Two Men and New Orleans

John McDonogh Senior High School on historic Esplanade Avenue in New Orleans was in all the news last fall, as the scene of a number of serious fights between students and between students and faculty. One of our pastors, Lionel Roberts of St. Bernard Baptist Mission, is on staff there, handling disciplinary problems, and he agreed to give Pastor Thomas Glover and me the grand tour this morning.

That’s how we ended up in a meeting with Bill Cosby.

We arrived at 10 am and waded through several layers of security guards. They seemed to be everywhere, mainly standing around and looking people over, not checking IDs or passing people through scanners. Their presence is as a leavening agent, I suppose. Lionel pointed out they were not armed. “Most of these kids respect only law enforcement people with a gun on their hip.”

I said, “Who was John McDonogh? There are schools all over New Orleans named for this man.” Thomas Glover attended this school–he calls it “John Mac”–and said, “Some rich guy a long time ago who endowed a lot of schools in this city. When I was a student here, every year on his birthday, the schools would let out and we would all convene at his tombstone. It was a big deal.” The phone directory lists a half dozen “McDonogh” schools, including three “senior high schools” with his name. This one was listed simply as John McDonogh Senior High School, but the other two have numbers, like “McDonogh 28 High School.” I had no idea. Bet this is really confusing. (see post script at the end for more on McDonogh.)

That must have been some man. Thomas said, “There used to be more schools named for him, but they’ve changed the names of some.”

“This school was built in the 1920s,” said Lionel Roberts. I said, “It looks great. Fresh coat of paint everywhere.” The result of post-Katrina volunteers, he said.

We met the principal, Mr. Jackson, an impressive-looking young man who was trying to juggle several things at the same time, so we swapped business cards and told him we are praying for him. He was very personable and you immediately felt a respect for him.

“Are all the students Black?” I asked. “We have a few Hispanic,” said Lionel. “No whites.”

I had brought along my sketch pad, so I said, “Does this school have art classes? Let’s go there.” Art teachers are always glad when a cartoonist drops in. Gives them a break from teaching and the kids love to get drawn and they might actually pick up a pointer in the process.

Mrs. Marshall is the new art teacher at McDonogh and a very nice lady. She turned over the dozen students to us, and we invited them to gather around and watch. One by one, I drew them all. Some drawings turned out pretty good, some not so much, but the students were appreciative. About the time I finished, the next class entered and we did it all over again.

At the end of the period, Thomas asked if he could address the class. He had been casually chatting with the students while I was drawing, now told them he was a local pastor and had a story, the one about the mischievous boy who approached a man with a small bird in his hand. “Is it alive or dead?” he asked. The man knew if he said “dead,” the kid would open his hand and let it fly. If he said, “alive,” the boy would crush it. So he said, “It is as you choose.”

Thomas said, “Your life is like that. You get to decide what to do with it. You can make excuses and blame your parents or society, or you can stand on your feet and decide to study and do right and make the most of your life. It’s up to you.”

He told them about his life. An absentee alcoholic mother and a father he never knew and a step-father who dropped out of the picture early. “From the time I was in the 6th grade, I was working,” he said. Cutting grass. “When I was a senior in this school, they found out I was missing school two days a week and called me in. I told the principal I had to work to help pay bills–I had a grass-cutting business–so they started releasing me at noon, and let me graduate early.” In time, Thomas enrolled in Delgado Community College and later earned a Masters of Divinity at our Baptist Seminary and then a Masters in Social Work at Southern University in New Orleans.

Thomas is now the full-time pastor of our New Covenant Baptist Mission meeting in their own buildings for the first time, the campus that was formerly Woodmere Baptist Church of Harvey. He said it feels so strange not having to ask permission to use that building, that it’s really theirs. “We’ve already dedicated the youth center for the community,” he said.

At the end of the second art class, Mrs. Marshall asked if we would like to have a prayer. We all joined hands in a circle and I prayed a brief prayer for the students. She told me later that being new in this school with a long history of trouble, she prays every morning for the Holy Spirit to be present and to use her to make a difference in these young people’s lives.

It was noon and we were getting ready to leave. “I heard that Bill Cosby is in town,” said Lionel Roberts. “He may be coming by.” Almost on cue, the front door opened and a dozen people walked in. One was the famous Dr. William Cosby himself, looking almost inconspicuous in a “TCM” (Turner Classic Movies) sweatshirt and sweat pants. He shook a few hands and let himself be herded down the hall to the library.

