The story of how six committed Xavier Prep alumni came to the aid of their alma mater, put their economic mettle, money and muscle to the cause, defied conventional wisdom and saved a historic African-American institution from the dreaded possibility of closing forever.
by Lovell Beaulieu
Hardly 24 hours had passed after it was announced that Xavier University Preparatory High School at 5116 Magazine Street would close at the end of the 2012-2013 school year when a real estate agent traversed the grounds of the iconic institution in search of Uptown New Orleans’ latest crown jewel.
The agent, a White woman with a major real estate company in New Orleans, was not interested in the storied past of Prep and what it meant to the city’s African-American community. It didn’t matter to her that numerous African-American men and women who’ve become leaders in this city and across the United States graduated from there; nor did it matter to her that Xavier Prep has an incredible marching band that always impresses crowds at Mardi Gras or an outstanding track team. She didn’t care that St. Katharine Drexel, a Philadelphia socialite, poured her entire fortune into causes that helped African Americans and Native Americans achieve their potential.
Distinguished graduates include entertainer Wanda Rouzan; former first ladies of New Orleans Sybil Morial and Mickey Barthelemy; local dentist Willard Dumas; the late Dr. Eliot Willard, a distinguished educator and coach; former White House Usher Stephen Rochon; civil rights activist Rudy Lombard; businesswoman Romona Baudy; former Xavier University Vice President Dr. Deidre Dumas Labat; and Dillard University professor and administrator Dr. Laura Rouzan.
The real estate agent didn’t see sacred ground. She saw dollar signs. She saw a developer’s dream, a brick and mortar edifice situated on one of the most desired thoroughfares in the state of Louisiana, if not the entire Gulf South. And she just knew it was hers for the right price.
Where Xavier Prep alumni saw the potential loss of their alma mater–the institutition that had nurtured and developed outstanding citizens, the real estate agent saw loft apartments, boutique shops and a health club. Where the city’s African-American community saw the possibility of another significant defeat in a post-Katrina environment, the real estate agent and others who capitalize off of African-American setbacks saw victory.
But in the end, the realtor’s dream proved to be little more than that. Six African-American alumni of Prep stepped up with the financial resources to buy the historic school, keep it open and put to rest the notion that African Americans didn’t have the economic wherewithal to make the deal happen.
This was a victory for Black New Orleanians.
THE FUTURE IS NOW
The six alumni who signed their names to the financial agreement with the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament, the religious order that has worked in New Orleans Catholic schools such as St. Monica, Epiphany, Corpus Christi, Holy Ghost and Blessed Sacrament, include a federal judge, a state appellate judge, a clerk of court, a city judge and two highly-regarded attorneys in private practice.
Shantell Payton, Class of 1997, is the most recent graduate among the six. Dale Atkins, represents the class of 1976, Karen Wells Roby, class of 1979, and Piper Griffin, class of 1980. Keith Doley and Edwin Lombard were among the last of the male graduates of Xavier Prep, coming from the classes of 1965 and 1964, respectively. Collectively, alumni spanning 33-years of academic achievement at Xavier Prep came together to keep the school operational.
While the news of Xavier Prep being saved was roundly celebrated, those closest to the situation realize time is short, that a plan must be put in place, students retained and recruited and teachers and administrators allowed to plan and prepare. But they also know they have an excellent product to promote.
“Within the Prep family, that’s where we start,” says Atkins. “The potential of losing Prep has re-energized our alumni.” Atkins points to the 45 young women who recently graduated and received a total of $2 million in college scholarships. “We have to first get out the message of what Prep is doing.”
In fact, the one thing that has buoyed the new owners of Prep is that the overwhelming majority of current students and their parents opted to remain on Magazine Street. While they credited the Archdiocese of New Orleans with working diligently to make certain other Catholic schools didn’t attempt to raid the school’s ranks, it was still up to individual families to make the financial decision and commitment to stay with the school, which is now called St. Katharine Drexel Preparatory High School.
Under the new academic arrangement, Griffin says St. Katharine Drexel Preparatory High School will be an independent institution but it will operate under the religious auspices of the Archdiocese of New Orleans.
And for the immediate future, St. Katharine Drexel will remain an all-girls school. Lombard, who attended and graduated from Xavier Prep when it was co-ed, says the school must now embark on a new direction, where it must “re-brand itself” in order to attract the best and the brightest students possible and remain in the top echelons of fine high school institutions.
