Reconstruction: First School Integration Test Came in 1870s
As the 1950s drew to a close, many white families in New Orleans were panicked over what they saw as the imminent threat of
New segregation laws were hurriedly written. Money was suddenly found for black schools. White private school enrollment shot up. Meanwhile, federal authorities were giving life to an old black community demand, tearing apart the old order of things.
But historians had seen the same drama play out before. New Orleans' first brush with school integration came not in 1960, but 90 years earlier, as Reconstruction leaders were consolidating their power in Louisiana.
While it would last just seven years, New Orleans' experiment with integration was remarkable for its time, bringing more actual mixing of black and white students than had been attempted anywhere in the nation.
Offering any kind of public education to black children was a radical notion in slave states. Before the Civil War, teaching a slave to read was a crime in Louisiana, and free black children were barred from public schools.
But many free black children were educated in Catholic or private schools. Leaders of the black community, influenced by revolutionary movements in France that allowed black people to vote and attend school with white people, joined white radical Republicans after the war in demanding integration of public schools.
Even before Republicans grabbed control of state government, the New Orleans Tribune, a Republican Party organ, said it was time to put white and black students into the same classrooms, and in so doing begin transforming the South.
"The objection 'too soon' is but laughable. It is repeated at each and every reform to be accomplished. It only evinces a lack of courage to carry out the reform itself," the newspaper said in July 1867.
"When will the right time come? Is it, per chance, after we have separated for 10 or 20 years the two races in different schools, and when we shall have realized the separation of this nation into two peoples?"
Within months, Republicans would engineer a rewriting of the state Constitution that required school integration. But the mandate went ignored until 1870, when Republicans set up new school boards in New Orleans and obtained a court ruling that gave them control over spending.
As classes opened in January 1871, three adopted daughters of black Lt. Gov. Oscar J. Dunn enrolled in the
Sent to investigate, a reporter for The Daily Picayune confirmed that "the outrageous work" of integration had begun.
"In consequence of the
The reaction of such white people caused a vast expansion of the private school system in Louisiana.
While some Catholic schools were founded before the Civil War, white resistance to school integration in the 1870s was mostly responsible for explosive growth in the city's parochial and private schools, according to Roger Fischer, a historian who studied the integration experiment as part of his doctoral work at Tulane University.
Private schools in the city increased from 10 in 1868 to 91 in 1871, the first year of racial mixing in the public schools, Fischer wrote.
But white fears that adding black students to white schools would be disastrous proved unfounded.
Even critics of integration conceded that the change occurred smoothly, and some white students began returning to the public schools.
While integration never affected most city schools, nearly
"The black parents who were striving for educational accomplishment for their children went to the schools that they considered the best, or that had the best reputation in the community probably not unlike the magnet schools today," said Joseph Logsdon, a University of New Orleans professor who
"The major point was that integration didn't disrupt them. They remained in the parents' minds the best schools."
But the sense of calm about integration lasted only a few years. When the power of radical Republicans began to crumble, white people felt more free to vent their anger.
Following the White League's defeat of the Republican militia in the Battle of Liberty Place in September 1874, mobs of white people clashed violently with black people over attempts by black students to integrate new schools, and many black students were ejected from schools already integrated.
A white mob seized and threatened to lynch Charles Boothby, the white city education superintendent; the trembling educator was released only after he signed a statement agreeing to resist new integration steps.
New Orleans black families continued trying to expand integration after 1874, meeting fierce resistance each time.
But the experiment came to a halt in 1877 when Union troops left the city and white Democrats reclaimed control of the state. The old order was restored.
Copyright 1993, The Times-Picayune
Adapted from: Coleman Warner, "Reconstruction: First School Integration Test Came in 1870s," The Times-Picayune, New Orleans, June 15, 1993, National,