Three names suggested to replace Robert Mills Lusher on the Willow Street school building

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The name “Robert Mills Lusher” remains on the Willow Street elementary school campus for Lusher Charter School.

The Renaming Committee for NOLA Public Schools has proposed three names to replace Robert Mills Lusher for the building that houses Lusher Charter School’s elementary grades. 

The renaming effort by the Orleans Parish School Board and NOLA-PS applies to the buildings only, not the school programs. According to NOLA-PS, the OPSB only has the authority to change the outward facing name on any of its buildings. It cannot change the program name because charter schools are governed by their own boards and leadership. 

Renaming Lusher Charter School also has long been discussed within the community, but the board is silent on whether it is considering a name change. The building could take another name while the school itself keeps the name “Lusher.”

Lusher Charter School and the elementary school’s building are both named after segregationist Robert Mills Lusher. While Lusher Charter has dropped the “Robert Mills” part of the name, it remains on the building.

Robert Mills Lusher was a Confederate tax collector and the 1865 superintendent of education for Louisiana whose term was cut short after he declined to oversee schools that served both Black and White students. 

A year before Lusher’s death in 1889, he wrote an autobiography detailing 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 elementary school on Willow Street was named for Lusher in 1910, during the Lost Cause movement. The Lost Cause promoted a White-supremacist narrative of the Confederacy as heroic. Confederate memorials, such as the Jefferson Davis and Robert E. Lee statues removed in 2017, were placed around New Orleans at that time. 

Lusher Charter School educates 1,825 students on its two Uptown campuses. The selective-admissions charter school mission states that “the celebration of individuality and diversity enable each child to achieve as a learner, a person, and a valuable member of our society.”

Lusher’s minority students make up 42% of the K-12 student body and 15% of the student body is economically disadvantaged, according to the U.S. News and World Report

During the summer of 2020, community members organized a petition and protested to display their support for a name change. 

The Advocates for Arts Based Education, the nonprofit over Lusher, formed a committee to discuss the renaming and submitted three names for the school building to OPSB after holding community meetings. 

Name-change supporters in the past have suggested Sylvia Branch as the new name although that did not make Orleans Parish School Board’s list of proposed names for any school in the greater New Orleans area. Six-year-old Sylvia Branch and her friend Toni Robinson walked past angry mobs to become the first Black children to attend Robert Mills Lusher School in 1962.

Lusher CEO Kathy Ridelinger made a public comment during the meeting representing the Lusher Charter board and the Lusher community. Ridelinger said the Lusher board proposed the names Dr. Everett J. Williams, Judge John Minor Wisdom and Ellis Louis Marsalis. Two of those names, Williams and Marsalis, made it to the list for the Willow Street building. 

Jenny Cromer, Lusher’s admissions and parent liaison, also spoke during the public comments portion of the meeting. Cromer suggested the name Dr. Jeanne Marie Lusher for the elementary campus.

Dr. Lusher was a pioneering pediatric oncologist and a researcher in the field of bleeding disorders of childhood. Lusher briefly lived in New Orleans while doing a residency at Charity Hospital, after receiving her medical degree from the University of Cincinnati in 1960. She moved to Detroit in 1966. Lusher was not among the names proposed.

The three proposed names for Lusher Charter are musician Ellis Marsalis, educator Everett Joseph Williams and attorney Jack Nelson.

Ellis L. Marsalis Jr. 

Ellis Marsalis Jr.

Ellis Louis Marsalis Jr. was a jazz pianist and an educator at New Orleans Center for Creative Arts, Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond and the University of New Orleans. 

Marsalis was born in New Orleans in 1934 and studied the clarinet at Xavier University’s Junior School of Music. In 1955, Marsalis earned his bachelor’s degree at Dillard University in music education.

In January of 1957, he joined the U.S. Marine Corps for two years and was stationed in southern California. There Marsalis played piano for a Marine-sponsored weekly CBS television show named “Dress Blues” and a Marine Corps sponsored radio show called “Leather Songbook,” according to The History Makers

Marsalis returned to New Orleans after his service and married Delores Ferdinand. They had six sons together: Brandford, Wynton, Ellis III, Delfeayo, Miboya and Jason.

