Follow Friday: The Legacy of Gilbert Academy, New Orleans

Marker at the site of Gilbert Academy in New Orleans, LA where my dad attended high school. (Photo courtesy of Flikr)

Last week I read Zeitoun, Dave Eggers’ 2009 narrative of a Muslim family living in New  Orleans and what happened to them during and after Hurricane Katrina. In its pages, I recognized many of the places described from my own family trips to  New Orleans and more recent research jaunts into our history.  But when I got to the penultimate page, one name in particular jumped out at me: McDonogh #28, a junior high school on Esplanade.  Hadn’t my dad said he’d gone to school at McDonogh?  I finished the book then searched my computer until I found an interview with my dad a few year’s back. I’d been meaning to have another look at that interview anyway and cull it for any possible leads left unfollowed into our family’s history. Sure enough, Dad had gone to McDonogh, but it was #35,  a high school on “the infamous Rampart, a street of hookers, tailors, and pool rooms – no place to have a high school,” Dad had said.

That’s why I’d remembered it.  Dad wasn’t happy to be there.  (McDonogh #35 has since moved and become a bronze medal ranked school by US News and World Report). McDonogh was the second high school Dad attended, and he’d left his heart at his first, Gilbert Academy.

“I was lucky enough to go to Gilbert Academy in 9th grade,” Dad explained in the interview.  It was a private school for African Americans under the auspices of the Methodist Church. The academy’s history was captured by Keith Medley in a November, 1985 New Orleans Tribune article and in the book, Gilbert Academy and Agricultural College available on Google. Accordingly, Gilbert Academy began as an orphanage for the children of black soldiers who had gone to fight for the Union Army during the Civil War and never returned. Then, it transitioned to an agricultural and industrial college for recently emancipated slaves in the 1870s and was located on a former plantation near Franklin, Louisiana.   That is the same place where my second great grandmother, Tempy last saw her mom, Eliza Burton and her siblings when they were all still enslaved.  It’s also where Tempy’s son, Alfred met and married his wife perhaps while on an expedition to find his mother’s lost family.   What a small world.

Gilbert Academy would eventually move to St. Charles Avenue in New Orleans and become an elite high school for African Americans, funded by the Methodist Church.  My grandparents didn’t have much money or education to speak of, but they had religion. A devout Methodist, my grandmother  undoubtedly heard about the school at church.  Dad didn’t know how my grandmother got the money to send him to Gilbert. Most likely, my father received a scholarship.

While there, dad learned how to play the violin, something I never knew about him. Gilbert had an excellent music department and its chorus performed at the Chicago World’s Fair in the mid 30s. At Gilbert, he was also introduced to fraternities. Dad’s teacher, Mr. Kennedy was an Omega Psi Phi and got Dad involved with a high school fraternity they sponsored. Dad recalled his time with the high school fraternity fondly, especially a trip he took with them to Clark University in Atlanta.

But in 1949, only a year after enrolling, Gilbert Academy shut down. The Methodist church decided to sell the property the school was on to the Catholic archdiocese.   Dad didn’t get to graduate from Gilbert Academy, but his time  there forever linked him to fellow students like UN Ambassador Andrew Young, writers Margaret Walker Alexander and Tom Dent, and jazz pianist, Ellis Marsalis, dad of Wynton and Branford. How difficult it must have been to leave this sanctuary. While Dad may have had to leave Gilbert Academy,  Gilbert Academy never left Dad.

When he went to college on the GI bill in his mid 30s, the father of five kids by then, Dad joined a fraternity, the Alpha Phi Alphas.  I always wondered about that, why a grown man would need this brotherhood when he had a whole big family at home. Now I think I get it.  Gilbert Academy was a gem in an otherwise rocky time for my dad coming of age in segregated New Orleans, and the fraternity, a black brotherhood, was the legacy it bequeathed to him.

What impressions did your school leave on you?

Acts of Nature


My heart goes out to our brothers and sisters in Haiti, dealing with the devastating effects of a 7.0 magnitude earthquake, the strongest in 200 years.

I listened to the news this morning on the radio in my kitchen while I cleared breakfast plates, the same place I was standing as I took in the news of Hurricane Katrina, 4  years ago.  My grandmother, uncle, aunt and two cousins were living in New Orleans when Katrina hit, but they’d had enough warning and resources to seek shelter.  My grandmother’s nursing home moved all of its residents to Baton Rouge in anticipation of the storm and my cousins, aunt and uncle found shelter as well, mostly in other states.  I was a nervous wreck waiting to hear word that my family was okay and can only imagine the anguish families and friends are feeling now as they await word from their beloveds in Haiti.  (Click for ways to help).

I’d actually been on my way to visit my grandmother when Katrina hit.  Warnings of the impending storm as well as scheduling problems on our end made us delay our trip.  When I did finally get to see her a summer later, I had a list of things I’d been meaning to ask her before another act of nature (a storm or old age) took her from me.

“Do you remember what it was like for you growing up? Do you remember your parents?  Did you ever meet Granpa’s people, like Tempy or Josephine and what were they like?”  Grandma Lillie Mae  was already in her 90s, could no longer walk, but her memory was fantastic.  Whenever I called her on the phone, she’d say, “How are your two babies?” and “How is Dennis?”  amazing me with her recall of my  husband’s and daughters’ names and the ages of my girls as well.  That summer day in New Orleans, a year after Katrina, she was having a hard time hearing me with all the other  people in the room wanting to shower her with love and attention too.  She bounced from straining to hear my questions to smalltalk with my family, until she heard me ask about Tempy.

“Tempy was our cousin,” she said, “Tempy and Al Smith.  They were famous musicians and they moved to New York.”  I of course was talking about Tempy Burton, my great great grandmother, but Grandma Lillie Mae revealed a gold nugget of information.  She’d been close to or at least knew of Tempy’s grandchildren, Tempy and Al Smith. That meant my grandfather had been in close contact with his cousins probably more consistently than the summer vacations I’d spent with mine.

As Grandma Lillie Mae talked about my grandfather’s cousins, I got a snapshot of what her younger life might have been like, newly married and beginning a family with the support of her husband’s extended and musically talented family.  I wondered if she got to see the Smiths perform on stage, but she didn’t answer this directly.  She just beamed when she described the Smith’s musical accomplishments, and I imagined there was a special security in being attached to her husband’s sprawling clan full of siblings and cousins since she had none.

I had no idea then that I would end up meeting a Smith descendant, my cousin Monique or how valuable Grandma Lillie Mae not answering my direct question would be.

What pressing question would you ask one of your ancestors if you could?

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