When Walter L. Cohen High School opened its doors in the fall of 1949, it became the 5th public secondary school available to students of color in New Orleans. The opening of the school, located at 3620 Dryades Street in the uptown area of the city, did not take place without controversy.
The building had previously housed white students for many years and was known as the Edward Benjamin Krutttschnitt Elementary School. It was not until enrollment at the school dropped to 153 students that the Orleans Parish School Board decided to move pupils to other white schools in the area and convert the structure to an all-black high school.
Of course, this ruling did not sit well with white property owners in the immediate vicinity so they decided to take legal action. A court order issued in civil district court sought to keep the school open and prevent the school board from converting Kruttschnitt Elementary to a Negro school. The court order was upheld as a result of a 1948 Act which stated that written permission of 70 % of the property owners within 600 feet of an existing school must give permission before the school board could change the classification of a white school to a Negro school. As a result, 2/3 of students temporarily returned to Kruttschnitt while another group of citizens sought to buy and convert the building into a hospital for crippled children.
The tide began to turn in 1949 when Attorney A.P. Tureaud, representing a group of Negro property owners in the area, attacked the 1948 Act as being unconstitutional. The school board also received numerous numbers of telegrams and request from various organizations in support of turning the school over to black students.
Walter L. Cohen (1860-1930), U. S. Comptroller of Customs
Finally, in the fall of 1949, Walter L. Cohen High School became a reality. On Monday, February 13th, a dedication ceremony was held and tributes paid to the late Walter L. Cohen by Dr. Rivers Frederick. Mr. Haidel J. Christophe presented the school a portrait of the late leader and Mr. Eli W. Sorrell was introduced as Cohen’s first principal.
Walter L. Cohen was the leader of the Republican Party in Louisiana from 1892 until his death in 1930. Cohen was a close associate of Booker T. Washington and knew every U. S. President from Benjamin Harrison to Herbert Hoover. Cohen founded the People’s Industrial Life Insurance Company. “Cap” Cohen, as he was known, always faced tough political battles and once remarked, “My father was a Jew, my mother Negro, and I a Catholic. I am everything the Ku Klux Klan abominates.”
Eli Whitney Sorrell
Four years later, the school’s first yearbook was published. It was named WA-LO-CO which was the abbreviated version of Mr. Cohen’s full name. They dedicated it to members of the Dad’s Club who had tirelessly worked toward making their school a success. Staff members of the first annual book wrote in its forward message to all students, “As the years pass, may our first annual grow dearer and dearer because it brings back to us fond memories of days worth reliving.”
Below are various photos taken from that 1953 yearbook.
Sitting (left to right):
Samuel Bringier, William H. Mitchell, Jack Moore, E.W. Sorrell, Edward Simmons, Gerald Halthon, Harold Millon
Standing (left to right):
Robert Lee, William Clark, Charles Coffey, Albert Butler, Herman Bush, Henry Adams, Sr., Henry Elloie, Sr., Robert Perry
President: Dr. George Talbert
Standing: Sue Jane Mitchell, Marie Smith, Alice Wilson, Mattie Leahman, Halemon Hess
Center: Laverne Hayes
Seated: Lorraine Poret, Myrna Lynn Weems
The first graduating class of 1953 consisted of 280 students. There were 242 members of the junior class, 184 sophomores and 30 members comprised the faculty. Graduation was held on June 3, 1953 in Booker T. Washington High School’s Auditorium.
Faculty members in 1953: Urcelle Bradley (English-Economics) / Zelda Brown (Librarian) / Pelham Calhoun, Sr. (English)/ Ora Carter (Physical Ed.)/ William Clark (Science) / Charles Coffey (Typing-Bookeeping) / Althea Deterville (Physical Ed.) / Joyce Dugas (Math) / Lois Gonzales (French) / Irma Henry (Music) / Clarence Hunt (Biology) / Dorothy Jackson (Spanish) / Alice Johnson (Math) / Consuelo LeBlanc (Homemaking)/ Robert Lee (Math) / Theresa Lewis (Art) / Rose McKendall ( Spanish) / Harold Millon (Physical Ed.) / Marguerite Paul ( Science) / Robert Perry (Counselor) / Minnie Payton (English) / Joyce Plicque (French) / Dorothy Powell (Latin) / Martha Ringgold/ (Typing-Shorthand)/ Margery Sarter (Speech) / Thelma Smith (Secretary) / Cecelia Speaker (Social Studies) / Solomon Spencer (Music-Band) / Thelma Taylor (Social Studies) / Ernest Wilderson (English)
Girls’ Basketball Team
Standing (left to right)
Geraldine Pickett, Joyce Verrett, Ollie Edwards, Delores Reuben, Willie M. Rogers, Marva Blunt, Bernadine Washington, Mrs. Althea Deterville, Coach
Kneeling: Rosalie Porter, Ivoryola Thompson, Brenetta Johnson, Alma Porter, Helena Sykes, Myrtle Washington, Dorothy McCullum, Hazel Thomas
Seated: Mary Palmer, Dorothy Wilson, Barbara Middleton, Bonnie Moon, Jacqueline Smith, Whyoming Robinson
Miss WA-LO-CO and Court
Back row, standing: Merita Sarrazin, Sophomore Maid; Audrey Castine, Junior Maid; Elsie Williams, Senior Maid; Center: Ernestine Desdunes, Miss WA-LO-CO
Standing (left to right): Mr. Harold Millon, Manager, Theodore Benton, Andrew Slack, Oscar Brown, Earl Farrar, Milton Johnson, Lawrence King, Huey Bursey, William Miller
Kneeling (left to right): Cleveland Kimbrough, Thomas Glover, Leonard Washington, Irvin Roussell, Leo Lambert, James Johnson.
Sources: WA-LO-CO (1953 yearbook of Walter L. Cohen), The Times- Picayune, 29 January1949 p.1, 12 February1949 p.9, 13 February 1950; The Louisiana Weekly, 13& 20th August 1949
Lolita Villavasso Cherrie