Unit 1

The Roots of Our Racist System: 1841-1877

This module will be open for discussion from January 11-29, but the resources will remain available for your reference all semester. As you move through the unit, consider: What is the role of education and schools? Historically, how does it differ for black and white New Orleanians?

Look for these icons throughout our units...

World Context: What is going on in the world that impacts the events we are learning about?

US Context: What is going on in the United States that impacts the events we are learning about?

Use Your Voice: Be sure to engage in the discussion so we can learn with and from each other.

The Beginning of New Orleans Public Schools

Use Your Voice: U1.Q1 In your life, why are schools and education important? Respond here.

“In New Orleans,… white businessmen founded the public school system in 1841 for ‘all resident white children’…. African Americans comprised more than 40% of New Orleans 102,000 inhabitants in 1840…almost evenly divided between the enslaved and the free. Like the city’s white public school founders, free black residents viewed education as inextricably tied to community development. Yet unlike those men, who viewed schools as vehicles for promoting urban and economic growth and a fixed racial order, free black New Orleanians believed schools could and should advance a broader social vision. Specifically, they embraced education to expand rather than limit the meaning of citizenship…”(Stern, 2018, p.531-532).

Meet Marie Couvent, founder of the first school for black New Orleanians

“The Faubourg Marigny became a racially mixed suburb… after Bernard Marigny began subdividing it in 1805. Taking advantage of Marigny’s willingness to sell on credit, many white immigrants and free men- and women- of color purchased property in the neighborhood, bringing enslaved people with them… Land ownership bolstered New Orleans’s free black class and the status of women within it” (Stern, 2018, p.531-532). 

World Context: 1804 marked the end of revolution in Saint-Domingue, the only successful uprising of enslaved people which resulted in independence from France, the formation of Haiti, and in an influx of free black residents to New Orleans

Marie Couvent was one of those women. Couvent was born around 1757 in western Africa. At age seven, she was kidnapped and forced into slavery in the French colony of Saint-Domingue. In the early 1790s, she was separated from her ten-year-old son. Years later, she continued to search for her son, attempting to secure his freedom (Stern, Race and Education in New Orleans, 2018).

US Context: In 1831, an enslaved man named Nat Turner led a group in a rebellion against enslavers, killing between 55-65 people. The backlash of this event led to increased violence against enslaved and free black people across the South and new laws tightening control against blacks in the South.

“(After Couvent’s death) free black men had to fight to realize her bequest…  This was partly because attacks on slavery by literate African Americans such as… Nat Turner had stoked concerns about the threat black education posed to the racial order. In 1830, Louisiana outlawed literacy training for enslaved people and banned language and written materials ‘having a tendency to produce discontent among the free coloured population… or insubordination among slaves.’ State officials restricted additional free black people from entering Louisiana...

…. (When the school opened, it) immediately established itself as a springboard for black advancement within New Orleans and as the epicenter of an unparalleled democratic vision within the United States… Banned from the city’s public system, free black New Orleanians treated Couvent’s school, referred to as the Catholic Institution, as a public one” (Stern, 2018 pp. 532-533).

US Context: Dred Scott, an enslaved man who had lived in a free state, sued for his freedom and lost. The Supreme Court ruled in 1857 that Scott did not have the right to sue in federal court because black people, free or enslaved, were not citizens of the United States.

The board of the Couvent School convinced the state legislature to regularly set aside money for educating poor and orphaned students. They argued that free blacks New Orleanians should benefit from the taxes that they paid, tax dollars that also paid for the whites-only public schools. This was likely the first public investment in education for African Americans in the South. Though they were successful, they had to continue to fight for money each year, sometimes receiving payment after the school year began. However, in 1857, amidst rising anti-black sentiment locally and nationally, the legislature eliminated funding for the Catholic Institution entirely

“The prejudice against the colored population is very strong in this part of the country… the white people have an Institution [public school] in every district and they are all protected very well. By we, who have but a single one, cannot be protected at all.” -Student A. Frilot (Stern, 2018, p. 537)

Use Your Voice: U1.Q2 Why do you think so many white Louisianians were opposed to the education of black people during this time? Respond here.

