Viewpoint: Charter school is perpetuating Robert Mills Lusher’s racist legacy

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Uptown Messenger file photo

The Lusher high school campus on Freret Street.

By Corinne A. Williams, guest columnist

The pandemic along with the racial reckoning in our country and, most recently, Hurricane Ida have all put New Orleans’ kids in a position to experience a collective trauma — much like people my age experienced after Hurricane Katrina. In addition to traumas already thrust upon them, children attending Lusher Charter School are attuned to many internal school-related traumas. Their school leaders have put their best interests last for one of the simplest things that they have control over: the name of their school.

Lusher Charter School is named for Robert Mills Lusher, a Confederate tax collector, segregationist and unabashed member of the Crescent City White League. By today’s standards and any anti-racist standard, Mr. Lusher would be someone who should be unequivocally rejected as a person to name anything after. He was a white supremacist who wrote that Black children were unworthy of being educated. However, the school’s leadership has taken decades to remove his surname from the program.

In 2005, Lolis Eric Elie wrote an opinion column in The Times-Picayune about the name of this school. In 2017, Lusher student Tamir Bryant started a Change.org petition urging the administration to change the name of this school. And in 2020, in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, a Change.org petition was started by parent Vasy McCoy in addition to an Instagram page that highlights students’ experiences with racism and the need for systemic changes in school policies and culture.

In the Lusher community, there has been overwhelming support to completely distance the school from the name of this person. However, the Advocates for Arts-Based Education Board, the charter board that governs Lusher, has made the process painstakingly difficult in the past year.

In virtual AABE meetings, parents, alumni, teachers and students as young as 10 have spoken out about how deeply offensive and racist this school’s name is. Then came some relief — or so we all thought. The AABE, after a nearly 90-minute closed-door executive session, voted to change the name of the school and set a timeline as to when it should be changed.

Lusher added a renaming page to its website and sent out an email to its community members asking for open input. The email stated:

EVERY VOICE MATTERS
On September 30, 2021, the Advocates for Arts-Based Education Board voted to rename Lusher Charter School and denounce any association with Robert Mills Lusher, a strong proponent of segregation. This is a significant decision in our school’s history, and we need to hear the voices of our faculty, staff, families, students, alumni and community. The Board hopes to decide on a name in November. This is a monumental change for our school, and we need YOU. LET’S HEAR YOUR VOICE!

A follow-up email after the responses were collected via Google Forms stated:

YOUR VOICE MATTERS!
Thank you for the 594 responses submitted using the Name Nomination form. The Renaming Study Group reviewed all nominations and is requesting community input on the short-list options…
The options presented to the Board for consideration will be those thought to best represent the school’s mission, vision and values, not necessarily those with the most votes.

There are 11 names on the shortlist: Lusher Charter School—in honor of Dr. Jeanne Marie Lusher; Everett J. Williams Charter School; Allen Toussaint Charter School; New Orleans Academy of Arts Sciences, and Humanities; Lions Charter School; Ellis Marsalis Jr. Charter School; Louis Armstrong Charter School; Willow Charter School for Diversity, Arts and Sciences; Lusher Charter School of Academic Excellence, Diversity and the Arts; Elijah Brimmer, Jr. Charter School; and Unity School of Innovation.

So, out of 594 responses to an online form from the community, how does the shortlist include two options that are still Lusher?

Even the voting process has been problematic. The survey is structured so that participants can vote for their favorite option and then their least favorite option, rather than a Likert scale allowing them to rank their favorites and their least favorites. Voters are left without an option to denounce both “Lusher” options on the shortlist.

The short blurb under each Lusher-based option says, “The name addresses community concerns about a loss of branding and the anticipated financial impact.” This “concern” was not voiced at any of the public board meetings where a name change was discussed. Where has this concern come from?

And what about community concerns about racism? The entire point of removing the name “Lusher” from the school is about the long-standing culture of racism within the Lusher community. From interpersonal racism in the classroom to deeply systemic racist policy issues in admissions, the dress code and disciplinary procedures, Lusher has a culture of racism that starts at the top.

