School Desegregation in Reconstruction New Orleans

Antebellum Schools in New Orleans

The New Orleans public school system was one of the oldest in the American South. Established in 1841, all the schools were exclusive to white children. Black New Orleanians, whether free or enslaved, were forbidden to attend public schools.

Reconstruction

Access to Public Education

The Union occupation of New Orleans in April 1862 created a new opportunity for African Americans to shape and pursue their visions of freedom. Black New Orleanians, both Creoles and Anglophone communities, regarded right to education as a fundamental tenet of civil rights. Notably, they did not only demand access to public education, but also argued that their children should be able to attend any school with whites. They pushed the desegregation of public schools by joining the Republican Party, forming numerous social and cultural clubs and organizations and advocating for their ideals in newspapers such as L’Union and the New Orleans Tribune.

The 1868 Constitution

After long years of grassroots activism, black political leaders attended the state constitutional convention for the first time ever in 1867. Their participation drastically changed state laws. The 1868 Louisiana state constitution not only assured children of African descent the right to public education but also banned the establishment of segregated public schools.

Desegregation in the 1870s

Even after the ratification of the 1868 state constitution, many whites including New Orleans school board members attempted to maintain schools exclusively for white children. After three years of political debates at the state legislature and a number of court cases and individual admission requests, the radical Republicans, led by black leaders, took over the school board in 1871. Under their guidance, white schools accepted the admission of African American students upon the request of families who wished to send their children to a white school.

From 1871 to 1877, about one-third of the city public schools admitted both white and African American students, until the city school board became a majority-segregationist group again and decided to resegregate every school in the city.

 

Next: Creoles of Color