD in history from Auburn University. Recently retired from Rowan University, she taught in the College of Education after teaching high school history in public schools.​

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