Filed Under:  Letter to the Editor, Opinion

Symbolism of ‘40 Acres and a Mule’ in New Orleans

10th April 2012   ·   0 Comments

Most people have heard the term 40 acres and a mule. forty acres has symbolized a plot of land that allows for the economic freedom of the landowner. When General Sherman issued his “Special Field Orders” near the end of the Civil War in 1865, for a brief period of time, some Black former slaves were allocated a plot of 40 acres to begin their post slavery lives as landowners. The Army even issued a mule to a fortunate few to cultivate their newly acquired land.

Some have come to think of 40 acres and a mule in terms of reparations. Many believe that this country has never fully paid its debt to the descendents of former slaves by paying reparations. Personally, in post-Katrina New Orleans, I believe 40 acres symbolizes a minimal plot of land that should be allocated to rebuild high schools. In just about every hamlet in Louisiana, high schools are built on campuses that are at least 40 acres.

In New Orleans, there is a prototype of where high schools should be built. The post-Katrina New Orleans best practice prototype high school is Holy Cross on Paris Avenue, built on more than 40 acres. There is also, blocks away on Paris Avenue, a worst-practice prototype of where high schools should not be located. That school is the Lake Area School, built on less than six acres. Why? Does this course of action pre-select winners and losers?

While the planning phase of building the new McDonogh 35 High School on the old Wa­ter/Phillips site continues, 40 acres serves as reminder not to re­peat history. The day Mc­Donogh 35 opened in 1972 at its current location on Kerlerec Street, the campus was too small. The proposed new McDonogh 35 campus on the Waters/Phillips site will not accommodate a comprehensive high school. Less than 20 acres, the proposed new campus will be too small the day it opens. It will also be located behind the renovated Youth Study Center. Is this the subliminal message being delivered; that a student who misbehaves will be sent to the youth jail right across the street? Is this the intended message to future travelers on Interstate 610; what a great looking jail house on the bayou and what’s that building behind it? Why? Does this course of action pre-select winners and losers?

Meanwhile, across Bayou St. John in nearby City Park, the new tennis courts have been built. A Frisbee golf course has been built. The new dog park has been built. Fields for rugby, lacrosse, and soccer are in full operation on Marconi Drive. Christian Bro­thers Academy has built a baseball field in the middle of City Park. On Harrison Avenue in Lakeview, the rebuilt Hynes Elementary School has recently opened. While Hynes Elem­entary School has been rebuilt and occupied, planning continues infinitum on the building of McDonogh 35.

The New Orleans power elite have dictated that no public high school will be built on the old Kennedy site in City Park. Why? Does this course of action pre-select winners and losers?

Why most black folks did not receive their 40 acres and a mule after slavery, most New Orleans black folks didn’t receive their symbolic forty acres of $150,000 after Hurricane Katrina. While the Missis­sippi state government arranged for practically all homeowners whose property was destroyed in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina to receive the $150,000 grant to rebuild their homes, the Louisiana state government arranged to individualize the grant. As a result, practically all homeowners in the Lake­view area received the entire $150,000 grant, while homeowners in the Gen­tilly area received far less. Why? Does this course of action pre-select winners and losers?

If New Orleans continues to rationalize allocating less than 40 acres for high schools that primarily serve the Black community, New Orleans will continue to demonstrate that lessons from the past were not learned. If Louisiana government continues to ra­tion­alize the misallocation of the Road Home grants, Louisiana will continue to demonstrate that lessons from the past were not learned.

It is a Louisiana habit to pre-select winners and then applaud the winners for winning. When­ever a pre-selected winner loses, the pre-selected winner is given the do-over. It is also a Louisiana habit to pre-select losers, and then kick the losers in the butt for losing. Whenever the pre-selected loser wins, the pre-select loser is accused of cheating and the results are invalidated.

Any demonstration that lessons from the past are learned, and not routinely and perpetually ig­nored, would support the theory that all communities must now receive their symbolic 40 acres and a mule.

– Philip J. White

This article was originally published in the April 9, 2012 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper

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