Historic Black school symbolizes New Orleans’ revival: St. Augustine High is back in play


New Orleans is still recovering from the devastating impact of Hurricane Katrina three years ago, but many believe that the rebirth of a historical New Orleans high school signals hope for the city’s restoration efforts. The school’s basketball team, the Purple Knights, recently visited the Twin Cities as a participant in St. Thomas University’s Christmas Basketball Tournament. We used the opportunity to talk with students and staff about the intertwined fates of their school and its host city.

St. Augustine High School was established in New Orleans in 1951 by the Josephite Fathers and Brothers. It is the city’s first all-Black, all-boys school, whose philosophy is to “direct the development of each individual to the fullest of his own capacity.”

While leading the fight against segregation in New Orleans, the school maintained high scholastic standards. It successfully won legal challenges that resulted in desegregating high school sports in Louisiana — the Purple Knights were New Orleans’ first state champions in football. Its famed “Marching 100” school was the first Black high school band to march on Mardi Gras Day in 1967.

St. Augustine produced the first Black male students in the South to win the Merit Scholarship (1958) and the State of Louisiana’s first Presidential Scholar (1964). In all, St. Augustine has produced nine National Merit Scholars, over 200 National Achievement Scholars, and six Presidential Scholars. Over 90 percent of its graduates go on to attend such colleges as Yale, Harvard and Princeton, as well as many colleges and universities in the South after segregation was outlawed.

“St. Augustine, for me, reinforced what my parents taught me,” says Karnell James, a 1993 school graduate who later attended the University of St. Thomas and graduated in 1997. “St. Augustine reinforced the discipline that my parents taught me, as well as gave me a view from other African American men who have been where I was trying to go.”

“The school really impacted our lives,” adds Derek Lewis, a native of New Orleans and a St. Augustine graduate. Now a University of Minnesota assistant football coach and former NFL player, Lewis admits, “It has been my cornerstone of success.” His father and two uncles also attended there.

St. Augustine is almost five miles away from the city’s lower Ninth Ward, which suffered most of the flood damage; it is in the Seventh Ward known as Gentilly. “It is in the hub of the African American community within the city,” says Clifford Barthe, a classmate of Lewis’ dad who now coaches the Purple Knights. “Our break came from the London canal, which broke on two different sides and the water flooded our area.”

“Everything on the [school’s] first floor was destroyed,” James points out, adding that classrooms, a new science and technology building, a new band room, a new weight room, school equipment, athletic and band uniforms and instruments all were lost. “There was a lot of damage.”

As a result, St. Augustine was forced to close its doors for the 2005-06 school year, the first time this occurred since it opened. Its 700-plus students were scattered all over the country.

Darrell Augustine was then beginning his sophomore year. He and his family retreated to Waco, Texas, for a month, and then to Baton Rouge, Louisiana. “It took a lot for us to come back,” Augustine says. “We had to rebuild our homes, deal with FEMA money — but we finally got back.”

Lamar Nicholas, also a sophomore at the time, lived with an aunt in Georgia. “When I first went out there, I had only three days’ worth of clothes, because I thought I was going right back,” he recalls. His family returned a month later to find their home severely damaged by the flood; Nicholas had to attend another school in Georgia, which he says was hard.

“Everything was different,” he recalls, “the culture, the way [people there] talked; so, I had to change some of the things I’ve done in New Orleans so I could fit in there.” He adds that when his family home was finally rebuilt, “It was a great relief.”

Says Lewis of the school and his hometown after Katrina, “I didn’t think anything was going to come back. I thought it was done.”

However, St. Augustine officials — especially the school’s principal, Rev. John Raphael — never thought they were done.

“Sometimes I wondered how we were going to do this,” says Coach Barthe, who was working at Dillard University at the time Katrina hit. “It was Father Raphael’s mindset and his sense of where he wanted to be [that] was the driving force behind us reopening. Whenever they told Father ‘no,’ he was the one who turned it around and said, ‘No, we are going to get this done and do this.”

In January 2006, St. Augustine collaborated with St. Mary’s Academy and Xavier University Preparatory to establish the MAX School of New Orleans. The school reopened for the 2007-08 school year.

“We were mandated to have a student body of 500 when we opened,” says Barthe. “We had over 700. Our whole mission is to bring St. Augustine back, and to bring it back in the minds of people that either thought it was dead or hadn’t thought about it for a while.

Fr. Raphael asked Barthe to return to his alma mater and run its athletic program as athletic director. “It wasn’t a big stretch for me to do this or take me long to even think about this. There is a very deep sense of pride in St. Augustine in those of us who attended there. My heart was always at St. Augustine.”

The school’s first day back was memorable, he says: “We had opening day Mass, and we moved 730 young men from St. Augustine five blocks to a local Catholic church. We moved them through the streets of the city where there had been six feet of water in the area. People who were in their homes as we walked past, they were crying. When we crossed one of the major streets in the city, people would stop and blow their [car] horns and cheer for the kids.

“If the [St. Augustine students] are here in the neighborhood, that is a rebirth to their neighborhood and a rebirth to this area,” he notes.

Nicholas and Augustine, now seniors and teammates on the basketball team, are both expecting to graduate from St. Augustine this spring. “The level of expectation and greatness is that much higher,” says Augustine, who wants to attend college. After college, “I want to be a business manager and also be an entrepreneur,” he adds.

Nicholas wants to play college basketball “and also major in business marketing. “When I get out of college, I want to own my own business and [operate] rental properties,” he says.

The sentiment among those who either currently attend or graduated from the school is: As St. Augustine goes, so goes New Orleans.

“I think New Orleans will be a better place,” notes Mitchell Johnson, an assistant boys’ basketball coach. “We will never be back to where we were [before Katrina]. If we go back to where we were, then we obviously are not doing what we need to be doing.”

“New Orleans needs St. Augustine to come back stronger than it was before,” concludes James, now a computer services administrator in Houston. “St. Augustine is New Orleans.”

Charles Hallman welcomes reader responses to challman@spokesman-recorder.com, or read his blog, www.wwwchallman.blogspot.com.