Thomas Ultican: A Scholarly Masterpiece: William Frantz Public School
Thomas Ultican offers a review of an important book that considers the many problems of the dismantling of New Orleans’ public school system. Reprinted with permission.
My wonderful friend from New Orleans, Mercedes Schneider, said of this meticulously researched book, “Intense, captivating, and horrible in its reality, William Frantz Public School is a story overdue for the telling – a must read for those seeking to understand New Orleans’ history and the lingering impact of White racial superiority upon the Black community and city infrastructure.” I concur. It is a captivating read.
At its 1938 founding, speakers proclaimed the new William Frantz Public School (WFPS) a “protection for democracy” and a “fortification against encroachment of those terrible ‘isms.’” (WFPS page 3)
However, racism did not just encroach; it dominated. WFPS was built to be a White students only school. Sitting on the border between the all white Florida neighborhood and the all Black Desire neighborhood, WFPS only served the White families. Worse still; the authors report,
“The Orleans Parish School Board built no schools between 1941 and 1951. As a result, existing neighborhood schools throughout the city faced overcrowding. The problem was particularly acute in Desire. Due to the severe overcrowding, many Black children attended school for only a fraction of the time as their White peers living in the Florida neighborhood.” (WFPS 9)
With the Brown versus the Board of education decision in 1954, the Supreme Court declared racial segregation as a school enrollment policy unconstitutional. Louisiana segregationists quickly coalesced to become leaders of their state’s “massive resistance” movement to oppose integration.
In 1955, a wealthy lawyer named Leander Perez and a state senator named William Rainich established the White Citizens’ Council in Louisiana. By that fall, the white supremacist organization had chapters in half of the state’s parishes and a statewide membership of 100,000. The New Orleans chapter would eventually grow to over 50,000 members. (WFPS 21)
As the White Citizens’ Council started calling for the public schools to be closed rather than integrated, a group named Save Our Schools (SOS) formed to oppose closing schools. The book notes, “Although ardent in their work, many perceived SOS as elite and ‘liberals allied with the Urban League, the Council of Jewish Women, [and] the league of Women Voters.’” (WFPS 24) Many SOS members sent their own children to all white public schools and though disagreeing about the Brown decision, they all agreed it was settled law.
The authors document political strong-arming, horrific acts of cruelty and the hysterical fear with which white racists fought to stop school integration. Their greatest horror was realized when one 6-years-old girl named Ruby Bridges was escorted into WFPS on November 14, 1960.
The Times-Picayune ran an editorial with the headline “Dreadful Day Comes at Last” and the White Citizens’ Council started pressuring White parents to pull their children out of WFPS. Protestors surrounded the school, chanted racist slogans and intimidated anyone approaching the school. (WFPS 35)
In an attempt to keep some of the White children in WFPS, President Mary Sand and others from SOS organized car pools to deliver students to the front of the school so they would not be forced to go through the heckling crowd. “Like the families of the students they transported to WFPS, SOS drivers received crude and threatening telephone calls, up to 200 per day, from people who told the women they would ‘cut your cunt out and stuff it down your throat.’” (WFPS 59-60)
As a result of the intimidation tactics, New Orleans was able to defy court orders and schools remained virtually segregated. The following year:
“Black citizens started an unofficial boycott of White-owned department stores and threatened to cancel the Zulu parade, a traditional and popular Black parade, during the upcoming Mardi Bras. Rumors circulated that the entire Mardi Gras celebration would be canceled … By mid-December, city business leaders along with the Times-Picayune finally called for the end of the protests, intimidation, and vandalism.” (WFPS 69)
As the decade of the 90s opened the neighborhood around WFPS was in trouble. “Prostitutes worked the streets outside some schools, and an early 1990s poll of Black students from the Desire projects located near WFPS found 40% of Black students had seen a dead body and 72% had seen weapons being used.” (WFPS 121)
Seventy-five thousand Black children and 19,000 White children constituted Orleans Parish school district in the early 1990s with extreme poverty gripping the Black community. (WFPS 117)
By 1993, there were no White students attending WFPS. (WFPS 111)
In 1997, the state established its test based accountability scheme. (WFPS 128)
In 1998, WFPS was judged academically unacceptable. (WFPS 132)
In 2005, WFPS was put on the National Register of Historic Places. (WFPS 155)
In 2013, like the rest of the post Katrina schools in New Orleans, WFPS became a charter school. (WFPS 258)
Three white women who are not from New Orleans – Connie L. Schaffer, Meg White, and Martha Graham Viator – say they considered not writing this book because of that. It is our great good fortune that they did. Their scholarly and extremely readable effort shines some much needed light on the horrible racism and mistreatment the Black citizens of New Orleans.