It’s Time To Send John McDonogh Down The River

We are told that John McDonogh was a great man. He was a moral and kind slave owner to be lauded for being way ahead of his time. Unlike most massas, he didn’t beat the slaves he kept prisoner on his plantation. He was much too compassionate for that. He gave them another incentive to help make him rich instead. John McDonogh, the benevolent man he was, made a deal with his slaves. If they managed to buckle down and  work on his plantation for 15 years without dying, he’d actually set them free. And he would send them back to Africa – even if they weren’t from Africa. And best of all, they wouldn’t even have to pay for the boat ride. It would be at John McDonogh’s expense. Just the sort of parting gesture of appreciation for time well served from a benevolent slave owner. Imagine that.

John McDonogh High School New Orleans

 McDonogh’s name is on my high school diploma and generations of others.

Over time, John McDonogh came to own 4 plantations and an estimated 500 slaves. David McDonogh, no relation, was rumored to be one of his favorites. David worked and slaved his way to eventually earning a bachelor’s degree from Lafayette College in 1844. He went on to become the first African American Eyes, Ears, Nose, and Throat specialist in the country. Of course, he could not practice in New Orleans. Refusing to go back to Africa, he moved to New York. David died in New York. Many other African Americans moved from New Orleans to New York. Up north, they realized their potential and their talents were recognized. Today, John McDonogh has his name plastered on schools all across the city, set up via his will to enshrine himself as a charitable local legend. David McDonogh has a scholarship in his name – based in New York.

Justin McCorkle, Director of Community Relations for NOLA Public Schools, wants to finally give David McDonogh the local recognition he feels he deserves. He wants to name the building that houses McDonogh #35 after him. “What better way to bring him back to New Orleans?” McCorkle says.

NOLA Public Schools is in the process of finishing off the name changing initiative that began years ago. With street names also being changed, and statutes being taken down, this is part of a city-wide movement to break away from its confederate past.

I find myself confused though. “So wait, If this happens, when people ask me the famous question “where’d you go to school?”

 Should I say David McDonogh High?”

“No,” McCorkle says, “we’re changing the name of the building, not the school.” Count me as one of the people who didn’t know they were not one and the same.

McCorkle says some of #35’s alumni have been fighting the name change, so he felt the need to compromise. It was through trying to appease those alumni that he came up with David McDonogh. “It’s a win-win for everybody,” McCorkle says.

As he sees it, the McDonogh#35 legacy gets to live on while David McDonogh finally gets his due. I wonder what John McDonogh would think of the irony. Basically having his organization work on David McDonogh’s land. Somehow, that seems appropriate. I wonder if the contract can be done in 15 year increments.

McCorkle wants to do more than just remove names. He wants the replacements to have a connection to the city. “This has been a thoughtful and meaningful process as far as the culture of New Orleans,” he says. “This was not done out of emotion.”

Public Input

NOLA Public Schools is in the process of taking suggestions from the public. Then the next step will be approval by the board. If you have a name in mind be sure and submit one, like PBS Pinchback for example.

As far as John McDonogh, the last time I saw Mr. McDonogh his head was being dragged down Poydras street to the river. There amongst boisterous fanfare, the head was then thrown into the water. As it sank, bubbles pooled to the surface and ripples ensued. People clapped. People cheered. I think somebody blew a trumpet.  It was a festive affair. A hundred years ago it would’ve been indistinguishable from a lynching. Eventually, the head was retrieved. The lengths some will go to save his legacy runs deep. Let’s just hope #35’s alumni did not fund the retrieval.

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