During the 1930s, as industrial production expanded across the United States, community leaders within New Orleans began to express a desire that any planned new black high school focus on vocational subjects in addition to providing a more academic curriculum. Many felt that such an education would prepare the city’s black students for emergent in relatively high-paying technical/trade careers, thus providing them with better opportunities in life. Within New Orleans, only one vocational trade school had been built to serve the city’s children in the years prior to World War II. The facility, the Delgado Central Trades School, was erected in 1921 and limited to white boys only. Many within the African-American community thought the same education should be offered to their children.
The New Orleans NAACP led a fight for a second high school due to overcrowding. Black leaders pushed for a vocational training school since most black students were expected to go to work after high school. Some within the white community viewed a new vocational high school as a potential threat to white jobs. School board officials came to a compromise and agreed that the trades taught at the new high school would be mostly occupied by African-Americans. However, after purchasing land for the vocational school, the school board backed out of the deal and another school was built on the property instead.
On September 13, 1940, the school was officially named the “Booker T. Washington Senior High School,” as a tribute to Booker T. Washington, a leading black educator, and activist who had passionately argued the benefits of vocational education to the African-American community. As construction of the school began, the OPSB set about to establish the curriculum and declared there would be no training for artisans, no beauty culture department, and no metalwork in gold or silver diminishing the graduates’ access to these professions, which had generally been dominated by whites. The new high school was completed in August of 1942 and opened on September 6, 1942, with much fanfare. Lawrence D. Crocker served as the school’s first principal. Booker T. Washington boasted an enrollment of 1600 children in its 1942-43 school year. The first graduating class in 1943 consisted of 11 girls and 1 boy. The popular vocational classes that year were printing, motor mechanics, and shoe repair. In 1947, classes like graphic art, masonry, and mechanical drawing were offered to students.
During segregation, black musicians were not allowed to play on stage at Symphony Hall, so the New Orleans Symphony Orchestra decided to move to the Booker T. Washington High School auditorium. One reason for the move was so that Jean Maloney, a black pianist, could play with them. The performance was well-received by a full house. The next year, William Grant Still conducted the orchestra. He would later become one of the first well-known black orchestra conductors.
The 1970s proved to be a time of great change in the school’s history. In the past, the school had provided a comprehensive academic/vocational education to its students. However, in the early 1970s, this dual-track curriculum was shelved for one that was primarily academic due largely to education reformers and civil rights activists who lobbied against vocational education for black students and for integrated college preparatory high schools. This sentiment was rooted in the belief that vocational education would guarantee that blacks were locked in low-wage jobs. The school also underwent changes to its physical plant with an interior and exterior renovation that was undertaken in 1973. Local architect R. P. Gandolfo oversaw the project’s design.
By the 1980s, a majority of the students who attended Booker T. Washington resided in one of three nearby housing projects: B.W. Cooper (formerly the Calliope Homes and built in 1939-41); C.J. Peete (formerly known as the Magnolia Home and built in 1941); and Guste (formerly known as the Melpomene Homes and built in 1964). When initially built, these three developments served as housing for working-class African-American residents and were widely regarded as some of the most stable housing for blacks within the city. However, by the early 1970s, this housing began a precipitous decline in desirability, culminating in residents’ occupation of the headquarters of the Housing Authority of New Orleans(HANO) in July 1982. The primary concern of the residents participating in this protest was HANO’s ineffective efforts to resolve the unsafe, unsanitary, and deteriorated conditions that existed at these housing complexes.
After desegregation, students were bused to nearby Alcee Fortier High School. This led to a decrease in the student population at Booker T. Washington. By the end of the 1970s, the school’s student body had decreased to 750, half of whom were female. At the same time, as the wider Central City neighborhood began to experience a decline, a lack of maintenance by the school board contributed to substandard conditions at Booker T. Washington. In addition, the number of students who enrolled at the school also began to diminish with the campus. A 1981 account of the school reported windows boarded up, paint peeling, and not a blade of grass around. Several doors needed to be replaced, windows were cracked from stray bullets, and several bathrooms had mold around the sinks and leaky pipes. The school board refused to make the much-needed repairs citing a lack of funding.
