A Diversity Garden Comes to Benjamin Franklin High School in New Orleans

1395960_746516154079_227933241_nNew Orleans   Fifty years ago, the Class of 1966 entered Benjamin Franklin High School in New Orleans in the fall of 1963, not unlike tens of thousands of others entering their public high schools in cities and towns all over the United States, all of whom hoped undoubtedly they were special in some personal way, but all of whom were the same in some ordinary way as the generation marched slowly forward.   This particular class was unique in New Orleans, because the high school was a bit different and in the midst of the historic changes in the South at that time, this was the first high school class to be integrated in the city, as fourteen young African-American men and women joined the others, including me, in starting high school then.

            Even though elementary schools began integration only three years before in 1960, grade by grade, Franklin became the only high school to be integrated and jump out of the gradual court ordered sequence, because lawyers could not argue that there was any other equivalent “separate but equal” alternative to the special entry, college preparatory offering of the school.  Entry into Franklin required certain achievement test scores and IQ testing to a certain level, and continued attendance required maintaining at the time a specific grade level, and the school only in operation for several years at the time, prided itself on sending virtually every graduate on to a college or university.

            There was publicity, but none of the violence and disruption that met the initial integration several years before in New Orleans, although there should be no misunderstanding that the end of segregation at this level was not greeted with open arms.   For example no other public school in the Orleans Parish School District was willing to play Franklin in any sports.  Even by our senior year, that remained the case, with a football schedule an odd mix of private schools and parochial schools often outmatching us so terribly that to win even a single game in the season was an accomplishment.  What we won were science fairs and places on the list of National Merit Finalists and catcalls on the street and fights in more than one parking lot, as well as a small feeling of being a footnote to history.

            Thanks to the determined organizing of classmate, gentleman, and scholar Dan Russell, a professor at Springfield College in Massachusetts, our small Class of 1966 pulled together and more than 20 donors contributed to help finance a Diversity Garden to commemorate that time and that small accomplishment still important to many of us.   Sharon Carter Sheridan, one of the first 14, in that class spoke briefly at the dedication of the garden in the school courtyard of how it felt to be “invisible” then and the important contributions of African-American graduates of the school subsequently. 

            In the self-absorption that seems epidemic to teenagers, Sharon was no doubt hitting the nail on the head.  Only a few of the original 14 survived to graduation.  We all could, and should, have done more to make success of the experience for all, but we were all fighting to find ourselves and missed many such opportunities, and for some of us, given our life’s trajectory, the responsibility still weighs heavy, which makes the Diversity Garden more important than simply being a showcase for native plants.  

            The principal spoke with pride of the diversity of the student body, but it was impossible not to hear in a school system that is overwhelmingly African-American in a city that has been more than a majority African-American for decades, that barely a third of the Franklin student body is African-American.  The school is now a charter high school since Hurricane Katrina and outside of the elected school board’s scrutiny and accountability now, though part of its failure to return undoubtedly lies in the continuing tension about its diversity that was an ever present issue with the school board before the storm

            The Diversity Garden was inspiring and come spring will be beautiful, but like any garden for it to flourish it will require constant attention and work, just as successful integration of people and their races, gender, and cultures requires the same ongoing struggle.  After 50 years there is still huge work to be done, and a call to leadership from this school and its graduates is still often unheeded.  This will be another small step in continuing to make a difference in the future on issues that remain difficult in the present.

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