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.