In the 1930s, the Silver City Dump operated as the second-largest landfill in New Orleans. Known as the “ulcer of the city,” the landfill collected 150 tons of garbage. The New Orleans NAACP led a fight for a second high school due to overcrowding. African-American leaders pushed for a vocational training school, since most black students were expected to go to work right after high school. This led to problems with the white community who viewed a new vocational high school as a 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. Another school was built on the property instead. Black leaders were not swayed. They kept the issue alive and continued to push for a new vocational school. Finally in the late 1930s, federal funding came through. The Silver City Dump was filled in and the school board purchased the former landfill.
Booker T. Washington High School was completed in August of 1942. The school opened in September enrolling 1,600 students. 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.
The Art Deco auditorium hosted many cultural activities and served as the city’s African-American municipal auditorium for decades. 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 show was well received by a full house. The next year, William Grant Still conducted the orchestra. He went on to become one of the first well known African-American orchestra conductors.
The students who were zoned to Booker T. Washington were mostly from the B.W. Cooper and CJ Pete’s housing developments. After desegregation, students were bused to nearby Alcee Fortier High School. This led to a decrease in Booker T.’s student population. By the end of the 1970s, the school’s student body had decreased to 750, half of whom were female.
Booker T. Washington began to deteriorate in the 1970s. Several of the windows and doors needed to be replaced. The bathrooms had mold around the sinks and pipes were in need of repair. The school board did not have the money to make the repairs. In the 1980s, violence spread across the school grounds as crack-cocaine dealers from the Calliope Projects sold drugs around the property. Booker T. Washington High School was in the middle of countless shoot outs. Many windows were broken by stray bullets.
In the early 1990s, the high school 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 school did a fine job according to former teachers, but students left deserving so much more.
By 2003, the school’s enrollment plummeted to 530, an all-time low. Most of the students now attended Walter L. Cohen High School. Booker T. Washington was labeled as a “dropout factory.” The school was closed after Hurricane Katrina in 2005. The abandoned school quickly became a popular spot for thieves. Tens of thousands of dollars worth of copper and fixtures were taken from the school. Booker T. Washington was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2002 due to its architectural significance and role it played in the city’s history.
In 2011, Booker T. Washington High School was eighty percent demolished. Only the front entrance foyer and the school’s auditorium were left standing. The old auditorium will be preserved with a new prep school being built on the site. Preservationists contested that Booker T. Washington could have been saved and renovated for much less than the cost of the new $55 million 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 the building.
During demolition, workers discovered the soil has 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 on top of the $55 million price tag of the new school. The school board suggested digging the soil up and storing it on site to be transported away later. Neighbors worry disturbing the soil will release the toxic metals into the air. The property is currently an active construction site. New Orleans College Prep School is slated to be finished in 2018. Since a majority of the campus was demolished and its architectural significance lost, the school was removed from the NRHP in 2017.