“Want to stick around?” said Lionel. “Sure.” Thomas and I expected we would stand along the rear of the library and hear some kind of news conference. But it was not to be.

Dignitaries were arriving and everyone was moving tables and chairs. We ended up with 20 chairs in a circle in the middle of the library. Everything in the library was sparklingly new and so beautiful. FEMA or some government authority, we learned, had junked every item in the libraries of all public schools just in case mold that “might” be in some items would make someone ill and “might” result in lawsuits.

So now we’re sitting in a circle with all these folks and Thomas and I have no idea what’s about to happen. Worse, we’re sitting next to the big guys. I’m here, Thomas is on my left, Principal Jackson is on his left, and then comes Bill Cosby. Two or three heavy-duty cameras are panning the group and recording every word. I’m not sure, but I think Thomas and I were the backdrop for most of the Cosby shots.

“We want each one to introduce yourself and tell what group you are representing,” the leader said. Uh oh. I guess we’ll be found out.

A couple of state senators, the governor’s representative, representatives of the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, a city council member, and two or three whose names were familiar but I could not place them, and several others. And then, these two Baptist preachers who basically wandered in off the streets.

“This meeting is sponsored by the Downtown Neighborhood Improvement Association and a group of students here at McDonogh called ‘Fyre Youth Squad,'” the leader said. A few minutes later, the door opened and a dozen students pulled up chairs and joined the group.

The point of the gathering was to get the politicians and power-brokers on board with improvements in public education in New Orleans. They were rightfully concerned about 300 students on waiting lists for schools in this city, with no room for them in any school, and about the overcrowded schools. They were concerned about students being suspended and sent home to walk the streets, about security guards everywhere who should be replaced by counselors and trained workers, and about the inadequate number of certified teachers.

“We’re asking BESE and our state legislators to work together for these goals,” the leader said. “Making education the top priority in the rebuilding of our city, building world class school systems to serve all children equitably with excellence, and fostering a safe and positive learning environment in order to reverse the trend of turning our schools into prisons and criminalizing our children.”

Bill Cosby spoke with passion about his concern for our children. “We can’t be suspending these children and putting them on the streets,” he said. “They need to go to special classes. In-school suspensions where they will learn how to study. We need to demand this.”

He told about his Grandma Cosby. “I have a routine about this. My Grandma Cosby had a 3rd grade education. The only thing she ever read was the Bible. But when I would come home from Temple University, she would say, ‘What are you doing there?’ She wanted to know. One time I told her,’Today we spent three hours in a philosophical argument over whether the glass is half full or half empty. And we never did decide.’ She said, ‘That depends on if you’re drinking or pouring.'”

“It’s a shame the way we’re neglecting these children,” he said, the fire in his gut powering his words. “The people dedicated to see that black and poor children don’t get an education need to know the fun is over for them. I’m coming back and coming back and coming back. And that’s not a threat.”

“Every youth will respond to love and attention. We need to respect them.” Frequently when another speaker scored a good point, Cosby pumped his fist in agreement.

The leader tried to keep the meeting moving. He said, “Let’s hear from the students. Anyone want to say anything?” Two did.

A young man said softly, “You don’t need to be just sitting around talking. You need to be doing something. We need action.”

Bill Cosby said, “Wait a minute! Stand back up there! You need to hear this. We are talking, that’s true. But there’s so much junk out there, we have to talk our way through the clutter to see what we need to do. Don’t criticize us for talking. What are you doing?” He grilled the youth about his own life.

A young woman said, “My name is India. I’m 21 years old and I’m still a senior.” Her mother was a drug addict, she said, and she was mostly raised by an aunt. Now she herself has a 5 year old child. “Don’t tell us to get our parents involved in the education process,” she said. “We don’t even know where our parents are. Most of the students in this school are from the same kinds of households.”

I sat there thinking I was hearing about a part of New Orleans I know nothing about.

When she finished, Bill Cosby said–in that Dr. Huxtable voice we’re all so familiar with–“Now wait a minute! You have a child, you say?” Yes. “And she’s in school?” Yes sir. “Are you involved in her education?” I’m a member of the parent-teacher organization, yes. “Do you talk to her teachers? Do you know the others in the class?” After a bit of this, he said, “India, you have so much to offer to these young girls in this school. They’re hanging around, smoking, just waiting to get into trouble. You could invite them for a soft drink and tell them what you went through. Be their friend. Mentor some of them.”

