New Orleans’s Ronald McNair building will continue honoring the legacy of the Black astronaut despite having a year-old, temporary sign identifying the building as KIPP. The sign belongs to the Knowledge Is Power Program a charter school which is housed there.
Earlier this month, the temporary sign caused community concern and sparked a small letter and article writing campaign protesting the possible renaming of the building.
Because of the city’s historical battles with renaming schools, the community took the gesture and the length of time the sign was replaced as indications of a permanent name change. However, Paul Pastorek, state superintendent of education, said “The name of the school has not been removed by the act or intent of KIPP or anyone else. The signage was damaged by a tornado and we have not been able to repair it. A temporary sign was placed indicating the operator name and some concluded erroneously that there was an intentional effort to rename the school.”
“Indeed, the weather event that caused damage to Dr. Ronald McNair school occurred nearly one year ago. KIPP permanently altered the school signage by painting its name on the building. One questions why it could not have honored Dr. McNair with this gesture,” said Tracie Washington of the Louisiana Justice Institute
The building, formerly named after Confederate General Robert E. Lee, was renamed in the 1990s by the Orleans Parish School Board for McNair who died in the space shuttle Challenger explosion in 1986. The possibility of another rekindled memories for some.
“My community went through a bitter fight, including public hearings, to rename (public schools) to honor other American heroes. Dr. McNair was the first black man to give his life in the space program and naming that school after him was a milestone in the self determination of the community in which it is located,” said Louella Givens Harding, Board of Elementary and Secondary Education member.
The school renaming was launched in the late-eighties by community activist Carl Galmon. It gained national exposure when the parents of George Washington Elementary School students petitioned to rename the school in honor of Dr. Charles Richard Drew, the Black surgeon who developed methods to preserve blood plasma. Galmon and others participated in debates on Fox News’s O’Reilly Factor, PBS’s New Hour and in the New York Times and other national media. His efforts led to the renaming of 27 public schools later in 1992 when the Orleans Parish School System adopted a policy prohibiting schools to be named for “former slave owners or others who did not respect equal opportunity for all”
According to Louis Washington several schools were also renamed to ensure Black leaders and thinkers “were represented to New Orleans students positively and prominently on institutions of academic learning.” Those leaders include Mahalia Jackson, Ernest Morial, Thurgood Marshall, A.P. Tureaud, McNair, Morris F.X. Jeff, Mary McLeod Bethune, Myrtle R. Banks, Louis Armstrong, Israel Augustine, Oretha Castle Haley, Langston Hughes, Vorice Jackson Waters, Lorraine Hansberry, Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, Arthur Ashe, Barbara Jordan, and Dr. Charles Drew, Washington said.
The Ronald E. McNair building at 1607 S. Carrollton Avenue, is one of many schools in the United States that honor McNair.
Rhonda Aluise, director of KIPP New Orleans, said she is honored that her school is in a building named after McNair. “In fact, once the permanent sign is completed, we will be hosting a rededication ceremony highlighting Dr. McNair’s achievements,” Aluise said. A permanent architectural fixture will be in placed by the end of the school year.
Since “public buildings remain in the public domain,” Harding said she is requesting that “all charters who occupy public school buildings be notified by BESE, the (Department of Education) and the RSD to cease and desist from removing names from those buildings.”
Washington said “LJI will take the position that no school should be renamed without community approval, and all those schools renamed to reflect the great African-American history of this nation and this community should not change. To the extent the KIPP organization believes it must brand everything with those four letters — meaningless in any historical significance to this New Orleans community — those letters must succeed the likes of Dr. Ronald McNair.”
Vincent Sylvain, The New Orleans Agenda, contriuted to this artcle which also appeared in The Drum newspaper.