Open to All
In 1954, The United States Supreme Court’s unanimous decision in the Brown vs. Board of Education in Topeka, KS stated that “separate but educational facilities are inherently unequal.” Across the nation, local school boards devised plans to desegregate their public schools. By 1965, plans were put into place to desegregate the public schools in West Baton Rouge Parish. Initially, African American students could use a “free choice” system, giving the students the options to attend, for example, the all-white Port Allen High School, Brusly High School, or the all-black Cohn High School. Few African American students pursued the free choice system. In 1969, a Federal Court Order was issued to desegregate all public schools in West Baton Rouge Parish.
Chemistry class at Cohn High School in 1962 Chemistry class at Port Allen High School in 1962
The Legacy of Cohn High
With only scattered elementary schools across the parish available, African-American parents in West Baton Rouge wanted and needed a local high school for their children to attend. Initially, parents began fundraising money to purchase property to build a high school, but a donation of property from local landowner Henry Cohn expedited the process. In 1948, he donated land to the West Baton Rouge School Board for a school. The school opened on August 31, 1949, under the direction of Oliver Baham as principal, Mr. J. N. Moody, Sr., as standing Supervisor of Schools, James A. Gray in mathematics and shop, Johnny D. Hayes in science, Nora L. Hartson in English, Shirley Baham in Home Economics, and Julia E. Coffey in social science and library. In the fall of 1949, Cohn enrolled 123 students.
Cohn High expanded rapidly during the following years. Classes were initially held in a pre-fabricated building that had been moved to the school grounds from Harding Field Airforce Base in Baton Rouge. When this proved too limiting, two permanent buildings were constructed during the 1950-1951 school year. In 1952, the school board moved a fourth building to the Cohn site, which became the new Cohn Elementary School. From its inaugural graduating class of eighteen, the number of students at Cohn High expanded each year. The school also offered several athletics options, including a majorettes troupe and a cheer squad, a football team, a baseball team, a track team, and both senior and junior varsity basketball.
Cohn High played a complex role during the Civil Rights movement. On one hand, the school served as a “safe space” for its students, many of whom recall being somewhat sheltered from the tensions and dangers of the era. School regulations prevented teachers from discussing protest efforts at school. On the other hand, several of the school’s staff members were active in the Civil Right movement, particularly John Edward Searcy, who taught biology at Cohn and became a leader in local civil rights efforts.
Despite the decision made in 1954’s Brown vs Board of Education, West Baton Rouge, like many other school systems throughout the state, made no effort to desegregate their system until ordered to do so by the federal government in 1965. In 1969, a final court ruling ordered the school board to close campuses so that no two schools in the same district were offering the same levels of instruction. At the end of the 1969 school year, the Board closed Cohn High School and the students and faculty were integrated with those from the formerly all-white schools, Port Allen High and Brusly High. The last class to graduate from Cohn High finished their studies in 1969.
The Cohn High School students never lost their affection for their school. As the first high school for African Americans in West Baton Rouge, Cohn High addressed a social need for education in the black community for West Baton Rouge. Because of Cohn High, the number of students enrolled in parish schools increased dramatically. Cohn opened its doors to mold the young black minds of West Baton Rouge during the national fight for equal Civil Rights. It created a safe place for African American students to learn and for the African American community to gather. An important step in the push for equal civil rights, Cohn High School was closed as our nation moved towards fully integrated schools. But the positive social bonds sown over twenty years among the students, faculty and community remain to this day. Despite its short life span, Cohn High left a long line of achievement and progress and many Cohn graduates went on to achieve success throughout the nation.
In early 2016 the West Baton Rouge Museum displayed Cohn High School: How We Love Thee, an exhibition commemorating the history and legacy of 20th century African American education in West Baton Rouge by highlighting Cohn High School. The exhibition included a video compiled of oral history interviews that can be found here.