This summer, Lusher’s CEO was accused of repeated discriminatory behavior. Lusher’s former high school Principal Steven Corbett, now the CEO at Audubon Schools, wrote a  letter asking the AABE to investigate CEO Kathy Riedlinger for alleged discrimination, according to The Times-Picayune / New Orleans Advocate, The 12-page letter detailed racist incidents over a six-month span of Riedlinger’s nearly 40-year tenure. The most disturbing part of the newspaper’s report is how children were intimidated and felt the need to protest and boycott some of their school experiences that were supposed to celebrate them.

via Instagram

Lusher students protest outside the Willow Street campus in July 2020.

If anything, this name-change saga is a failure by Kathy Reidlinger and the AABE. A potentially easy process has been extremely difficult and clouded by drama by adults who should instead be ensuring the safety of our children in a supportive environment. This failure by the board and the administrators truly speaks to the racist legacy that Lusher has built. It is one thing to reflect on the actual white supremacy that Robert Mills Lusher touted during his time on earth, but his legacy is perpetuated through his namesake institution.

It is time for a complete anti-racist makeover for this institution. As Lusher School has led the area in so many arenas, its leaders have continuously lacked the will to do an internal audit of its culture and policies.

We need to see the AABE act as a leader in diversity, equity and inclusion before the institution solidifies a legacy of racism just as Robert Mills Lusher did in his writing and actions in the Reconstruction Era. They need to show every one of their students that they are all valued, their voices have been heard and change is not only possible — it is necessary.

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

4 thoughts on “Viewpoint: Charter school is perpetuating Robert Mills Lusher’s racist legacy

  1. Corinne, I hope your enthusiasm and desire for purposefulness, finds an object that isn’t a digressive, and destructive waste of time unlike this one. Lusher is doing just fine, producing graduates New Orleans and Louisiana are proud of. History-erasing, blackwashing, etc., is a hegemonic, authoritarian activity. It deprives all of us of our received legacy, and puts in question, the value of what we will leave for others who come after, a disincentive to charity and to excellence. It is the opposite of liberal education’s tenets of appreciation for inherited traditions and values. It is the opposite of open dialog among people who reasonably disagree. We don’t all think like you, and we don’t want to. We also don’t want you to tell us how to think and act. We formed a government a while back, to minimize the opportunity of folks to tell us how to think, what to do and be. And to allow those who think differently to articulate their voices. Including you, and me. And to effect change, if the people want it, through political process, not through harassment and insult.

  2. Thank you Ms. Williams, for an excellent summation of this (at the very least) highly problematic process. I am a parent of a 10th grader at LCS. My son and I are both dismayed at how much energy and time is committed to CEO and Board self preservation/protection, dress coding students, and denying students’ voices and preferences, instead of ensuring students receive adequate emotional and academic support. My son’s twin sister is at Franklin, and the differences are clear. No school is perfect, but there is no way not to see the glaring differences in how students are treated by these different administrations.

    You have my full support and sincere gratitude for your stance and your public commitment to standing for and with these students (and parents).

  3. I’m so done with this. The importance of a name is trivial compared to the quality of the education provided by this school and its leaders and founders. Those who choose to victimize current students for a bogus “impact” of the name is also bogus. It is the adults who are promoting their political agenda who are making this an issue. Kids are more concerned about what’s going on TODAY than some old ,and now dead, person who they could care less about. They hardly care about each other or the people who make their lives possible…their families…teenagers are all about themselves and their friends…not this sort of thing. Instead of going for another W in the column of annihilating any Caucasian’s name from public schools, try concentrating on your KIDS. And their behavior…and dignity…and respect for themselves and the law…while working for continued equality. Note: most of these kids would have been forced to go to a failing school instead of this one, no matter what the name is. There is absolutely NO QUESTION about the quality of this school’s education!

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