To combat these conditions, Booker T. Washington reached back into its past and initiated an award-winning vocational program that endeavored to train students for agricultural-based employment opportunities. The course was classified as a “Cooperative Agriculture and Education Program,” with students receiving both course credit and a salary while receiving practical experience in an agribusiness occupation. The program extended from the 10th to 12th grade and all students enrolled in this elective course became members of the Future Farmers of America.
A 1991 study painted Booker T. Washington High School as a school in crisis. It was considered one of the worst high schools in the United States based on test scores, dropout rates, and socioeconomic status of the students. Given the circumstances, the high school did an excellent job according to former teachers, but students left deserving so much more. The OSBP sought to remedy the school’s dire conditions by appointing a new principal and increasing security. Despite these actions, by 1994, the school was still in need of over $1,000,000 in renovations. The facility lacked air conditioning and because the heating system was not in working order, the campus was forced to shut down during extremely cold weather. Holes in the wall and broken water fountains were commonplace as the school board was typically slow to address maintenance and upkeep issues. The school was slated for improvements in 1997, including the installation of air conditioning and new flooring, as part of the school board’s $175 million improvements program that was to be financed with a voter-approved bond issue. The air conditioning that was funded by the 1997 bond issue was installed in 2001. A year later, a two-alarm fire broke out in a room on the second floor, destroying much of the school’s student records. By 2003, the school’s enrollment plummeted to an all-time low. Most of the students now attended Walter L. Cohen High School as Booker T. Washington was labeled as a “dropout factory.”
On Monday, August 29, 2005, the school year was abruptly suspended when Hurricane Katrina made landfall in southeast Louisiana. With winds in excess of 125 miles per hour, the storm was “the most destructive storm in terms of economic losses” to ever strike the United States. The high winds, heavy rain, and widespread flooding of Hurricane Katrina devastated the city and resulted in extensive damage to Orleans Parish, including the Booker T. Washington campus. The surrounding housing projects in which the majority of the school’s students resided also suffered devastation. Upon review of the city’s public schools in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, officials estimated it would take three to five years and $800 million to repair the damage caused by the storms. At the same time, the Recovery School District, a special school district administered by the Lousiana Department of Education that was created in 2003 to manage underperforming schools in the state, was given the authority to operate the lowest-performing schools in Orleans Parish, including Booker T. Washington. The RSD held a number of public meetings to determine the campus’s future use. At these meetings, the community consensus was that the school be rebuilt at its present site. The Louisiana School Superintendent recommended that the historic school, annex, and outbuildings be demolished and that the historic auditorium be retained, rehabilitated, and integrated in the new construction of the school at the site.
Preservationists contested that Booker T. Washington High School could have been saved and restored for much less than the cost of a new school. Plans were made to save the building from being torn down, but due to its location and condition, a motion was passed to demolish instead. In 2016, construction began as part of a $1.8 billion rebuilding program, financed with FEMA funds, which called for the renovation or replacement of dozens of school buildings flooded by Hurricane Katrina. During demolition, workers discovered the soil leftover from the days of the landfill had 24 times the allowable limits of toxic metals. Exposure to these toxic metals can cause cancer and respiratory issues. The state-operated Recovery School District added an additional $3 million for cleanup.
While many of the FEMA projects were finished years ago, reopening Booker T. Washington would be a hard-fought battle as officials tried to figure out the best way to allocate the money. The proposed merger of Booker T. Washington and Walter L. Cohen High, a charter school operated by the organization New Orleans College Preparatory, to make one giant high school was met with opposition. Instead, state officials allowed the Knowledge Is Power Program charter group to operate a new high school, they called it KIPP Booker T. Washington and it opened nearby in Central City. In 2019, when the school moved into the new building built on the site of the old Booker T. Washington High School, the school dropped the word KIPP from the name.
In October 2019, hundreds gathered in the new Booker T. Washington gymnasium to celebrate its rebirth. Members of the school’s alumni association, state officials, and Mayor Latoya Cantrell were among those in attendance to see the restored campus. The auditorium has been restored to resemble its original Art Deco design.
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