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The year 1841 dates the rise in New Orleans of the modern system of free public schools. It really began in the German-American suburb, Lafayette; but the next year a single school was opened in the Second Municipality “with some dozen scholars of both sexes.”
All the way back to the Cession, efforts, snore or less feeble, had been made for public education; but all of them lacked that idea of popular and universal benefit which has made the American public school a welcome boon throughout America, not excepting Louisiana. In 1804, an act had passed “to establish a university in the territory of Orleans.” The university was to comprise the “college of New Orleans.” But seven years later nothing had been done. In 1812, however, there rose on the old Bayou road, a hundred yards or so beyond the former line of the town’s rear ramparts, at the corner of St. Claude Street, such a modest Orleans college as $15,000 would build and equip. But it was not free, except to fifty charity scholars. The idea was still that of condescending benevolence, not of a paying investment by society for its own protection and elevation. Ten years later this was. the only school in the city of a public character. In 1826, there were three small schools where “all the branches of a polite education” were taught. Two of these were in the old Ursuline convent. A fourth finds mention in 1838, but the college seems to have disappeared. –
Still the mass of educable youth, – the children who played “oats, peas, beans,” with French and German and Irish accents, about the countless sidewalk doorsteps of a city of one and two-story cottages (it was almost such); the girls who carried their little brothers and sisters on one elbow and hip and stared in at weddings and funerals; the boys whose kite-flying and games were full of terms and outcries in mongrel French, and who abandoned everything at the wild clangor of bells and ran to fires where the volunteer firemen dropped the hose and wounded and killed each other in pitched battles; the ill-kept lads who risked their lives daily five months of the year swimming in the yellow whirlpools of the Mississippi among the wharves and flat-boats, who, naked and dripping, dodged the dignified police that stalked them among the cotton bales, who robbed mocking-birds’ nests and orange and figtrees, and trapped nonpareils and cardinals, orchard-orioles and indigo-birds in the gardens of Lafayette and the suburban fields, – these had not been reached, had not been sought by the educator. The public recognition of a common vital interest in a common elevation was totally lacking.
At length this feeling was aroused. Men of public spirit spoke and acted; and such pioneers as Peters, Burke, Touro, Martin, De Bow, and the Creoles Dimitry, Forstall, Gayarre, and others are gratefully remembered by a later generation for their labors in the cause of education. In the beginning of 1842 there were in the American quarter 300 children in private schools and 2,000 in none. At its close, the public schools of this quarter and Lafayette had over 1,000 pupils. In the next year, there were over 1,300; in 1844, there were 1,800. In 1845, the University of Louisiana was really established. The medical department had already an existence; this branch and that of law were in full operation in 1847, and Creole and American sat side by side before their lecturers.
Meanwhile the impulse for popular enlightenment took another good direction. In 1842, Mr. P. F. French threw open a library to the public, which in four years numbered 7,500 volumes. The State Library was formed, with 3,000 volumes, for the use, mainly, of the Legislature. The City Library, also 3,000 volumes, was formed. In 1848 it numbered 7,500 volumes; but it was intended principally for the schools, and was not entirely free. An association threw open a collection of 2,000 volumes. An historical society was revived. In 1846 and 1847 public lectures were given and heartily supported; but, in 1848, a third series was cut short by a terrible epidemic of cholera. About the same time, the “Fisk” Library of 6,000 volumes, with “a building for their reception,” was offered to the city. But enthusiasm had declined. The gift was neglected, and as late as 1854, the city was still without a single entirely free library.
In 1850 there was but one school, Sunday-school, or public library in Louisiana to each 73,906 persons, or 100 volumes to each 2,310 persons. In Rhode Island, there were eleven and a half times as many books to each person. In Massachusetts, there were 100 volumes to every 188 persons. In the pioneer State of Michigan, without any large city, there was a volume to every fourth person. True, in Louisiana there were 100 volumes to every 1,218 free persons, but this only throws us back upon the fact that 245,000 persons were totally without books and were forbidden by law to read.
It is pleasanter to know that the city’s public schools grew rapidly in numbers and efficiency, and that, even when her library facilities were so meagre, the proportion of youth in these schools was larger than in Baltimore or Cincinnati, only slightly inferior to St. Louis and New York, and decidedly surpassed only in Philadelphia and Boston. In the old French quarter, the approach of school-hour saw thousands of Creole children, satchel in hand, on their way to some old live-oak-shaded colonial villa, or to some old theatre once the scene of nightly gambling and sword-cane fights, or to some ancient ball-room where the now faded quadroons had once shone in splendor and waltzed with the mercantile and official dignitaries of city and State, or to some bright, new school building, all windows and verandas. Thither they went for an English education. It was not first choice, but it was free, and – the father and mother admitted, with an amiable shrug – it was also best.
The old, fierce enmity against the English tongue and American manners began to lose its practical weight and to be largely a matter of fireside sentiment. The rich Creole, both of plantation and town, still drew his inspirations from French tradition-not from books, – and sought both culture and pastime in Paris. His polish heightened; his language improved; he dropped the West Indian softness that had crept into his pronunciation, and the Africanisms of his black nurse. His children still babbled them, but they were expected to cast them off about the time of their first communion. However, the suburban lands were sold, old town and down-town property was sinking in value, the trade with Latin countries languished, and the rich Creole was only one here and there among throngs of humbler brethren who were learning the hard lessons of pinched living. To these an English-American training was too valuable to be refused. They took kindly to the American’s counting-room desk. They even began to emigrate across Canal Street.