Booker T. Washington's cavernous auditorium was used for much more than school functions. It became in effect the city's black municipal auditorium, hosting leg- endary entertainers, labor rallies, conventions and the like. PH O TO B Y D O N N A FR IC K ER New Orleans' African-American leaders chalked up another victory when the much lobbied for Booker T. Washington High School, with its emphasis upon vocational training, opened in 1942. But it took federal funds to make it happen. 12 SEPTEMBER 2002 PRESERVATION IN PRINT A school that was almost not built turns 60 this September, and its proud graduates want the world to know. Come join them on Saturday, September 7 as they celebrate the occasion with a brand new National Register listing, a historic marker dedication and much more at 1201 S. Roman Street, just off Earhart. The opening of Booker T. (as it is affec- tionately known) in September 1942 was a cause for great rejoicing in New Orleans' large African-American population. After all, in 1900 the New Orleans School Board had voted to limit black education to the first five grades. Now a splendid new high school was opening that rivaled any white school—not a hand-me-down school but a state-of-the-art facility built specifically for black secondary education—a first in the city. How had it all happened? Through decades of sustained activism from black leaders and a bailout from the federal gov- ernment. Lacking political power, black leaders worked through civic, religious and educa- tional organizations to press their concerns before the school board, beginning first with the total lack of public education beyond the fifth grade, as mandated by school board pol- icy in 1900. The sixth was restored in 1909, the seventh in 1913, and the eighth in 1914. With these milestones under their belts, black leaders began the campaign for a high school. The much sought after school opened in 1917 as McDonogh No. 35 in a recycled former school for whites. The next item on the activist agenda was a sorely needed vocational school. But where to find the money? The Rosenwald Fund had expressed an interest but only if the school board shared the cost. In 1930 the school board sold bonds for school construc- tion and allocated $275,000 toward construc- tion of a black trade school. The Rosenwald Fund pledged $125,000. In response to concerns that a black trade school might threaten white jobs, a public statement was issued, assuring everyone "that the trades to be taught at the school would be exclusively those which are largely occupied by colored labor at this time." But it would still be another dozen years before Booker T. became a reality. After purchasing a parcel of land for the purpose, the school board announced that it did not have the money to match the Rosenwald offer. Instead, in 1934 they built on the site a wood frame elementary school for blacks for $21,000. Although disheartened by this broken promise, black leaders continued to champi- on their goal throughout the 1930s. But it was federal, not local funds, that made Booker T. possible. In the twilight of its existence, the New Deal's Works Progress Administration fund- ed the project to the tune of some quarter of a million dollars. Like other similar schools across the South, it was named for Booker T. Washington, the famous black educator 11.J • whose name is synonymous with what was S called at the time "industrial education." cc But the opening of Booker T. gave the African-American community much more o • than a new high school. Accompanying the co school (and attached to it) was a huge audito- o • 01– rium that became in effect the city's black „I municipal auditorium. In the age of segrega- tion, the roughly 2,000 capacity auditorium was indeed "separate but equal." Soon after its opening, the facility hosted Paul Robeson in his first New Orleans appearance. The Louisiana Weekly reported that blacks turned out "en masse" to hear Robeson, along with "a fair sprinkling of whites." There were seven encores, and the audience was "almost shaking the roof with its thunderous applause." Other greats who graced the stage include Marian Anderson, Louis Armstrong, Dizzie Gillespie and Mahalia Jackson. Booker T's immense importance made it a natural for the National Register of Historic Places. The project was undertaken by the Division of Historic Preservation at the request of Booker T. teacher Mark Quirk. The black leaders who pushed so hard for its construction would have been thrilled at the delegation of Booker T. graduates who attended the public hearing in Baton Rouge. In testimony after testimony folks spoke pas- sionately about all Booker T. had given to them—from discipline to Bach, and every- thing in between. It was one of those "feel good" times that makes my job worthwhile. I look forward to celebrating with Booker T. on September 7. Booker T. Celebrates 60th Birthday by Donna Fricker Division of Historic Preservation