I thought two things: these kids will never forget the stern talking-to they received from this famous man, and what a treasure he is. With his money and fame, he could be relaxing on the Riviera and letting New Orleans’ inner city go its own sad way. But he’s here helping us, pouring himself into this city.

What a special friend. A take-charge friend. I caught a little glimpse of that just before we left the building.

I slipped out of the meeting early and asked a security person where the rest room was. “Right there, but there’s someone in it.” The sign said, “Faculty rest room.” Must have been a one-seater. Another man was waiting, but he gave up and went back inside. In two minutes the library opened and Dr. Bill Cosby emerged with a couple of friends. “Where’s the rest room?” he said. The guard pointed it out to him and said, “There’s someone in there.”

Cosby walked up to that door and evidently decided the fellow had held that little room long enough. As I left, he was knocking on the door. Very firmly. The same way Bill Cosby does everything.

Thomas and I ate some burgers at a local fast food place, thankful for the experience we had just had, the people we had met, and the insights into the heart of Bill Cosby we’d been given.

This is real leadership, the kind that looks at a problem and says, “Now let’s do something,” rather than taking a poll to discover the lowest common denominator and doing the least we can get by with.

Maybe the Cosby effect is catching. We had enough leaders there to make a real difference, once they decide to lead. And yes, we left asking the Lord what should be our role in this. Both Thomas and I live in Jefferson Parish suburbs, but we’re all in this battle together.

All in all, we had enjoyed a very special three hours. Thomas said, “It was a God thing. If we had come out of the art class 10 minutes earlier, we would have missed the Cosby folks. Ten minutes later and we’d have been locked out of the library.”

On the way in this morning, I had prayed, “Father, I’m not sure what we expect out of our visit to John McDonogh School today. But would you use it for your glory, and speak to us as well as through us.”

A good answer, Lord. Thank you, Father.

(P. S. I “googled” John McDonogh and Bill Cosby. Here’s what I found out.

McDonogh was born in Baltimore in 1779 and arrived in New Orleans at the turn of the 19th century as an apprentice merchant agent. He fought in the Battle of New Orleans (1814-15) as a member of Beale’s Rifles. He quickly made his fortune here and owned sawmills and brickyards and speculated in land. In 1842, he paid for 80 of his slaves to return to Liberia, and died in 1850. Left his vast fortune to the poor. It was divided between Baltimore and New Orleans to build schools. By 1898, New Orleans could count 28 schools named for John McDonogh.

Bill Cosby was born in July of 1937. Completed high school by correspondence, then went on to graduate from Temple University and got a Ph.D. in education from UMass. Google has 1,500,000 listings for him. I decided not to read them all, but if you do not know this incredible man, you’d probably enjoy reading a few.

Cosby’s wife was a Hanks before marriage and is related to Abraham Lincoln’s mother Nancy Hanks. This also makes her distantly related to Tom Hanks. Cosby gave all his children names that start with E for Excellence. People who know him only from TV’s “The Cosby Show” would be interested to know that earlier he was perhaps the most popular stand-up comic ever.

I copied down a few quotes from him.

“Gray hair is God’s graffiti.” “A word to the wise ain’t necessary–it’s the stupid ones who need the advice.” “Don’t worry about senility–when it hits you, you won’t know it.” “Human beings are the only creatures that allow their children to come home.” “No parent must ever say ‘Get the kids out of here, I’m trying to watch TV.’ The father who does start saying this is likely to see one of his children on the 6 o’clock news.”)

3 thoughts on “Two Men and New Orleans

  1. Joe,

    The experiences God gives you and the words you use to describe them are like gold. God bless you.


  2. I loved these accounts of your day! Brother Joe I feel like we get to still be “related” to you through your articles. May the Lord continue to give you great health for many many more years. You are a TREASURE to the Baptist community and to the city of New Orleans and beyond. God bless you! Gail

  3. I was very happy to read this detailed account of the events that day. I am the Director of Communications and Media for the DNIA and things at the meeting were exactly as described. Thank you for this account. I will request it be put in the Amistad Research Center’s Archives if that is ok with you.

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