A Legacy in Jeopardy
I keep thinking about Ed and Leatrice Roberts. Kalamu, Ashley, Maria, and I spent a couple of Saturdays there this summer. Maria, a rising senior at Douglass High School, sat between the two white-haired elders with dancing eyes and mischievous grins. They were on the couch, beneath the photograph of Dillard University’s college of education class of 1948. Maria’s head was bent over her notebook, except when she threw it back, braids and beads and all, laughing with Ed and Leatrice about crazy Ed dragging Leatrice on dates to union meetings or voter registration drives. Or when she looked straight at Leatrice, accepting and appreciating her elder’s stern, gentle question about how the boys were treating her.
The Roberts’ house is gone now, completely flooded out like the other homes in Pontchartrain Park by the breaches in the London Avenue Canal. And the story of their neighborhood hasn’t really been told in the national media. It’s easy to see the poverty and racism and downright evil unearthed by Katrina. What we don’t see is that the largest group of black, college-educated homeowners in New Orleans were teachers. What happens to this group when public schools are shut down?
I doubt that Ed and Leatrice carried out the old diplomas from the first graduating class of McDonogh 35, of which Mrs. Reed, Leatrice’s mother, was a member. I expect all the photographs and memorabilia from Amerzion Baptist Church, the lower 9th ward church down the street from my fiance’s house and where her family and Leatrice’s family have been members since the Reconstruction era, are gone now. Leatrice was head of the history committee and had enlisted our SAC digital media crew to help with the 135th anniversary celebration in October. And Keith Ferdinand’s drawings, the ones he did as a kid in the late 1950’s are probably gone. Most of them were lost in 1965, when Betsy flooded the Ferdinand home in the lower 9th ward. Ed and Leatrice, dry back in 1965 in their new Pontchartrain Park home, had some of the few surviving youth drawings of their godson.
But if I know Ed and Leatrice, their hearts are especially heavy about the threats to American Federation of Teachers Local 527 that the post-Katrina state of public education in New Orleans have laid bare.
I remember Maria putting down her pen, and smiling with pride and mischievous conspiracy when Ed talked about how his elementary school classroom became an adult literacy center. Ed and his union colleagues knew that developing literacy for their students needed to include parents. But they also knew that in the Jim Crow south, the education had to be political too. Parents needed to register to vote, and the classrooms were important spaces for developing democracy.
Maria practically cheered when Leatrice explained that she started teaching in 1949, the year that black teachers finally won equal pay. Maria had just finished a new writing on Veronica Hill (you can read it—and see a picture of Leatrice and Maria—at www.strom.clemson.edu/teams/literacy/sac), one of the teachers who helped launch the first white collar union in the south, AFT Local 527. This black union had as one of its main goals to pursue the struggle for equal pay for teachers in the Jim Crow South.
And Maria had been angry when she read the headlines in the local newspaper that the school district was considering dropping its contribution to the Health and Welfare Fund, a union and district partnership that the Roberts and fellow teachers had fought for—not just for the dental and vision benefits but for the professional development provided by the teacher center (now the Center for Professional Growth and Development)—the most stable avenue for improving teaching practices and sharing resources that black or white teachers in New Orleans have had for the last 30 or 40 years.
Maria concludes her essay on Leatrice, entitled “Sharing a Life, Passing a Torch,” with these paragraphs.
“`Just because you retire doesn’t mean you stop being an activist.’ That’s the reason she founded the retiree chapter. Ms. Leatrice and Mr. Edward struggled their whole lives to get teachers the benefits they deserved through the health and welfare fund. They succeeded, but now everything they worked for is on the brink of getting destroyed as the school system considers cutting the Health and Welfare Fund to balance its budget.
“`I’ve done all I can, but before I’m gone I want someone to pass the torch to,’ Ms. Leatrice said.
“That’s why I went to see her. I wanted to let her know that we students appreciate her and that there are a few of us who would gladly receive the torch and run with it.”
I am proud of Maria’s resolve and know that her words aren’t hollow. She’s already planning to move back to New Orleans in January, to carry the torch the Roberts have passed. She understands that this may mean getting a GED, since schools that honor the democratic institutions that Ed and Leatrice and other black teachers fought to establish will probably not be open. And I will be proud to be there with Maria and her classmates, working as hard as ever to give them the best education possible and one that preserves what storms and post-Katrina opportunists cannot wash away.