Integrating Ben Franklin High School

Stop 8 of 9 in the Carrollton Courthouse tour

In the fall of 1963, Ben Franklin High School became the first New Orleans public high school to integrate. Fourteen African American students, all of whom met Franklin's stringent admissions requirements, helped to break the lingering color barriers of Jim Crow New Orleans. They were thrust into the spotlight in a city and state that was reluctant to acknowledge the implications of the 1954 Supreme Court ruling in Brown vs. Topeka, Kansas, Board of Education.

The common perception of school integration tends to oversimplify the process: the Supreme Court made the ruling, there was some resistance in the South, but the schools integrated anyway, and the matter was settled. In reality, the Supreme Court took another year to rule that integration be carried out "with all deliberate speed," and with the ambiguity of those four words, it would take another 19 years before the public schools of New Orleans were fully integrated. The 1963 integration of Ben Franklin helped establish an example which the rest of the city could follow, and it proved that even in a school for exceptional children, integration was possible, even if it wasn't easy.

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Fall of 1957: Ben Franklin High School Opens It Doors to 105 Sophomores

Fall of 1957: Ben Franklin High School Opens It Doors to 105 Sophomores

In September 1957, Ben Franklin High School opened its doors in to its first sophomore class of 105 students. The school was housed in the newly renovated Carrollton Courthouse on Carrollton Avenue, which had most recently served as McDonogh 23, a public elementary school. Created as a school for exceptional students, Franklin had stringent admissions requirements, including an IQ of 120 or above and the previous completion of ninth grade prerequisites. Over the next two years, Franklin expanded to include 11th and 12th grade and graduated its first class in the spring of 1960. View File Details Page

Police and Protesters Clash, As Integration Becomes a Reality

Police and Protesters Clash, As Integration Becomes a Reality

Six years after the Brown v. Board of Education ruling, New Orleans’ first public schools integrated. In November, four young African American girls, including six-year-old Ruby Bridges, entered previously all-white schools. Though just four little girls, the outrage was clear, as white parents and protesters berated the children with racially charged insults and shouts. Ruby Bridges enrolled in William Frantz Elementary, and the other three girls went to McDonogh 19. Because of the massive presence of angry mobs, the girls required the protection of armed US Marshalls as they walked to and from school each day. Image Courtesy of The Morning Advocate, Nov. 16, 1960. p. 16 View File Details Page

Why Ben Franklinz

Why Ben Franklinz

In 1963, several African American parents applied to have their children attend Ben Franklin the following fall. While the rest of the city had been integrating at a turtle’s pace, one grade a year starting with first grade, some advocates hoped that—due to the unmatched quality of education provided by Franklin—qualified black children should not be denied access until integration reached the 10th year students. On May 17, US District Judge Frank B. Ellis ruled in favor of those parents and students, ordering that the sophomore class of Ben Franklin admit students strictly on qualifications, regardless of race. View File Details Page

Public Schools Quiet, Registration Moves Forward

Public Schools Quiet, Registration Moves Forward

This newspaper article shows how, even three years into integration, it was still moving slowly not just in terms of how many schools were integrating, or how many grades, but how many students. In some cases, "one negro student" equates to a school being integrated. This minimal amount of integration reflects the reluctance and resistance that remained. On the opposite side of this page, though not pictured, is an update on the situation in Birmingham. The headline reads "Wallace-U.S. Facedown Imminent in Birmingham: School mix slated today; troopers pour in." Though this is a stark difference from the "public schools quiet" headline of New Orleans' own progress with integration, it is important to remember that just three years prior, in 1960, New Orleans was going through a similar showdown. Image Courtesy of The Times-Picayune, Sept. 4, 1963, p.1. View File Details Page

Ben Franklin Yearbook, First Integrated Class

Ben Franklin Yearbook, First Integrated Class

A few yearbook pages showing the sophomore class. This is indicative of the sparse nature of integration. Even as each school was declared to have been "integrated" in newsprint, the city's previously all-white schools still remained nearly entirely white. The struggle to reflect the diversity of the city within the city's schools still exists today. View File Details Page

Community Intimidation

Community Intimidation

Groups like the White Citizens Council had a strong presence and influence in the social and political environment of the Deep South. Though its not clear who was responsible for the "KKK" vandalism on the statue of Ben Franklin, the destructive act reflects the intimidation and terror that still existed. View File Details Page

Community Backlash

Community Backlash

While Ben Franklin was primarily a school for academic excellence, it also had a newly established sports program which, by 1963, was competing in basketball, baseball, and football. The freshly integrated student body put the legitimacy of the school's athletic teams at risk. Several teams refused to play Franklin. Yearbook pictures from the early years of integration suggest that the boys' sports teams remained all-white for some period, though this remains to be corroborated. Image Courtesy of The Times-Picayune, Sept. 19, 1963, p. 2-D. View File Details Page

Only One Graduated

Only One Graduated

Despite the 120 or better IQ of each of the 14 black students that entered Franklin in the Fall of 1963, only one of those students would ultimately graduate from Franklin. She is pictured here, along with her fellow French Club members. This lack of success reflects the challenges that remained. Black students were regarded as outsiders not readily welcomed (but required by federal law to be admitted). In the public sphere, desegregation was a very new reality, and most of the South was still adjusting to it, both in and out of the schools. View File Details Page

Diversity Garden Dedication

Diversity Garden Dedication

In November 2013, one of the first African-American students organized an effort to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Ben Franklin's integration by establishing a Diversity Garden. View File Details Page

Cite this Page:

Graham Cooper, “Integrating Ben Franklin High School,” New Orleans Historical, accessed June 28, 2017, http://neworleanshistorical.org/items/show/674.
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