Facing demolition, historic black school to be remembered through WBR Museum

Even though its historic hallways are set for demolition soon, the “old” Cohn High School will still be a beacon of education for West Baton Rouge Parish, just in a different way.

The West Baton Rouge Museum has announced plans to salvage several items from the first campus to offer a secondary education to the parish’s black children during the days of segregation. The museum intends to use those items to create an exhibit immortalizing the school’s significant role during one of the nation’s most controversial eras.

“This is really what the museum is about: preserving our local history,” said Julie Rose, director of the West Baton Rouge Museum. “When I read in the newspaper that the School Board OK’d a step to demolish the building I thought, ‘Oh my God, we want to be able to preserve the history of the high school.’ It was significant to the parish and this nation’s history.”

Rose said she got immediate support from Superintendent David Corona when she reached out to him about extracting some items before the campus’ historic buildings were bulldozed into rubble.

Rose toured the derelict campus last week, making a list of items she hopes to add to the museum’s existing collection of Cohn High memorabilia.

The museum has requested the school district let it have an interior school clock, several water fountains, a metal plaque signifying when the school was established and several exterior and interior doors, Rose said.

The museum also hopes to salvage a portion of the school’s gym floor, she added.

“People have fond memories of that space as well,” Rose said. “It was a place of social functions for the school and the community.”

The museum will need to clean the items it salvages from the property, then interpret them into an exhibit for display — something Rose said will take some time.

The old Cohn High School, located in the 800 block of North 14th Street in Port Allen on land donated to the district by the Cohn family, opened its doors in fall 1949.

Until that time, black children in the parish who wanted to seek an education beyond the seventh grade had to attend minority schools in surrounding parishes like Iberville and East Baton Rouge because they were prohibited from attending school with white children, whether in the home parish or neighboring parishes.

For two decades, the school was not only a source of education for minorities, but its gym served as the backdrop for many social functions within the black community.

The school closed in 1969 as desegregation dissolved the need for a centralized school for black students in West Baton Rouge Parish.

In the years that followed, the buildings making up the historic campus disintegrated from neglect and became an eyesore and health hazard to the surrounding community, prompting the School Board’s April 16 decision to demolish the structures.

The school system has yet to bid the project, so a demolition date is unknown.

School district officials said they intend to erect a historical marker at the school’s location. No further plans have been announced on what the school district will do with the land once the campus structures are torn down.

“There is asbestos and mold all the way through that building,” Corona said. “An engineer said it couldn’t be restored because it was too far gone. If we were going to try and do something with it, he said it would be better to knock it down and start over.”

The campus’ demolition is a bitter pill to swallow for members of its active alumni association, which at one time had hopes of renovating the buildings to use as an early learning center.

But the organizers could not raise the $4 million needed to finance the endeavor, making the museum’s efforts to preserve pieces of the school’s legacy that much more important to them.

“I love that school, so it’s really not a bad idea,” Councilwoman Ray Helen Lawrence said about the museum’s intentions.

Lawrence graduated from Cohn High in 1961 and serves on the board of the school’s alumni association.

“When I pass there and see the overgrown grass and caved-in roof, it hurts my heart,” she said. “I’m sure there are sentimental feelings from everyone that went there, but no one stepped up to plate with money to preserve it.”

Rose said the museum hopes to capture the experiences of members from the Cohn High Alumni Association in oral archives to be included in the exhibit.

“Cohn High alumni are encouraged to come forward with their stories,” Rose said, “and if they have memorabilia from their school experience, we would welcome adding them to our collections and exhibits. This is what’s so fabulous about the museum. People of the parish are really so proud of their local heritage.”

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