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William Franz Public School: A Must-Read for Those Who Think They Know New Orleans

January 18, 2021

Anyone purporting to understand the challenges of K12 education in New Orleans absent knowledge of the disgraceful, entrenched history of Black oppression and White superiority in the city (and enabled by the layering of racist attitudes at the state level in multiple states) is only interfering with any genuine effort to address the problem.

It is convenient for would-be education reformers to begin their discussions with New Orleans public school test scores prior to Hurricane Katrina in 2005, or to issues with the Orleans Parish School Board prior to the storm, but such discussions only reveal the ignorance (willful or not) of the speaker.

Consider this a call to education, namely, to self-educate about New Orleans and the generations of intentional disenfranchisement of the Black community by entitled Whites.

To that end, I know of no book better to begin such self-education than William Franz Public School: A Story of Race, Resistance, Resiliency, and Recovery in New Orleans. In their primarily-archival investigation centered on a single school, William Franz Public School, authors Connie Shaffer, Meg White, and Martha Graham Viator pack an incredible amount of history in this 300-page, eye-opening, historical treasure.

Many might remember Willam Franz Public School as the once-all-White elementary school in the national spotlight when first-grader Ruby Bridges became the first Black student to enroll in November 1960. However, Shaffer et al. do not stop with November 1960. Indeed, they do not start with November 1960, and they do not stop with a narrow history of the school alone, for a school cannot be separated from its neighborhood, and the neighborhood is not divorced from the politics that created the neighborhood, and the politics are wed to the profound racial bias of enfranchised, empowered– White– community actors.

A fine example of the wealth of terrible history captured in Shaffer et al.’s book is the following excerpt focused on two housing projects: Florida, for White people, and Desire, for Black people.

It is my first favorite part of this book for its rich exposure of awful history. 

Unlike other cities in the South, New Orleans housing patterns resembled a checkerboard consisting of alternating White and Black neighborhoods. The city designated numerous small neighborhoods adjacent to each as either “White” or “Black.” … As a result of the checkerboard housing pattern, two schools that were segregated based on race [as designated by the Orleans Parish school district] were often located in very close proximity to each other.

The up-and-coming Florida neighborhood also attracted working-class White families and their children. …. The family of Lee Harvey Oswald was the most infamous of the neighborhood’s residents. Oswald’s mother purchased a new home on Alvar Street directly across from WFPS (William Franz Public School) in 1938, the same year the school opened. … Oswald’s older brothers attended WFPS, but the family moved from the Florida neighborhood before Lee Harvey reached school age. …

At the time the Oswalds moved from the area, the city built a 500-unit, low-income housing project shifting the demographics in the Florida neighborhood. … Before the projects were built, the Ninth Ward could be described as a blue-collar neighborhood with above average housing, like that of Oswald’s family. Now the majority of new tenants moving into the neighborhood’s projects were poor and White (having relocated to the city from rural areas to be employed a World War II war effort that ended with the war.)

Within a decade, the city built a second and significantly larger low-income housing project in the nearby Desire neighborhood. The two projects, Florida and Desire, sat adjacent to each other and only railroad tracks and a drainage canal separated them. The Housing Authority of New Orleans initially separated the two housing projects based on race by designating the Florida projects for White residents and the Desire projects for Black residents. At the time they were built, the projects exuded hope for residents. New homes represented new beginnings and the names of the streets– Abundance, Humanity, Benefit, Pleasure, and Piety– characterized the aspirations of officials who built the projects as well as those who moved into them. However, to build the Desire housing project, the city destroyed an existing and thriving Black community that included multiple Black-owned businesses, nine churches with predominantly Black congregants, and the legendary Hideaway Club where the area’s most famous resident, Fats Domino, launched his career. But the new housing offered electicity and running water…. Yet saturated ground, unpaved streets, and inadequate infrastructure plagued the Desire projects from its origin. Prior to opening the Desire projects, Mayor de Lesseps (Chep) Morrison was warned of the area’s compromised sidewalks, streets, sewers, and gas and water mains. Despite the warning, the city built the housing project and did little to address the concerns.

Unlike the brick buildings in the Florida project, Desire’s 262 buildings with 1,860 housing units consisted of poorly constructed wooden-frame structures with brick facades. … Almost immediately, the unstable ground, humidity, and termites led to structural damage. …

By 1960, 27,500 children and 15,500 adults lived in the Desire neighborhood, including a young, Black child named Ruby Bridges…. Due to the severe overcrowding, many Black children attended school for only a fraction of the time as their White peers living in the Florida neighborhood.

Okay, education reformers: Don’t start your discussions of New Orleans education thinking you’ve done justice to history with some shallow, “pre-Katrina” comparison of then-to-now. Get grounded in the complicated facts, and use them to vet any would-be solutions to be sure you are not feeding the problem.

Surely you do not want to be feeding the problem, right?

Start with the history surrounding William Franz Public School. Start with reading Schaffer et al.’s entire book.

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4 Comments
  1. Peggy Schwarz permalink

    I began attending a public middle school in Jefferson Parish in the 1968-69 school year, eight years after Ruby Bridges integrated the William Frantz school and 14 years after Brown vs. Board of Education made school segregation illegal. Everyone at school said that it was the first year that black and white students were enrolled together at Jefferson Junior High. The next school year, the enrollment there was all white again. A co-worker who attended public school in another metro-area parish actually witnessed the KKK burning a cross on school grounds around 1963. Sadly, change comes slowly and in very small increments.

  2. Linda permalink

    “think they know New Orleans”- off topic- but I found an interesting nugget of info. at wikipedia for those of us out-of-staters- Trump’s new impeachment lawyer, Butch Bowers, is a graduate of Tulane. Paul Tulane was the largest New Orleans benefactor to the Confederacy. His donation to the school led to its changeover from a public to a private university.

    Douglas Harris’ ERA, a prominent center for production of charter school papers, is located at Tulane.

    • Linda permalink

      Reportedly, Tulane’s student body – 8% black… New Orleans population – 60% black.

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