Jocelyn Green Askew remembers the first time she walked into Francis T. Nicholls Senior High School. Graduation photos of previous Nicholls students hung from the white walls of the 9th Ward building. Alongside the photos hung the Rebel flag, a symbol of the Confederacy that she and other Black students couldn’t ignore.
Askew, who attended Nicholls from 1968 to 1971, was not in the school’s first integrated class. But she soon found that many of the school’s traditions were inspired by the Confederacy.
The school’s colors included Confederate gray, the mascot was a Rebel, and the school newspaper was The Rebel Yell. The marching band wore gray jackets and black-billed gray caps, modeled after Confederate uniforms from the Civil War.
For most white students, the Confederate roots were an accepted part of the school’s legacy. Many of their parents were alumni. For Black students, it was like “stepping into another era,” Askew said.
In addition to being forced to confront symbols of the racist past, Askew was also encountering the inequities of her own time as a student coming from Black majority schools that were made to operate with limited resources and overcrowded classrooms.
Founded in 1940, Francis T. Nicholls Senior High School — now Frederick A. Douglass Senior High School — had a long history of venerating the Confederacy. The school was named for Francis T. Nicholls, a Confederate general who became the governor of Louisiana and a Louisiana Supreme Court justice.
“I remember for typing class we had one manual typewriter in the Black school and we had to take turns on that one manual typewriter,” said Askew, 69. “The day I walked into Francis T. Nicholls school, I stood in the door in amazement because the teacher said, ‘Have a seat, take any one.’
“I saw 30 electric typewriters in one class and I had the option to take any one and I didn’t have to stand in a line and it amazed me that where I came from and what I had to do was different.”
It wasn’t long before the Black students realized that change was drastically needed and that they were the ones who were going to have to make it happen.
Walter Wilson, 68, attended Nicholls from 1970 to 1973. He remembered hearing about students advocating for change several years before his arrival.
“The kids who came in 1967 were starting to push for changes and then of course the following classes carried it on,” he said.
The struggle went far beyond just petitions and sit-ins, said Seymour Price, 70. He attended Nicholls from 1967 to 1970 and was a member of the class that integrated the school. Price recalled that Black students were “fighting for their lives” every day against white students, with many days escalating to physical violence.
One day, Price’s class refused to stand while the marching band played its fight song, “Dixie,” which was typically played at every pep rally. Its opening bars were the cue for the entire student body to stand. It was an accepted school tradition — until Black students defied it.
“They started playing ‘Dixie.’ One of the white students ran right across the stage back and forth with a rebel flag. Not a Black person stood up,” Askew said.
“The principal, Russell Costanza, stopped the music and came on the stage. He said, ‘If y’all don’t stand up, you’re gonna get suspended.’ We stood our ground,” Askew said. “He started the music. The hootenanny began once again. We stood our ground and didn’t stand up.”
The resistance expanded in different ways.
Wilson, then a member of the school’s marching band, recalled that the troubling uniform – the gray jackets and Civil War-style caps – remained the same throughout his high school years. But at some point, the Black students in the band refused to play “Dixie.”
The students became more organized. Mae Lois Parker-Martin, 71, attended Nicholls from 1968 to 1971, recruited the help of her mother, Lorraine Parker, who allowed the Black students to meet in her home nearby to plan protests.
Issac White, 69, classmate and lifelong friend of Parker-Martin’s, recalls Parker reaching out to the Louisiana chapter of the NAACP and local Black Panther party to help advise the students on how to peacefully resist.
“Most of our parents worked during the school hours, but Ms. Lorraine had the time to stop what she was doing to come to see exactly the issues we were talking about. So once she saw it, she gave us the guidance we needed,” White said.
The Black students created a list of demands that called for the erasure of all Confederate references, the changing of the mascot and the school’s and student newspaper’s name. The demands also included adding Black history and culture to the academic curriculum and the creation of a committee to plan more inclusive social events.
Parker-Martin and Price helped spread the word about the demands. The students called for unity and participation in boycotting classes or sit-ins in the school’s cafeteria.
According to a 1970 issue of The Rebel Yell, white students also boycotted classes in a counter-protest against eliminating the Confederate symbols. They used the opportunity to demand the school’s dress code be changed to allow all students to wear longer hair.
“The white students marched with their parents to the school board and they pretty much were trying to retain the name of Rebels,” Parker-Martin said.
On Oct. 23, 1970, the battle for change came to a boiling point when 200 Black students staged a sit-in during lunch that lasted about 90 minutes. They refused to return to classes until their demands were met by the school’s administration.
Tensions rose so high, White remembers, that at some point the police were called to maintain the peace. Local news outlets covered the incident for days.
That following Monday, according to The Rebel Yell, about 200 white students again staged a counter-protest.
In an attempt to appease both sides, 10 white students and 10 Black students were selected to meet with school officials at the school board to resolve tensions.
Parker-Martin and White were among the students selected to represent the Black student body.
“We asked, ‘If your kids were going to a school and the name of the school was Huey P. Newton and the mascot was Black Panthers, would you support that?’” Parker-Martin said.
“That’s the question that put something on their mind. Why would you want us to do something that you wouldn’t want to do?”
On Oct. 30, Superintendent Alton W. Cowen announced on television that the school would retain the name of Francis T. Nicholls but would make other changes. Cowen agreed “other symbols of the Confederacy are inappropriate for a bi-racial high school.” Student votes would determine new names for the Rebel mascot and other school symbols, he said.
On Nov. 2, according to The Times-Picayune, about 150 white students, some of whom were accompanied by their parents, marched from St. Roch’s playground to City Hall to elicit support in a last-ditch effort to keep the school as it was.
Over the course of two days in November, the entire student body was given the opportunity to submit suggestions for the new mascot.
A student body of about 1,400 – evenly split between Black and white – voted Dec. 9.
The Associated Press reported that 75% of the student body voted for Bobcats to be the new mascot, ending the school’s 30-year tradition of Rebels.
“One of the ladies that was a teacher at the school told us, ‘I am so proud of y’all,’” Parker-Martin said. “She said, ‘A friend of mine worked at the school board and y’all was the sharpest little Black kids she ever saw.’”
In addition to changing the mascot, the band no longer played “Dixie” and the school newspaper was renamed The Nicholls Yell.
About 150 white students made a final protest by occupying the cafeteria on Dec. 14, complaining that Bobcats are too closely related to the panther, used by the radical civil rights group the Black Panthers.
However, the decision was set, making Joycelyn Green Askew, Issac White, and Mae Lois Parker-Martin a part of the first class, the class of 1971, to graduate from Francis T. Nicholls High School as Bobcats.
Patricia Cook, 70, was also in that class. She hopes that the experience she and her classmates shared will serve as an inspiration for later generations to never give up the battle for change.
“We, as a culture, actually should embrace the struggles that, in many situations Black people have gone through including us at Nicholls,” she said. “It was not something that was addressed in this city, or state.”
But the fight didn’t end in 1970. In the 1990s, the name of the school was changed to Frederick A. Douglass High School in honor of the famed orator, writer, social reformer and abolitionist who had escaped from slavery to become one of the most influential men in the nation.
Since leaving Francis T. Nicholls Senior High School, Cook, Askew, White, Wilson, Parker-Martin and Price have been waiting more than 50 years for their story to be told.
“We were privileged to be a part of a movement that created change because it taught us how to create change in our own communities throughout New Orleans. Now we feel that we are a part of something that we can be and the next generation of students can be proud of,” said Cook.
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