McDonogh has legacy in two cities

Schools: Equal bequests to New Orleans and Baltimore were used with dissimilar results

September 10, 2000|By DAYNA HARPSTER

NEW ORLEANS -- In the 150 years since John McDonogh Jr. died, his last will and testament has come to be defined by a single, straightforward request: that the bulk of his vast fortune be split equally between New Orleans and Baltimore, and dedicated to the creation of public schools and the education for the poor.

He intended it as a grand philanthropic gesture. Unwittingly, he set in motion an even grander civic experiment, in which two cities would receive identical sums of money with no instruction other than to educate as many poor children as possible.

He left them $750,000 each -- more than $25 million per city in today's dollars.

But it bought him two very different legacies.

In Baltimore, where the money was funneled into a farm for the poor that evolved into a day and boarding school, the name McDonogh is synonymous with private-school opulence and an unfettered reputation in the city of his birth.

In New Orleans, where the money was used to build 36 public schools -- most of which have been closed or renamed and many of which are struggling to overcome years of neglect -- the name McDonogh conjures images of public-school decay and salts old wounds stemming from the benefactor's slave-owning past and the city's legacy of segregation.

What is the real McDonogh legacy? There are clues concealed in the sharply contrasting ways New Orleans and Baltimore took the money and ran their school systems. But ultimately, McDonogh's rightful place in history varies according to which city you live in, whether you are a supporter of public or private education, and how you feel about race, economic class and the application of contemporary standards to historical figures.

McDonogh didn't trust lawyers. So 12 years before he died at age 70 in 1850, he wrote his will without a lawyer and made five identical copies -- in longhand.

In it, he instructed that his slaves be freed, that public schools be funded in Baltimore and New Orleans, and that poor children in both cities be provided for.

New Orleans' experience

McDonogh's gift had a great impact on the beginnings of the New Orleans public school system.

Before his death, McDonogh wrote of his wish for public schools "where the poor of both sexes and all classes and castes of color, shall have admittance."

It was not until Reconstruction in the 1870s that city officials honored McDonogh's request to educate poor black students; the wartime order that slaves not be educated had made it virtually impossible before.

From 1877 to 1889, 20 schools were constructed with McDonogh money -- 18 for white students, two for black. White students generally attended the new schools and black students moved into the schools the white children had vacated.

Of the 36 original McDonogh-funded buildings, only four were constructed for black students.

Adding another emotional charge to the race issue were the May 1 Founder's Day ceremonies, which began in 1891.

Public school students gathered to place flowers and sing at a monument constructed in McDonogh's honor. Each year, white students paid homage to their schools' founder while the black students waited in the heat for their part of the festivities to begin.

The ceremonies were segregated until 1954, when the countrywide civil rights movement came home, and reportedly only 34 of the system's 32,000 black students attended the event.

Baltimore's experience

In Baltimore, there was -- and still is -- just one school.

Because the city had a thriving public school system at the time of McDonogh's death, the money went entirely to pay for a school farm for poor boys. In 1873, the city bought 835 acres and built a school. Twenty-one boys enrolled.

Still situated on nearly 800 of the original acres in Owings Mills, the picturesque McDonogh School property is rural, bucolic and restful, with state-of-the-art facilities.

McDonogh School accepted the first paying students in 1926, was integrated in 1959 and admitted its first female students in 1975.

Unlike New Orleans, which used up the last of its McDonogh money in 1951, McDonogh School continues to reap a return on its investment of the original endowment, which is used to fund scholarships based on need. For the 2000-2001 school year, scholarships totaling $1.8 million were awarded to McDonogh students.

Tuition and facilities

Tuition for day students ranges from $12,400 to $14,300 and tuition and board for students living at the school five days a week is $19,250. Competition for admission is fierce.

Alumni, who refer to themselves as part of "the McDonogh Family," recently completed a fund-raising campaign that channeled $25 million into the school's coffers. McDonogh School claims that all its graduating seniors attend college. Future Ivy Leaguers abound and eight Olympic medalists have emerged from McDonogh's students, who can perfect their skills on 19 athletic fields, 21 tennis courts and a 32,000-square-foot athletic center.

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