Viewpoint: Lusher School leaders turn their backs on the need to remove a racist legacy

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Lusher Charter School. (Robert Morris, Uptown Messenger file photo)

By Corinne A. Williams, guest columnist

On Jan. 1, New Orleans transformed one of its many relics of the Confederacy into a new monument for justice and excellence. When Jefferson Davis Parkway was renamed for Dr. Norman C. Francis, we cast off a president of the Confederacy for a president of a historically black university, a purveyor of educational equity and a living civil rights legend.

In this moment, New Orleans took the time to register that white supremacy and sedition have no place on one of our most prominent parkways. For New Orleans — one of the Blackest cities in the United States, held together by the culture of Black people and kept afloat by a tourism industry that relies on the labor of Black people — it was a wrong made right. The city decided to make it clear: We will uplift and celebrate those who have given our residents immeasurable amounts of service and we will reject white supremacy and anti-Blackness.

Not even a week later on Jan. 6, we saw exactly why renaming our public relics to the Confederacy remains an urgent necessity. On national television, armed insurrectionists paraded around the U.S. Capitol with the intent to steal important items and documents, upend our government and even execute members of Congress.

In the days following, some of the most striking and widely shared photos that came out of the Capitol attack were of insurrectionists proudly waving Confederate flags in the halls of Congress — something that had never before happened in U.S. history. In this moment, it should have become clear why we cannot continue to uphold the names of seditionists.

However, for some in New Orleans, it clearly has not.

Lusher Charter School is named for Robert Mills Lusher, a Confederate tax collector, a deeply invested segregationist — and a proud member of the Crescent City White League, a paramilitary organization opposed to racial equality and dedicated to overthrowing the legally elected state government.

While Lusher School has been heralded for generations as one of the best public educational institutions in New Orleans, its name and its administrators’ choice to hold tight to that moniker are deeply flawed. Alumni, parents, students, teachers and community members have pleaded with the board and administration of Lusher School to change the name to no longer honor Mr. Lusher.

A wealth of offensive and problematic incidents at the school have been published on social media. Alumni and parents have written letters; students hosted a peaceful demonstration, garnering national attention, to call for the renaming of the school and structural changes to the racist school culture. And yet despite this awareness at the institutional and city levels, there has been no movement on a name change — or even recognition of the name’s racist legacy — by the school leadership.

In the latest communication to the school community from the Advocates for Arts-Based Education, the nonprofit that operates the charter school, board President Richard Cortizas writes: “… the Board made it clear that undertaking such a process or arriving at a decision prior to receiving specific guidance or designated processes from the Orleans Parish School Board (NOLA-PS) regarding potential changes in the names of schools would be both premature and possibly counterproductive to the OPSB process.”

And further: “… that consideration of a school name change was in no way a responsibility of school administrative staff, who in fact, are and should be focused solely on our children’s education and their health and safety in these highly unusual, unpredictable, and constantly evolving days of the pandemic.”

But in fact, schools do not need the permission or processes dictated by NOLA-PS to change their names, and the Lusher board and the chief executive officer have obfuscated every single effort by members of the school community to start the internal processes of changing the name. 

Lusher could immediately denounce Robert Lusher and make it known that there is no place for a white supremacist to be honored in the school. The board president insists that the main focus of the school’s central administration is education and service to the students, but their failure to immediately renounce and acknowledge the pervasive racism that is embedded in the school’s name is a failure at the most basic level to educate their students.

Lusher touts “kindness” as their chief principle for students to follow, but through complacency, empty defenses and inaction, they continue to celebrate white supremacy. What about blatant racism is kind?

Let us reflect on Lusher’s own words after the Civil War:

“I do not propose, sir, to dilate on the instruction of black and colored ‘freedmen’ — for it is manifest that the new ‘friends’ of this unfortunate race are disposed to monopolize the care of its destiny; but I shall refer, chiefly, to that of the white educable children, between six and sixteen years of age — the spes ultimae Louisiana — the main hope of our beloved State — our only existing pledges for the perpetuation of her dignity as an enlightened commonwealth.”

This is clear: Mr. Lusher did not want Black children to have any access to education. He was a segregationist. He was a racist. He was an avowed white supremacist. Yet his name is what every Lusher student or graduate must invoke in answering the common New Orleanian question about where they went to school.

