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 persistent. They kept the issue alive and continued to push for a new vocational school. Finally, in the late 1930s, federal funding was approved. The Silver City Dump was filled in, and the school board purchased the former landfill. Booker T. Washington High School was completed in August 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.
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 recieved by a packed house. The next year, William Grant Still conducted the orchestra. He went on to become one of the first well known black orchestra conductors.
Students at 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. Around this same time, Booker T. Washington began to show signs of deterioration. Several windows and doors needed to be replaced. Some windows were cracked from stray bullets. The bathrooms had mold around the sinks and pipes required repair. The school board did not have the money to make the much needed repairs.
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 an excellent 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 high school quickly became a favorite spot for thieves. Thousands of dollars worth of copper were stolen. In 2002, Booker T. Washington was added to the National Register of Historic Places due to its architectural significance and role it played in the city’s history.
Preservationists contested that Booker T. Washington could have been saved and renovated for much less than the cost of the 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 the building. Construction began in 2016 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 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.
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 hgih school was met with opposition. Instead, state officals 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 school’s gymnasium to celebrate its rebirth. Members of the school’s alumni association, state officals, and Mayor Latoya Cantrell were among those who came to see the restored campus. The auditorium is being restored to resemble its original Art Deco design. Booker T. Washington High School and seven other locations are covered in my book, Abandoned New Orleans.