The Union wins the Civil War in 1865, abolishing slavery with the 13th Amendment, establishing citizenship for African American men with the 14th Amendment, and suffrage for citizens with the 15th Amendment.

Reconstruction: A New Chapter

Hope in education for blacks in New Orleans came with a Union victory in the Civil War and the emancipation of enslaved people. Following the end of the Civil War and the Reconstruction Acts, Louisiana ratified one of the most radical state constitutions of its time in 1868, placing the South under military rule by federal (e.g. former Union) troops, enfranchising African American men, and banning distinctions based upon race in public schools and accommodations.

“This broadside (to the left) commemorates the new Louisiana constitution that was rewritten under the Reconstruction Acts of 1867. It salutes many of the blacks, most of them freeborn, who formed a majority of delegates at the Louisiana Constitutional Convention of 1868. They included Oscar J. Dunn, the state's lieutenant governor, and Pinckney B.S. Pinchback, who became lieutenant governor and subsequently, for one month, the nation's first black governor.”

American’s Reconstruction: People and Politics After the Civil War. (2003.) Digital History. Retrieved from https://www.digitalhistory.uh.edu/exhibits/reconstruction/section4/section4_22.html

“The desegregation of at least twenty-one of the city’s schools between 1871 and 1877 possibly gave New Orleans the most integrated system in the country. The system even overcame a violent challenge to desegregation in mid-December 1874. White teenage ‘regulators’ attacked desegregated schools and incited rioting that forced schools to close early for the winter holidays. But desegregation continued after the break. At racially mixed schools… enrollment increased during desegregation, and these schools were often considered the best in the city.” (Stern, 2018. p.539-540)

Use Your Voice: U1.EQ What is the role of education and schools? Historically, how does it differ for black and white New Orleanians? Respond here + reply to at least two of your peers.

Optional Extension Activities

These are optional activities and food for thought. Teachers, you can use these activities to keep the discussion flowing...

Discussion #1: This headline from our local newspaper refers to Couvent’s school as an “historic orphanage property,” underplaying the role and importance of the school. In no more than 13 words, rewrite the headline to more accurately reflect the history we have learned in this unit. What accounts for the inaccuracy? What would you say to this reporter? 

Discussion #2: Marie Couvent  A.P. Tureaud Elementary School, closed in 2015, briefly considered taking Marie Couvent’s name. However, because she owned slaves, they named it for A.P. Tureaud, the famous New Orleans attorney who helped end legal segregation in New Orleans. Do you agree with the decision? Should Marie Couvent be more widely known as an influential historical figure in New Orleans?


AAME : (n.d.). Retrieved December 21, 2020, from http://www.inmotionaame.org/gallery/detail.cfm?migration=5&topic=8&id=464793&type=image&metadata=show&page=

Couvent School—Board of Directors, 1917. (2012, July 22). CreoleGen. http://www.creolegen.org/2012/07/21/couvent-school-board-of-directors-1917/

Hasselle, D. (2019). Catholic Church seeking to take formal ownership of historic orphanage property in Marigny. NOLA.Com. Retrieved from https://www.nola.com/news/courts/article_373f039e-92d0-520f-8244-0836335769a6.html

Marie Couvent. (n.d.). 64 Parishes. Retrieved December 17, 2020, from https://64parishes.org/entry/marie-couvent

Monuments, P., Mitchell, M. N., narrative, Stein, L., & artwork. (n.d.). Couvent School. New Orleans Historical. Retrieved December 17, 2020, from https://neworleanshistorical.org/items/show/1439

America’s Reconstruction: People and Politics After the Civil War.  (2003). Retrieved from https://www.digitalhistory.uh.edu/exhibits/reconstruction/section4/section4_22.html

Stern, W. C. (2018). Long before Ruby’s Walk: New Orleans Schools, Race, and Thinking beyond Backlash. The Journal of African American History, 103(4), 526–559. https://doi.org/10.1086/699951

Stern, W. (2018). Race & education in New Orleans: Creating the segregated city, 1764-1960 (Making the modern South). Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press.

*Background photographs were taken by Kim Frusciante in 2020 at the original site of the Couvent School.