In 1961 — only a year after Ruby Bridges had famously integrated New Orleans’ public schools — Sylvia Branch became the first black child to attend Robert Mills Lusher school, and still today recounts how the Lusher administration welcomed her with literally open arms.
Branch’s admission, however, would have been anathema to the school’s namesake, Robert Mills Lusher, who followed a Confederate governmental career with leadership of the state’s public schools, and used that post to promote “the supremacy of the Caucasian race,” in his words. For more than three decades from the end of the Civil War until the end of the 19th Century, Lusher fought in word and deed for the idea that the purpose of the public schools was to ensure that white students remained in a better social position than blacks.
Now — as Nazi and Ku Klux Klan sympathizers march nationally in support of Confederate monuments, while activist groups in New Orleans demand the removal of memorials to white supremacists, and children and adults alike struggle to make sense of it all — celebrated local historian and author Michael Tisserand has released the results of his research into Robert Mills Lusher’s racist legacy.
Late last year, Tisserand won national acclaim for his book “Krazy,” a biography of the hidden Creole genealogy of cartoonist George Herriman. While researching the book over the previous year, however, Tisserand began to encounter references from the late 1800s to the work of Lusher — the namesake of the school where Tisserand’s children attended school and he previously taught a popular chess club.
“When I was working on ‘Krazy,’ my hypothesis was that the primary reason the Herriman family left New Orleans was because the schools were closing down to their kids,” Tisserand said. “There were lawsuits to try to integrate the schools, and Robert Mills Lusher was such a big part of that.”
While looking for primary documents related to the era, Tisserand discovered that the Louisiana State University library keeps an archive of Robert Mills Lusher’s papers. Based on both his own “deep affection” for the school and his professional interest in the era, Tisserand decided to visit the archive for himself and learn about his legacy firsthand.
“There’s just been one quote about Robert Mills Lusher on education that’s been circulated around,” Tisserand said. “I’ve just learned not to trust that kind of documentation. I wanted to see it for myself.”
‘The Supremacy of the White Race’
Lusher was born in 1823 in Charleston, South Carolina, but moved to New Orleans as a young man amid an education in architecture and law. In 1861, he joined the Confederate government charged with collecting taxes from Louisiana, and in 1865 — immediately after the end of the Civil War — was elected state Superintendent of Education. His term was cut short, however, after he declined to continue serving in a post that would have overseen schools that served both races.
Robert Mills Lusher was particularly upset that Louisiana was allowing the education of its white children to falter while Northern states were putting so much energy into the education of “negroes.”
“It is indispensable to the future honor and prosperity of Louisiana, and to the supremacy of the Caucasian race in her councils, that the benefits of liberal education should be extended to every white child within her limits,” Lusher wrote in 1866.
Lusher was one of the dignitaries honored in 1875 on the first anniversary of the battle at Liberty Place, the white supremacist insurrection in New Orleans against the Reconstruction government that killed numerous police officers. The battle was memorialized in a monument that served as a favorite rallying point for David Duke until Mayor Mitch Landrieu ordered it removed earlier this year.
As Southerners regained power toward the end of Reconstruction, Lusher regained his post as superintendent of education in 1876, but was displaced again by the election of a black superintendent in 1897. For the last decade of his life, he continued to advocate publicly for the education of white students to maintain the race’s advantage over black people, and promoting the arguments that education money was “wasted” on blacks, who remained better suited to physical labor.
In 1889, a year before his death and more than 30 years after first becoming state superintendent, Lusher wrote in his autobiography of his support for the “thorough education of white children, in rural Louisiana, so that they would be properly prepared to maintain the Supremacy of the white race in rural Louisiana.” The new school on Willow Street was named for Lusher in 1910, around the same time that the Jefferson Davis monument and other Confederate memorials were being installed around New Orleans.
That 1889 quote has been cited in several media outlets over the years, and the archives, Tisserand said, demonstrated that it was not taken out of context, but instead represents the defining feature of Robert Mills Lusher’s belief system. Nor, unlike other segregationists or former Confederates, did Robert Mills Lusher ever recant his racist views.
“White supremacy is the core of his work in education. He’s honored for his work in education, but the goal of education as he stated, over and over again, is to build up the white race,” Tisserand said. “I think you’d be hard pressed to find a redeeming quality to his work in education.”
‘Sharing this story’
Though Tisserand did not publicly share his research right away, he tipped his hand to it in May, when he wrote in a New York Times essay about the ubiquity of Confederate memorials in New Orleans that “My son’s school is racially diverse, but it still bears the last name of Robert Mills Lusher, a fierce segregationist who championed education as a means for maintaining white dominance.” Now that school has resumed for the fall, Tisserand said he learned that his son’s high school classmates have begun discussing that line of the New York Times essay among themselves. That conversation — combined with the violent white-supremacist march in Charlottesville and President Trump’s subsequent defense of it — prompted him to release a four-page outline of his research on social media Thursday morning.
