Washington Elementary students

Washington Elementary students cross the street during dismissal in Kenner, La., Tuesday, Feb. 11, 2020.

In 1930, a group of six Black men approached the Jefferson Parish School Board with a request: open a high school for Black students in Kenner, many of whom had to end their formal education at eighth grade or, if they were lucky, were able to take the train to school in New Orleans.

As was common at the time, the School Board offered a conditional yes: They would authorize a school, but didn't want to buy the land or pay construction costs.

So the group held bake sales and suppers, collected money door-to-door and asked for donations at churches. They eventually scrounged up enough money to build the school that still sits on Clay Street and has for decades been an anchor for the south Kenner community.

Debra Houston Edwards — whose grandfather, James “Brett” Carter, was in the initial group who approached the school board — was among those who were devastated to learn in March that the school was one of six in Jefferson Parish that will not reopen next year under the district’s restructuring plan. Deemed surplus, the School Board plans to demolish the six schools and sell the properties. Washington students will attend Ralph J. Bunche Elementary in Metairie.

Washington Elementary

Washington Elementary School in south Kenner, photographed in Wednesday March 4, 2020. (Photo by David Grunfeld, NOLA.com, The Times-Picayune | The New Orleans Advocate)

But Edwards and “Supporters of Washington Elementary,” a group dedicated to saving the school, have not yet conceded defeat. Given the school's history, they want to obtain historic landmark status for the building and keep it as a community space.

Meanwhile School Board members are in talks with other public agencies about a potential purchase or swap.

“It’s been a beacon of hope in the community,” said Edwards, a former Jefferson Parish schools administrator and Kenner resident who described the school as synonymous with "family."

"[Its loss] is a major death and a blow to the legacy of those who paved the way for us," she said. 

Rich history

For Edwards and others, the history of Washington Elementary began in the late 1860s, when community leaders would teach Black children in churches and in the homes of recently emancipated slaves.

A public school for Black students in Kenner was built in 1906 on land donated by John Clancy and Margaret Long Clancy, part of the influential Clancy family, and named George S. Washington Elementary after a local teacher and journalist, according to a history compiled by Judge Marc Johnson.

In 1936, the campus on Clay Street that was funded by community dollars opened as the first 1st-12th-grade school on the east bank for Black students. It also drew Black students from neighboring St. Charles Parish. 

The school carried several names over the years – Kenner Colored, Kenner Colored High, and Kenner Colored Elementary – but in 1957 its name became Washington Elementary. Fourteen years later the school was integrated, though it has largely served a majority Black student enrollment.

A path forward

This isn’t the first time the school has been on the chopping block. In 2020, it was slated to consolidate with the nearby Bunche Elementary. But after outcry from Kenner city leaders and some residents, the School Board amended the plan and brought in a STEM-focused curriculum to draw more students.

At the time, Kenner City Council threw its support behind the school, acknowledging its historical significance.

Kenner City Council member Dee Dunn said the council has received a letter from Supporters of Washington requesting support but has not yet discussed it as a group.

School Board member Derrick Shepherd, whose district includes Washington Elementary, said he has had preliminary discussions with the city of Kenner about turning it into a Head Start center.

“The fact that former slaves had to put their nickels and dimes together to build the school just to educate the children speaks to what it means to the community,” he said.

Dr. Robert Dawson, who attended Washington Elementary in the 1960s, said Supporters of Washington plan to apply for a Historic Preservation Fund grant through the state. Edwards said that funding would help them work toward getting Washington Elementary on the National Register of Historic Places.

Jefferson Parish School Board member Clay Moise said the district never considered applying for historic registry.

"We've got one objective and that's to educate kids and we don't need the building to do that," Moise said. "We're not in the business of owning real estate, especially historic properties."

A vision for the future

Edwards said she hoped the school could become a community resource center that includes childcare and classes for the elderly.

Dawson said he hoped it would include a museum to teach people about the history of the school and segregation in the South.

“It’s not just dormant history it’s vibrant and living,” Dawson said. “Washington has always been there. ... to say you’re going to take a bulldozer and wipe it away, that’s unconscionable.”