Miss Myrtle Rosabella Banks is best remembered as the principal of the McDonogh No. 38 Junior High School. This school, which still stands at 1307 Oretha Castle Haley Boulevard (formerly Dryades Street) was renamed in her honor and was utilized until closed by the Parish School Board in 2002. In 1935, Miss Banks, then still a young educator with eight years of experience, furthered her education by attaining her master’s degree in education from Xavier University of Louisiana. She chose as her thesis topic, “The Education of the Negro in New Orleans,” setting out to provide an historical overview of schooling for New Orleanians of color. Miss Banks’ completed work totaled three hundred and one pages in length.
Among the many chapters culled from her research is one entitled “The Education of the Negro in Representative Private Schools During and Since Reconstruction Times: The 1865-1870 Period.” Before the Civil War, the free population of color patronized several schools or academies as they were sometimes called, most often conducted within the homes of the learned professors who conducted them. This tradition continued after the Civil War among people of color, both formerly free and formerly enslaved. The establishment of religious congregations meant that church houses were available to be used as schools in addition to those schools conducted within the homes of instructors.
Miss Banks was able to cite several noted teachers and their private schools by conducting interviews with older residents of the city, many of whom were educators and acquaintances of her mother, Mrs. Rosabella Hopes Banks, a veteran teacher. In the course of her research on private schools, she interviewed Mesdames Florence Johnson Chester; Marguerite Craig; Meddie Price; Elizabeth Norwood; and Misses Louise Kyzer; Ophelia Smith; Mary Steele; Addie Snowden; Alice DuVall and Onelia Gabriel. These ladies were able to provide her with the locations of these schools as well as certain points as to how they were conducted and some of their prominent alumni.
Some of the schools recounted, such as those of Miss Dibbie Clarkson and Miss Emma Jane Day, were conducted by white instructors for colored pupils. Miss Clarkson taught school in the Tulane Avenue Baptist Church, as did Mr. Earnest Tucker, a colored gentleman. Among those who studied under Miss Clarkson was Professor J. B. Humphrey, a legendary figure in New Orleans musical history. Miss Eliza Geddes, a daughter of undertaker George D. Geddes, operated a very successful school in Uptown New Orleans
The schools existed in all parts of the city, for example, a Mrs. Bolden conducted a school during the latter part of the Reconstruction period in “Pension Town” (now called “Pigeon Town”). Mrs. Josephine Richards Keller, an early graduate of Straight University, taught in Covington, Mississippi, before opening a day school in the Pinetop Church at Thalia and Liberty streets, and a night school in her home. This was according to her daughter, Miss Ophelia Smith, later a teacher in the Lafon Public School, the first private night school operated by a colored woman. From 1913 to 1923, three sisters, Misses Mary, Bertha, and Jane Steele, lead a private school in their home at 1919 First Street. Mention is also made of Mrs. Virginia Barnes Thompson, a pioneer in the field of juvenile reform, whose school in Uptown New Orleans, has been chronicled elsewhere on this blog.
Mrs. Lizzie Taylor, a graduate of New Orleans University, opened a school in 1882 on Howard Street between Jackson and Josephine streets, though enrollment grew so rapidly that she later moved it to the Mount Zion Church. In 1917, Mrs. Taylor organized and served as first president of the New Orleans Private Teachers Association, the goal of which was to organize the teachers of private schools for mutual development.
One of the most interesting stories is that of Mrs. Elizabeth Norwood, who opened a school on Forshey Street near Carrollton Avenue in 1906. Circulars were distributed announcing that the school was open with tuition set at ten cents per week. At first, not many attended until Mrs. Norwood was able to successfully teach a neighborhood boy named Baptiste, who was considered to be mentally challenged. Her fame soon spread and she had her husband to build desks for a second and then third room. She took on a Miss Cecile Jones as an assistant. The school grew to be so large that Mrs. Norwood, her husband, and a Reverend Fisher formed two petitions, one from the colored citizens and another from sympathetic whites, to be sent to the school board. Among the interested whites was Miss Sophie B. Wright and Rabbi Max Heller. Finally, Superintendent Warren Easton, visited Mrs. Norwood’s school and was so impressed that he declared on the spot that a public school would be built for the colored children of the Seventeenth Ward. This school was called the Rudolph T. Danneel School.
Miss Banks noted that the programs of most of these private schools was similar. Opening exercises included religious devotions and instruction. Older students were used to help and monitor the younger ones. Friday afternoons and holidays were usually times for public recitals and declamations. The end-of-year activities were always well executed.
Miss Myrtle Rosabella Banks could easily appreciate the work of these pioneering educators, as her father, the Reverend Henry Benjamin Banks was an educator and Congregationalist minister, and her mother, Rosabella Hopes, was an educator as well. Reverend Banks, a native of Lafourche Crossing, pastored several congregations in Louisiana, Alabama, and Mississippi, over the course of over a half century in ministry. He was a Congregationalist by affiliation, although he was occasionally called to pastor a Baptist congregation. Rosabella Banks, was born near Napoleonville, and was a graduate of Leland University in New Orleans. She later attended the School of Religion at Howard University. She was frequently called upon to lecture on theological topics and served for a time at the New Orleans Colored Baptist Seminary, in addition to teaching in the public schools.
Myrtle R. Banks was valedictorian of her class at McDonogh No. 35 High School before attending New Orleans University. She taught for eight years until 1935, when she took advantage of the Master’s Degree program at Xavier University of Louisiana, earning a Master’s Degree in Education at the summer commencement in July 1935. She served as teacher and principal at the Thomy Lafon, McDonogh No. 30, and McDonogh No. 38 Schools. She served as president for a time of the New Orleans Negro Teachers Association and was active in the Claiborne Avenue Y.W.C.A. and the local N.A.A.C.P. branch. When Miss Banks retired in May 1973, she was honored in a special ceremony and presented a recognition award from the mayor of New Orleans by District Superintendent Duncan A. Waters, an honor which was featured in Jet magazine. She had spent forty-six years in service to the children of New Orleans. Her research into the private colored schools leaves us with a fascinating glimpse into the world of early black education in New Orleans. Myrtle Rosabella Banks died on March 26, 1983, and is laid to rest near her native Napoleonville.
Sources: Banks, Myrtle R. “The Education of the Negro in New Orleans.” Master’s thesis (unpublished), Xavier University of Louisiana, 1935; Times-Picayune, 29 March 1973, p. 16; 28 May 1973, p. 53; 28 July 1935, p. 10; Jet, 19 July 1973, Vol. 44:17, p. 40.