This is not a burden our children should bear. A community of stakeholders — students, faculty, alumni, staff and families — has long been eager to offer their time, resources, and leadership to the urgent effort to change the school’s name, an effort only the administration and board seem to oppose.

The administration, it seems, is the only group disinterested in pushing this kind of equity and inclusion forward with a sincere and strong sense of purpose.

The Advocates for Arts-Based Education should immediately stop using the name “Lusher” and employ every single avenue to rename the school before the Class of 2021 graduates in May, so that not one child more has to respond to the question “Where’d you go to school?” with the name of an avowed white supremacist.

Lusher alumna Corinne A. Williams was a member of the school’s Class of 2014.

11 thoughts on “Viewpoint: Lusher School leaders turn their backs on the need to remove a racist legacy

  1. Well done! I have 2 graduates from Lusher and all feel the name change is long overdue. Thank you for giving the issue the attention it is due.

  2. Congratulations to Uptown Messenger for publishing such a strong essay. The Lusher administration and community have an opportunity to honor their stated commitment to kindness and excellence. So far, in this matter, they have failed.

  3. Unfortunately, I saw many more flags, our Old Glory, being waved than Confederate flags on Jan. 6. I wasn’t there….just saw the pictures and videos. Are we going to have to change our our country’s current flag too now?

  4. Let us see you cannot be a southern soldier, so you get rid of that name and put in a black University head. Why didn’t you do half and half. So, you wipe out all Confederacy history. Why is it fair to wipe out one history and put in another like the first didn’t exist?

  5. Thank you so much for this article and your viewpoint. Some people are just fine with celebrating and honoring an unequivocal White supremacist like Robert Mills Lusher. Thank you for objecting to the prominent place this racist has within the Lusher institution. If the Lusher decision makers wanted to change it’s name, then it would. This is not Lusher’s first notice on the issue. Lolis Eric Elie published an opinion article in the Times Picayune over 15 years ago about this White supremacist. The Lusher institution’s responses are cowardly excuses. I guess Lusher being “inclusive” means that they “include” and honor the legacy of White supremacy. Go Lions!

  6. Thank you for this article and for this effort. This is not, as some have implied, cancel culture, but rather correction culture. Nothing about changing the school’s name to reject racism and white supremacy cancels anything about our history. It simply recognizes and no longer honors a period in our history during which we strayed from the long arc of justice. We cannot right the wrongs that have been inflicted by our racist past, but we can acknowledge the fact that wrongs were committed, we can face the injustice and the pain that our wrongs have caused, and we can engage in the difficult conversation required to flatten the moral arc, which will help heal the wounds left by our past wrongs. Renaming Lusher, like renaming our streets, taking down hurtful monuments to white supremacy, and lowering the confederate flag, is part of that conversation.

  7. I have two grandchildren attending Lusher and am embarrassed to find that the namesake of the school was a white supremacist. This is unconscionable and no way can I justify this to my grandchildren. I feel like a fool and hypocrite. Why hasn’t Lusher acted, and been a leader in change. It is not only an insult to the Black students but also to the White students. While living on Carrollton Ave. I was aware that the Robert E. Lee grammar school changed its name. Lusher has been assumed to be a leader in education, for which I am grateful, however this shadow over the institution is just as important as any book learning. Who is delaying this requested change, is it an alum, or financial backer? The name was easily changed from Fortier to Lusher. Your inaction perpetuates White supremacy, as our recent federal events upheld, which I hope you witnessed. NO MORE LAME EXCUSES! Just do it. As falling into the category of the “old white men”, its time to change for all of us and to have Lusher perceived as a pioneer in the move for educational truth.

  8. As an alum of Lusher when it was segregated in the 1950s, I applaud your essay. We need to get rid of all the schools and streets names after racist traitors. Thanks for excellent commentary.

  9. Excellent call to action for which many of us citywide were led to believe was already underway beyond the immediate school community. If school administrators continue to stand in the way in this quest to stop venerating an avowed White supremacist, the Orleans Parish School Board has gained several professed progressive members this past year — Why not bring this up directly with the OPSB (and perhaps go further, to also call for replacement of those currently governing this charter school)?

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