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Firing Teachers Then and Now

The Students at the Center program started at McDonogh 35 High School, which is mentioned in today’s entry from The Long Ride. Brittany Thompson, who wrote the essay below in spring 2005, was entering her senior year at McDonogh 35 when Hurricane Katrina hit.

McDonogh 35 is an interesting and important high school in a city in which public education has always had intriguing story lines.

The school opened in 1917, offering for the first time in over 20 years a free, public, high school education for black youth in New Orleans. It has produced generations of public school teachers in our city and continues as one of only three high schools still directly operated by our local school system.

Questions about teacher firings, school board relations, and education and social justice continue to be in our minds, particularly in this post-Katrina period when all public school teachers in New Orleans Public Schools were fired. Ours was the only school district in the gulf coast region damaged by Katrina to fire all its teachers.

SAC is proud to be one of the many “graduates” of McDonogh 35 and looks forward to honoring former students and teachers, such as James Browne, from McDonogh 35 and other local public schools as we continue their struggle for social justice and quality education in New Orleans.

Teacher Fired for Promoting Social Equality
Brittany Thompson

On May 31, 1923, James Fortier and his fellow school board members all stared down at James F. Browne standing in the middle of the floor. They had just finished listening to Browne’s argument for social equality of the races. One statement stuck in their minds: “The fact of being white or black [is] merely an artificial distinction.”

Fortier, a strong supporter of segregation, wanted to make sure Browne did not remain a teacher at McDonogh 35 High School. The other board members had arrived at the meeting willing to let him remain in the classroom, if he agreed to no longer speak out for social equality. But Browne had to stand up for his beliefs.

How did Browne get in this predicament? He had started a newspaper, the New Orleans Bulletin, that argued against the Jim Crow laws of his city and state. In one issue, he argued, “social equality is freeborn, recognizing no artificial distinction and lives wherever Christ is found.”

Fortier apparently got a hold of this newspaper, suspended Browne from his teaching job, and wanted to hear what the teacher/activist had to say.

In private, after the hearing and away from James Browne’s ears, the board members all agreed with Fortier that “such utterances as Browne has made to persons easily led and deluded would foment trouble of a most serious nature.” They voted unanimously to fire him.

This vote was supposed to put fear into the black teachers and convince them that white teachers were superior. But in the next decade the black teachers had formed a union (American Federation of Teachers Local 527) and formed an organization with fellow community members to demand that black teachers be paid the same as white teachers.

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