“When I found out that high school students were sharing this story, that Robert Mills Lusher was a white supremacist, but that the information out there is second-hand, I had no choice to somehow do something with the information I had,” Tisserand said.
Tisserand’s release of the information also coincides by a renewed call Thursday morning by the Take ‘Em Down NOLA group for the city to continue removing memorials to Confederates, white supremacists and slave owners in the wake of the Charlottesville violence, just as Baltimore and other cities have done over the past week. Renaming public schools likewise remains a priority of the group, including Lusher, whom the Take ‘Em Down NOLA website describes as a “rabid Confederate and outspoken racist who was state superintendent of Louisiana public schools post-Civil War.”
“I think Charlottesville has demonstrated they have nothing to do with history,” Suber said in a news conference Thursday morning on the steps of City Hall, where Take ‘Em Down was advocating an ordinance requiring the removal of memorials. “It has everything to do with being a representation of white supremacy.”
The notion of changing Lusher’s name is not new, and attracted citywide attention before Hurricane Katrina amid the controversies that arose as Lusher sought to expand to a high school. In the aftermath of the 2015 Charleston church killings that led to Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s effort to remove major Confederate memorials from public view, Lusher was mentioned again.
In fact, responding to the same concerns in the 1990s, the Orleans Parish School Board created a policy specifically allowing school communities to change their names if they desired. Dozens did so over the next decade — controversially including the renaming of George Washington Elementary for trailblazing black surgeon Charles Drew — but Lusher was not among them.
That policy formally ended in 2015, however, for a different concern. New charter schools were opening in those same buildings and renaming them again, often away from historical black figures, and the School Board voted for a new policy not only to halt the renamings, but to cease hearing requests for name changes.
At the time, board member Woody Koppel — who represents Lusher’s district — noted the policy would likely need exceptions in the future. On Thursday, asked about the new discussions around Lusher, Koppel reiterated that if the school community were interested in a name change, the process would probably start by someone representing the school requesting an exception to the policy. The school board regularly chooses waive certain policies — such as the prohibition of alcohol on school grounds — depending on the circumstances, he noted.
“I think anything’s possible. It’s just a matter of how badly the people want it. Is it one or two students? Is it the administration? Is it the board?” Koppel said, noting that he has not yet personally heard enough about the recent discussion to take a position on it. “I’d like to defer to the school itself, to find out what their suggestion is and not say it from on top. I’d like to hear that before I say what I think it should be.”
The Lusher administration did not offer a comment on the issue this week. Since the integration of Lusher in the 1960s, the school has quietly but formally moved away from the full name of Robert Mills Lusher — though it remains emblazoned on the top of the elementary school building on Willow Street. The school’s charter documents, in fact, refer to it only as “Lusher Charter School,” eschewing the “Robert Mills,” and Tisserand said his understanding is that part of the reason was to soften the connection and suggest that the school has now forged its own, new identity.
Ultimately, Tisserand said that while his own preference would be that the school not bear the name of a white supremacist, he’s not sure it should actually be changed. The ramifications of such a rebranding — such as the impact on the students who were expecting to apply to high school using the well-known school name — are beyond his expertise as a historian, Tisserand said.
Regardless of what happens with the school’s name in the future, Tisserand said, his primary goal is for the children in the school to know the true history behind it.
“Is it a worthwhile endeavor to go through the process of changing the name? Since I do not know, I feel like I really can’t comment on whether it should happen,” Tisserand said. “The thing I really have an opinion about is that Robert Mills Lusher’s true story be out there.”
In 2016, New Orleans celebrated the achievements of Keiana Cave, a Lusher senior who won national acclaim for her work in the sciences — she was named in Forbes’ 30 Under 30 for a molecule she developed to clean up oil spills, and NASA named an asteroid after her. As a nationally acclaimed black scientist and scholar, Cave stands in living repudiation of the views of Robert Mills Lusher, and she said Friday she was “stunned” to learn about him.
“Regardless of the history of the person that Lusher’s named after, it’s not really representative of the community Lusher has built in the present day,” Cave said. “I think Lusher’s really strong, and they’re leading in diversity.”
Cave said she wasn’t ready to discuss what should happen with the school’s name, but she agreed with Tisserand that her friends still at the school should have a full account of its history.
“Knowledge of history is extremely important,” Cave said. “Without understanding our history, we couldn’t prevent these things from happening in the future. We live here, and we’re trying to change that now.”