By Marisa Wesker
The students gather around the alabaster monument, their leather shoes squelching in the sodden ground as a trumpet plays a joyful march only slightly off key. The navy wool blazers absorb the sun’s warm rays and drops of sweat begin to bead on foreheads, in armpits, and around ankles. The trumpet finishes its song and squeaks into silence. The young man, its player, breathes hard in the khaki pants he outgrew at the end of last year. He sets down the scratched instrument and joins the throng of students now fully assembled at the monument’s base, shifting and fidgeting as they prepare for a long morning of speeches and tributes. Following the ceremony, students return to their AP Government classes, walk to the barn for horseback riding lessons, and recline in Adirondack chairs beneath the cherry blossom trees on the manicured front lawn.
Every year in October, nearly 1,300 students at McDonogh School, a “co-ed, PreK-12 college preparatory school” in the Baltimore suburbs gather at the base of John McDonogh’s statue to celebrate their founder. The tradition began in McDonogh’s last will and testament, where he asked that students of his institution gather at his grave once a year to plant flowers and honor his memory. More than 150 years later, the ceremony lives on in Maryland.
John McDonogh, an “eccentric, cantankerous” slaveholder and millionaire, spent half his life in Baltimore and the other half in New Orleans, Louisiana. To support the youth of his dual hometowns, he left $1 million (worth $32.4 million today) to each city. In New Orleans, he requested the establishment of a series of schools dedicated to educating the children of his former slaves. More than forty schools were named in his honor, a few of which still bear McDonogh’s name. Many, however, were renamed through the years due to McDonogh’s history as a slaveholder.
Though McDonogh was a slave owner, he wished to leave behind a more morally acceptable legacy in his Rules for My Guidance in Life. He laid out a series of tenants that he believed all people should abide by in order to lead successful, fulfilling, righteous lives. Some are familiar in the modern era, such as “Do unto all men as you would be done by,” but some are more unique, such as “Never bid another do what you can do yourself” and “Remember always that labor is one of the conditions of our existence.” Carina Wesker, a student at McDonogh School in Maryland, said of McDonogh’s Rules, “Considering slaves did all his labor for him, it’s ironic that he thought labor was so important, but he was treating his slaves better than most and left money for them to be educated. He did the best that he could within the social constraints of the time.”
Renaming efforts and movements to separate from slavery and the civil war era of American history have become somewhat ubiquitous across the south. The removal of civil war general Robert E. Lee’s statue from its pedestal at Lee Circle drew national attention; USA Today reported that the “anti-monument crowd burst into cheers and song” as Lee’s statue was removed with cranes and backhoes in May of 2017.
McDonogh’s schools in New Orleans face similar controversy. During the 1990s, activists pressured the Orleans Parish School Board (OPSB) to rename schools whose founders or honorees were slaveholders, confederates, or white supremacists. “The impetus of the movement was to have school names that reflect the population and reflect the pride that the black students should have in going to schools named after them and not pro-slavery, civil war confederate leaders,” says Wanda Romain, a local public school activist. Malcolm Suber, who worked with the renaming movement in the ‘90s, told the Times-Picayune that OPSB sending children to schools named after people like John McDonogh “is another badge of inferiority slapped on your children.” Suber is now one of the leaders of Take ‘em Down NOLA, an activist group dedicated to dismantling “all obvious symbols of white supremacy to show our collective will to address systemic oppression,” according to Take ‘em Down NOLA’s website. As of 2017, Take ‘em Down NOLA’s published list of symbols to be renamed or removed included the first all-black public school in New Orleans, McDonogh #35.
However, McDonogh #35 isn’t the only school left in New Orleans that bears McDonogh’s name. McDonogh #26, an elementary school in Gretna, is still named after its founder and still celebrates McDonogh’s legacy with McDonogh Day. Each year in May, white students and teachers would quickly gather at Lafayette Square, place flowers at McDonogh’s grave, and depart. Black students and teachers, however, were forced to stand in the punishing heat through both the whites-only ceremony and their own. On May 7, 1954, African American teachers and students from McDonogh schools around New Orleans refused to participate in the ceremony to honor John McDonogh. The boycott was one of the first major civil rights protests in New Orleans and was abandoned by all but one: McDonogh #26.
After Hurricane Katrina, McDonogh School in Maryland wished to follow in the philanthropic footsteps of its controversial founder and give back to the children of New Orleans. In March of 2006, McDonogh school sent a delegation of juniors and seniors down south to work with the students of McDonogh #26. “We wanted to help this community because we are family and have the same values,” Liz Kaiser, one of the trip’s participants, remembers. “They were super happy and excited — very grateful to have us there.” She recalls playing with the young students and helping them put together playground equipment to replace what had been swept away during the storm. Though the schools share a founding father, Liz says that, “drawing a comparison [between the two] would have been unfair. One’s an affluent white private school in the suburbs, the other’s a diverse elementary school in the city.”