The objective, he says, is to make St. Katharine Drexel Preparatory “a destination school.”
That may be Prep’s greatest challenge. In pre-integrated New Orleans, African Americans didn’t have many options when it came to attending Catholic schools. It was Prep or St. Mary’s for girls. It was only St. Augustine for Black boys. With integration that changed; and young Black students, especially the brightest or most athletic among them began to attend Catholic schools whose doors were once closed to them.
THE BIG PICTURE
Magazine Street near Jefferson is not just any street in New Orleans. It is a street that had little flooding or damage from Hurricane Katrina but one that has received a disproportionate bulk of taxpayer dollars in the post-Katrina recovery. Traffic on Magazine Street is nonstop. It is frequented by big spenders, including locals and tourists who are attracted to its specialty boutiques, high-end restaurants, pubs, surge stores, coffee shops and supermarkets. Developers salivate at the possibilities of new energy and entrepreneurial opportunities. And the building that houses Prep, a school where young African-American women had been attending since the mid 1960s, a school that has been around for 98 years and in two years will celebrate its centennial, offered the most.
The six graduates were not the only ones determined to make sure Prep’s doors would remain open. Alumni and members of the school’s foundation, which represents more recent grads, all worked to make certain young African American women in New Orleans could have the same opportunity they had enjoyed. People from across the United States called to see how they could help. The Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament worked closely with alumni, determined to make sure St. Katharine Drexel’s vision was not thwarted.
Ultimately, this was a collective effort that was not simply about a high school keeping its doors open. This was one of those unique triumphs over gentrification, economic exclusion and targeted redevelopment in areas least affected by Katrina.
“We had come together in January of this year for a fundraiser,” says Atkins, referring to the popular “Remember When” event held annually to help the school with scholarships and other operating costs. “We heard the news that Xavier Prep was closing. We didn’t know what we were going to do. We just needed to do something. In February, it was announced that the school was going to close. In April, when we made our announcement, some girls had applied to other schools. When you think of it, that’s one of the most important decisions a parent can make. But we kept all of our 11th graders.”
Lombard says people shouldn’t be surprised that alumni stepped forth and purchased the school.
“(The nuns and Prep) had prepared us to take care of ourselves, to take care of Prep,” he says. “There were a lot of people ready to step forward. We just didn’t have time. This was a necessity of grace. The challenge now is how can we marshal all these people who have come to help us?”
The group of alumni that bought Prep are grateful to the Archdiocese of New Orleans and the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament for their efforts to make sure the group was successful in its bid to buy the school and the property involved.
“They’ve been very supportive of the methodology offered to keep it open,” Griffin says. And while the Blessed Sacrament nuns could no longer afford to operate the school, the nuns were determined to make sure Prep graduates had first dibs on buying it.
“When we started making overtures, they made it clear they wanted this to work,” says Atkins of the Blessed Sacrament leadership in Pennsylvania. “We couldn’t make the purchase without their making it work.”
The six all speak of the importance of Xavier Prep in their lives, and how their primary focus now is to make certain that future “Preppers” get the same opportunity they did.
Payton, a 1997 graduate, credits current Prep assistant principal with changing her life. She came to Prep daily from the Ninth Ward. She says she often found herself in trouble, spending as much time in the office as the classroom.
It was Mr. Owens who made her channel her skills and energy into speech, debate and other activities. She’s never forgotten that.
If grace had a lot to do with the new life that has been breathed into Xavier Prep, others are convinced divine intervention played a part also.
Each of the six are universal in their belief that the late Sister Eileen Sullivan, S.B.S., the first principal of Xavier University Preparatory, was quietly at work throughout the negotiations. In their view, Sister Eileen was not going to let Prep close.
In the end, it was Doley, whose law offices at 1554 North Broad serve as the official administrative headquarters of the new school opening this coming fall, who captured the inherent significance of all that has happened.
“It was second nature,” Doley said of the movement to rescue the school. “It’s like your child falling off the side of a boat, and you can’t swim. But you know you have to do something.” Then he took it a notch higher.
“A saint has walked those grounds,” Doley says referring to Katharine Drexel, who was known as Mother Katharine Drexel for years before her canonization. “You know you have to have proof of three miracles before they make you a saint?”
“This was the fourth miracle.”
Lovell Beaulieu is a journalist in New Orleans.