Discussions in New Orleans about how to remove symbols of the South’s past evoke the 1990s movement to remove the name of the philanthropist John McDonogh from the schools he dedicated most of his life to erect.
That movement, sparked by a controversy over McDonogh’s slave holdings, led to his name being replaced on some schools with those of civil rights activists and other African Americans such as Mahalia Jackson and Louis Armstrong. Some McDonogh-numbered schools, such as McDonogh 35 College Preparatory High School, continue to thrive with his name, but educational changes wrought by Hurricane Katrina have continued the slow decline in the number of schools named for him. McDonogh High School, for example, was closed in 2014. The future of the renovated building is under review.
As schools have been built or renovated with $1.8 million in FEMA funds, they often take names connected to their charter organizations, such as ReNEW Accelerated High School.
What concerted effort didn’t fully achieve is being accomplished by the passage of time. Just as the Mississippi River swallowed much of McDonogh’s 19th century, West Bank estate, his legacy is slipping away from public view.
About 20 schools carried McDonogh’s name between the 1950s to the ’70s, but today, only seven New Orleans schools are named for the man who toiled for 40 years to provide 35 public schools, most named for him after the Civil War threatened Louisiana schools’ very existence.
To some people, the monuments symbolize a painful history for many of the city’s citizens. But the reasoning that led to striking McDonogh’s name from at least eight public schools between 1993 and 2002 was based on misinformation and a misunderstanding of the man. G. Leighton Ciravolo, a local historian, makes that observation in a 2002 study of McDonogh called “The Legacy of John McDonogh.” Ciravolo says that McDonogh was called the largest slaveholder in North American history, having owned over 1,800 slaves.
That accusation was an immense exaggeration. He did own slaves – 96 at the time of his death – but the movement to discredit McDonough didn’t acknowledge that he educated them and eventually freed them, Ciravolo writes. This generous benefactor of public education who fought in the Battle of New Orleans and never married was shunned by New Orleans society for his anti-slavery views and other eccentricities.
In his book, Ciravolo calls McDonogh a man who “lived to die.” Once he developed the “Plan,” his intended gift to the poor, his primary companions were his enslaved workers. In actuality, they were a hybrid of indentured servants and slaves; even though he purchased them, he developed an elaborate contract that allowed them to earn their freedom.
Even though they were mostly construction workers and brick makers, not field hands, Ciravolo admits that McDonogh overworked them, even by contemporary standards. Yet they worked no harder at building his fortune than he did himself, as many as 18-hours a day. His only personal goal was to amass as much wealth as possible so that at his death the proceeds of his toil would build public schools “wherein the poor of both sexes of all Classes and Castes of Color” could attend for free. After his death in 1850, Ciravolo says an estate of about $1.5 million was divided for school use in New Orleans and Baltimore, his birthplace.
To save money, he walked instead of taking public transportation. Ciravolo also says that his clothes were “threadbare,” yet he provided for his slaves well. Though his intent was to educate children – black and white – to save them from lives of poverty, he made the mistake of allowing local governments to manage his will, so his legacy didn’t turn out quite as he planned. Ciravolo points out that if McDonogh had created a private foundation instead, his dictates may have been followed, especially the one about educating all children, regardless of race.
In New Orleans, black children received less use of his fortune than white children until after the integration of schools led to white flight to the suburbs. By then, many of the 19th century schools had fallen into disrepair. Vintage photos posted by Nancy Brister on ThePastWhispers.com show impressive structures, worthy of queens and archbishops. Some were cathedral-like, topped with medieval-looking spires, gables and castle battlement squares. Much of that romantic detail was stripped away in later renovations. Many schools were demolished.
“Character flaws” shadowed McDonogh’s generosity. Ciravolo says he condescended people, and he foolishly failed to get legal advice when drafting his will. Apparently, the penny-pinching backfired on him.
That fixity of character is visible in an oft-published portrait of him painted later in life. White-haired and patrician-erect, he sits in a chair wearing a black suit with an odd sheen, maybe the result of too much wear. A collar rises like walls of white plaster, stiff as his expression. He holds a book, a Bible no doubt, considering his strict Presbyterian beliefs.
McDonogh probably wouldn’t care that few schools carry his name today. His papers reveal a man who wished only to serve God. He only requested that school children honor him with flowers annually, which led to a McDonogh Day celebration that also ebbed away over the years.
A statue depicting two children placing flowers at the foot of a bust of him still resides in Lafayette Square. Surely no one will disrespect McDonogh’s memory by demanding its removal from the public square.