Liz’s observation identifies the tricky legacy of John McDonogh in New Orleans and in Baltimore. McDonogh’s posthumous generosity led to the foundation of between forty and fifty schools for impoverished young people whose parents and guardians were otherwise unable to afford them a quality education. Orphaned young men from inner-city Baltimore were given a home and an opportunity for a better life under Colonel William Allen, McDonogh School’s first headmaster, on 835 acres of fertile farmland in a Maryland valley. Similarly, the children and grandchildren of McDonogh’s slaves were given the chance to achieve more than their ancestors because of McDonogh’s philanthropy. By all accounts, doesn’t his generosity after death make up for his questionable activities during life?
For Wanda Romain, a proud McDonogh #35 alumna, and her husband Kevin, a graduate of Frederick Douglass, asking whether or not schools should be renamed is the wrong question. “What was supposed to be a movement to instill pride in the history of black children and black leaders… never really panned out because the OPSB never put money back into the buildings,” Wanda laments. Kevin, a former marine and father of four, listens to his wife intently before adding that his high school didn’t have doors on the bathroom stalls. “I visited [Douglass] twenty-one years after Kevin graduated,” Wanda says, “and there were STILL no doors on bathroom stalls!”
I spoke with Wanda and Kevin outside of the Orleans Parish School Board building on the West Bank. In a neighborhood of small single-family homes and community-style living, the OPSB building’s blockish footprint and floor-to-ceiling glass windows look out of place. The Romains had just spent their afternoon advocating for McDonogh #7, one of the original McDonogh buildings left standing, not to become surplus at the end of the 2020-2021 school year. After more than ten citizen speeches on why the school should not be declared surplus property to make room for an athletic field for Booker T. Washington High School, the OPSB unanimously voted to declare the property surplus. “Where will my kids go to school when you take their building?!” A concerned parent burst out when the vote occurred. “F**king cowards!” Another exclaimed, slamming the door behind him as he exited the meeting space.
“This has always been a cesspool of backhanded deals,” Kevin whispers to me while Wanda speaks animatedly with another citizen advocate after the meeting. “They take care of themselves before they take care of anyone else. The kids’ education has always been secondary.” He continues that he doesn’t support renaming schools because, “all they [do is] slap a band-aid on it by changing the name, but now we’re supposed to be so proud?” Wanda returns and immediately begins where Kevin leaves off. “With 35, we could fight [the renaming] because there was nothing wrong with our building.” Wanda says that she and her classmates knew who John McDonogh was and what he’d done, but they chose to take ownership of their school and declare pride in what McDonogh had come to represent in their own community. “In the 90’s, when [the school board] started saying that we need to rename the schools to show pride, we were like, ‘We’re already proud! We already know who we are! You’re not touchin’ 35.’”
If John McDonogh was alive to see all that had transpired in America since his death in 1850, he would see two very different legacies carrying on his name. A school meant for white orphans in rural Maryland farmland has become an 800-acre campus complex with more than fifteen buildings, a robotics lab, an olympic-sized swimming pool, a horse barn, and a tuition bill upwards of $26,000. On the other hand, the 40+ school system he imagined for the children of his slaves has been reduced to just six remaining McDonogh schools (soon to be five following the surplus declaration of McDonogh #7), with activists and bureaucrats fighting at every turn over whether or not to change the name on the front of the building. However, the name change is overshadowing the real issue — kids getting a sound education. “You can’t just say, ‘Let’s change the name without having done any real work,’” Wanda says. “The renaming did absolutely nothing,” Kevin agrees. “John McDonogh’s intent was to give equal education to all kids. The school board’s response was to take his $1 million and mishandle it so badly that McDonogh’s ancestors in Maryland took it back. That’s why McDonogh died in 1850 but #35 didn’t open its doors until 1917.”
What’s next for McDonogh’s schools? The renaming efforts have not (perhaps yet) reached the rolling hills of Owings Mills, Maryland, so McDonogh School’s students continue to take pride in their founder. His rules for living are listed proudly on the school’s website, as is a history of and dedication to McDonogh for his philanthropy. McDonogh #7’s campus is slated to become athletic facilities for next-door Booker T. Washington unless the school board has a change of heart. As for McDonogh #35, Wanda is adamant that she and her fellow alumni and current students will uphold the reputation they’ve built for #35 under its current name. “We know what #35 has been through. We know who #35 is.” We lock eyes and, at the same time say, “And what is McDonogh #35?” She laughs heartily before continuing, Kevin looking on with amusement and fondness. “We knew that our name carried more weight than any name changing…”
“Bullshit?” I supply. She guffaws. “Thank you for saying it! Yes! Yes. We protect our name, we protect our mascot, we protect our connections. We’ll protect the school we worked damn hard to build.”