CARL GALMON LEARNED SOMETHING watching the 1991 Mardi Gras parade. As the band from New Orleans’s McDonogh 35 High School marched by, a visiting friend asked the local civil rights activist if the school, with its predominantly African-American enrollment, was named for the antebellum land baron John McDonogh. When Galmon said it was, the out-of-towner chuckled. “He thought it was funny,” Galmon says. “John McDonogh owned 1,823 slaves at the time of his death.”
Galmon, 56, has had the last laugh. In 1992, at his and others’ urging, the black-majority Orleans Parish School Board adopted a policy allowing schools named after “former slave owners or others who did not respect equal opportunity for all” to be renamed if parents, students and faculty so chose. Since then, 22 schools in the parish have received new names, virtually without opposition. But the board’s most recent decision, to change George Washington Elementary to Dr. Charles Richard Drew Elementary, has given the nation pause.
Many Americans feel that Washington shouldn’t be treated with such disrespect, though he owned 125 slaves when he died in 1799. (In accord with his will, his wife, Martha, freed them a year later.) But Drew (1904-50), a black surgeon who helped develop methods to preserve blood plasma, had more support at the school, where 98 percent of the students are African-American. Galmon wasn’t surprised by the decision—or by civil rights groups’ approval of the policy. “They support it strongly,” he says, “because they know the history.”