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Jesuit commemorates 50th anniversary of integration

4th March 2013   ·   0 Comments

By Philip Stelly
Contributing Writer

Editor’s Note: In the original print version of this story, the date of integration for New Orleans public schools was incorrectly stated as 1961. We have corrected that error in the story below.

In 1962, Jesuit High School was all-white and all-male save the one woman who was the school’s librarian at the time.

That began to change on Sept. 4, 1962 when—for the first time—eight Black students entered Jesuit, ending its history of racial exclusion along with other schools of the Archdiocese of New Orleans.

The event at Jesuit was noted in the “Principal’s Diary,” maintained by school registrar John Paquette. His diary entry read: “Meeting of all teachers in St. Ignatius Hall at 11:15 a.m. The school is officially integrated, opening with 8 colored students. No trouble and none anticipated.”

In contrast to the low-key diary entry, the Jesuit community of religious and lay people last week marked the 50th anniversary of the integration of Jesuit High School with a series of events. Early last week, students assembled for a PowerPoint presentation on the history of integration at Jesuit followed by a Mass; a screening of the documentary “Tremé: The Untold Story of Black New Or?leans”; performances by Charmaine Neville as well as the interracial choir, Shades of Praise; and panel discussions featuring Jesuit alumni.

School officials say it was important to draw attention to the milestone and to educate current students about the school’s history, even when that history is difficult and exposes racial tensions.

The highlight of Jesuit’s commemoration was a panel discussion with former New Orleans mayors Moon Landrieu, who graduated from Jesuit in 1948, and Marc Morial, a 1976 graduate; and current Mayor Mitch Landrieu, a 1978 graduate. The three mayors gave personal reflections of race relations surrounding Jesuit’s integration and the years that followed.

Former Mayor Moon Landrieu gave a primer on race relations prior to the school’s integration starting with the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education in 1954. He also recounted the years after that decision as states wrestled first with question of whether they would integrate public schools and, if so, how to integrate them. New Orleans public schools were integrated in 1960, followed by Catholic schools a year later. “Jesuit is to be congratulated for making the change in 1962,” former Mayor Landrieu said.

Just because there was no trouble on the first day of the school’s integration, doesn’t mean the transition was easy.

Former Mayor Marc Morial said while he is thankful for his Jesuit education, there were some tense moments. He recalled a time when he and other Black students put up a display during Black History Month and the ensuing disappointment when the display was smeared with Klu Klux Klan slogans. Morial, now president and CEO of the National Urban League, said he had many friends at Jesuit, but he also remembers a sense of “loneliness” at being one of a handful of black football players and the only black on the basketball team for three years.

Morial said his circumstances stirred him to act. Working closely with school administrators, he formed a group called the Student Association for Black Achievement. He and other black students went on recruiting trips to predominately black Catholic elementary schools like St. Peter Claver and Corpus Christi. By the time he graduated in 1976, Jesuit’s black enrollment had gone from 14 to about 40 African-American students. “I thought it made a positive contribution to the dialogue,” Morial said.

In an essay on race for the Jesuit alumni publication, Stephen McKenna, who graduated in 1974, recalled a painful incident when at a pep rally before a game against St. Augustine High School, Jesuit students performed a parody of “Soul Train” in blackface. “I expected a skit about a game, not a racial assault,” McKenna wrote. “My heart pounded and my gut wrenched.”

Despite moments like this, McKenna, now a doctor in Mary?land, said, “Jesuit did give me everything I needed. . . It was truly a New Orleans gumbo experience — a little bit of everything.”

Current Mayor Mitch Landrieu acknowledged that the transition from exclusion to inclusion was at times uncomfortable for African-American students. “Great progress has been made, but I think we would be kidding ourselves if we thought we are where we need to be,” he said.

The three mayors agreed that Jesuit students should look beyond a week’s reflection on Jesuit’s past and prepare themselves now for an America that is more diverse than at any time in its history. “You will encounter that in many ways after you leave Jesuit High School,” Morial said.

School officials say current students deserve an honest look at the school’s past in order to move forward. “These special events are designed to educate the Blue Jay community and commemorate one of the most significant moments in Jesuit High School history,” said Mat Grau, alumni director. “Part of growing is knowing your history. We want Jesuit students to move forward knowing their rich history of what was once exclusion and is now inclusion.”

Grau said he has already heard from Jesuit parents who have a deeper appreciation of Jesuit for having the courage to take an honest look at itself.

This article originally published in the March 4, 2013 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.

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