Excitement builds at historical McKinley High School as it prepares for Obama visit

Since America’s first black president announced Monday he would speak at McKinley High, a legendary school in black history in Louisiana, the response has been electric.

Hundreds of tickets to see President Barack Obama speak Thursday morning were distributed in barely an hour.

Principal Herman Brister Jr. said Wednesday he’s been besieged by a “nonstop” stream of callers and visitors since the announcement Monday at noon.

“I need to buy our school clerk dinner for all the work she’s had to do,” Brister said wearily.

A small sign is taped to the door of the McKinley Alumni Center:

“Unfortunately, No More Tickets Are Available.”

Undaunted by the sign, Barbara Franklin came to the center Wednesday, which had been the scene of long lines of ticket seekers the day before, all hoping against hope. Franklin, a doll maker, said last summer she sent the White House two life-size dolls as gifts, one for each of Obama’s daughters. She said she will continue looking for tickets

“Sometimes, the impossible is possible,” Franklin said.

Garrick Mayweather is the executive director of McKinley’s alumni association, and his family history is tied closely with the high school. His grandmother was the first family member to go to McKinley, Class of 1940. His second child just graduated in May.

Mayweather said he learned last week that the president likely was coming to McKinley but said nothing until the announcement Monday at noon.

“My phone started blowing up,” he said. “I stopped counting how many calls I got.”

The alumni center is the refurbished original home of McKinley High School. The all-black high school was built in 1926 at 1520 East Blvd., which has since been renamed Thomas H. Delpit Drive. It cost the princely sum of $175,000. A modern high school with science labs and athletic facilities, it was a quantum leap in education for black children in Baton Rouge.

The school relocated in 1950 and then again in 1962 to its current home at 800 E. McKinley St.

Workers from Aramark were out in force Wednesday afternoon, readying the school for the most famous visitor in its long history. Water flowed down drains from recent pressure washing, the smell of new paint was evident and groundskeepers were wielding leaf blowers and rakes.

“We’ve had people from all over campus,” said English teacher Destiny Cooper. “It was like a reality TV show.

McKinley High had extensive renovations a few years ago, but East Baton Rouge Parish Superintendent Warren Drake left nothing to chance. A stickler for cleanliness, Drake made clear from early on that he expected McKinley High to be in pristine condition for the president. Speaking to a luncheon audience Tuesday, Drake said the visit is a wake-up call for the school system and Aramark that they need to do a better job of being ready.

“What does that say? We’re only going to fix it up for someone important?” he asked.

The high school has had visitors from Cox Communication to ensure that all students have access to the live feed of Obama’s speech. Almost all of the school’s 1,400 students will see the speech in classrooms.

Only 20 students will get to go to the school gym to hear Obama in person.

Brister said he had the school’s student government association carry out a lottery, picking five lucky students from each grade.

“That way, there’s no doubt about the transparency of the lottery,” he said.

The teachers also had a lottery to pick five lucky attendees for Obama’s speech.

“Unfortunately, I didn’t win,” Cooper said.

McKinley High has reminders of its history.

A plaque in the McKinley High main office is an example. It traces the school’s history back as far as 1907, when public education for black children in Baton Rouge was a rundown building, no longer in existence, on Hickory Street.

In 1909, the school was upgraded, and in 1912, it added high school grades. In 1914, the city spent $25,000 to build a three-story building called the Baton Rouge Colored High School. The plaque calls it “the first modern brick building to be built at public expense for Negro children in the entire state of Louisiana.”

Soon after, in 1917, both New Orleans and Shreveport opened public high schools for black children, the first since the end of Reconstruction in 1877. During much of the 1870s, black and white children attended high school together at a handful of schools in New Orleans. After that brief, turbulent experiment with school integration, public schools were again segregated and black children were denied secondary education for decades.

The Baton Rouge Colored High School operated from 1914 to 1926, when the school on East Boulevard was built. The old school was converted to an elementary school for black children and later torn down.

The black school integrated in the 1970s. It became much more racially integrated in 1982, when it added a gifted program that now educates about 300 students.

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