Marsalis’ granddaughter Jazmine, whose father is Delfeayo Marsalis, graduated from Lusher in the Class of 2019. 

In 1966 Marsalis led the house trio at the Playboy Club and joined Al Hirt’s band as the piano chair. He joined the staff at the NOCCA in 1974 and worked there for the next 12 years. There he taught four of his sons and influenced musicians such as trumpeter Terence Blanchard, pianist Harry Connick Jr. and saxophonist Donald Harrison. Marsalis earned his master’s in music from Loyola University New Orleans in 1986.

Marsalis was inducted into the Louisiana Music Hall of Fame in 2008. Marsalis received honorary degrees from Tulane University, The Juilliard School, Ball State and Virginia Commonwealth University. Marsalis passed away at age 85 on April 1, 2020, from COVID-19 complications. 

Dr. Everett Joseph Williams Jr. 

Everett Joseph Williams Jr.

Another name OPSB is considering renaming the school after is the first Black superintendent of New Orleans public schools. Dr. Everett Joseph Williams, Jr. was born in New Orleans on Sept. 29, 1930.

Williams earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Xavier University and a doctorate from Michigan State University. Williams spent time as a seminarian before entering the school system. 

He started his education career as an English teacher at Walter L. Cohen Senior High School. Williams later served as assistant principal at McDonogh 35 Senior High School and as principal at Carter G. Woodson Jr. High School.

Williams began to lead the school system in 1985 and is credited with establishing the public school system’s magnet school component, implementing in-school day-care programs for teenage mothers and creating awards programs that allowed superintendents to recognize the academic achievements of public school scholars, said Louisiana Weekly

After retiring from Orleans Parish schools, Williams worked as the vice president of community relations for Freeport-McMoran and served on the Archbishop’s Community Appeal as the first African-American chairman in 1996. He received the Pope John Paul II Award for his lifetime of service in 2010.

Outside of Williams’ religious service work, Williams chaired the Education Committee for the Patrick F. Taylor Foundation and served as a deacon with the Archdiocese of New Orleans at both Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Church and St. Joan of Arc Catholic Church. Williams died on July 28, 2013

John P. “Jack” Nelson 

John “Jack” Nelson

Another option for the renaming is John P. “Jack” Nelson, a New Orleans attorney who worked on various landmark civil rights cases including a sit-in case of the early 1960s in New Orleans, Lombard v. Louisiana. 

Renaming Committee member Darrel Saizan noted during a May 25 meeting that Nelson tried to integrate Lusher in the early days of the civil rights movement but was rebuffed by the School Board.

Nelson was born in 1921 and was a native of Gulfport, Mississippi. He grew up in New Orleans and attended Louisiana State University for three years, then received his bachelor’s and law degrees from Loyola University.

While a junior at LSU, Nelson volunteered for active service in the Army in 1940 and won the Silver Star, the Bronze Star and the Purple Heart for his active service in the South Pacific and the Philippines during World War II, according to the Amistad Research Center

While gaining the opportunity to become a senior partner in a law firm in 1958, Nelson was also teaching a class at Loyola University for civil rights leaders. Nelson represented African American defendants and won the sit-in case of Lombard v. Louisiana after bringing the case before the U.S. Supreme Court.

According to The Historical Society U.S. Eastern District Court of Louisiana, Nelson was the first White attorney in the South unaffiliated with a civil rights organization to represent African American defendants in the U.S. Supreme Court. 

In 1960, he organized the Save Our Schools group in Louisiana, a nonprofit that wanted to maintain free public education during integration of the New Orleans public school system. According to the Amistad Research Center, Nelson was an attorney on a lawsuit to integrate Tulane University in 1963 and while he did not win the case, the suit prompted the university to voluntarily desegregate. 

Nelson was a founding member of the National Catholic Conference for Interracial Justice and was a member of the New Orleans Urban League and the local chapter of the NAACP. Nelson passed away at age 84 on March 8, 2006, after suffering a stroke. 

The Renaming Committee presented the three names to Superintendent Henderson Lewis. Lewis will choose one name out and take it to OPSB, which will vote on the final names.

Lusher Charter School graduate Domonique Tolliver is a journalism student at Loyola University and a reporting intern at Uptown Messenger. She can be reached at djtolliv@my.loyno.edu.

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