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New life for Louisiana’s 1st black private preschool?

June 9, 2019

NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Numa Martinez walked into an old classroom in New Orleans’ 7th Ward on a hot morning in May and was instantly taken back to his days at Martinez Kindergarten. Here he taught English, Spanish, French and Japanese to 5-year-olds for more than three decades.

The room has aged in the 14 years since Hurricane Katrina. But Numa, now 73, remembered how he had students complete pages of their alphabets, languages and numbers every morning.

“I told them, ‘Don’t play around with your education,’” he said, smiling. “This brings back memories.”

Teaching was a heartwarming experience for Numa, whose father built the school and whose mother, a pioneer in early childhood development, first opened it in her Uptown home in 1934. It was Louisiana’s first private prekindergarten for black children, and later educated such notables as Mayor Sidney Barthelemy and jazz musician Wynton Marsalis.

Katrina shuttered the school in 2005. But now community leaders are working to redevelop the site as a multipurpose programs center. Former students and staff were invited to a reunion reception in late May. Eugene Green Jr., chairman of a nonprofit community development agency, said there are plans to have the property added to the National Register of Historic Sites.

“Some of the stuff that you see hasn’t been changed since Hurricane Katrina, but it’s going to change over the next five years,” Green said.

Mildred Martinez was a McDonogh 35 High School graduate who went on to study in New York at Hunter College and Columbia University. She taught for seven years in New Orleans public schools — until she married Maurice Martinez Sr.

At the time, Section 172 of the Orleans Parish School Board’s regulations stated, “The marriage of a female teacher . . . vacates her position and is considered equivalent to a resignation.” Her letter to an administrator, dated Aug. 10, 1932, says, “I regret to have to do so but I am now married and the Rules and Regulations require that I submit” her resignation.

She went on to raise her first son, Maurice Jr., and tried to enroll him at the all-white Isidore Newman School three blocks from her integrated neighborhood on LaSalle Street. Despite being a private school, Newman upheld state law enforcing segregation.

Even for public schools, the Orleans School Board was still restricting black enrollment to grades 1 through 5. So her neighbors persuaded Mildred Martinez to start a private nursery school for her 4-year-old son and other black children ages 3 to 5.

She faced criticism. “They said I was a crazy woman because I was forcing these children to read at such an early age,” she told The Times-Picayune in a story published June 5, 1986. “Now that’s what everyone is advocating.”

And she faced challenges. The school lacked books for reading, so for eight years she wrote her own and fixed the pages into booklets, the newspaper reported. Numa Martinez said parents paid 25 cents a week for schooling and that his mother sometimes let struggling families pay a week late.

“During the first five years, my mama used to put her hands in her hair and cry,” Numa Martinez said.

She received some help, however. The Newman School donated used furnishings such as chalkboards and “old, broken down chairs,” Numa Martinez said. And her husband fixed the chairs with iron wires.

Among her students were children of many black public school teachers who wanted to keep their marriages secret from school system officials or had given birth outside of marriage, Numa Martinez said.

In 1936, 15 students graduated from the school. The number grew each year, until Mildred Martinez moved the school in 1944 because she wanted to graduate 100 children a year, The Times-Picayune reported.

She decided to relocate to the 7th Ward, where her husband, a bricklayer, had bought land at 1761-67 N. Roman St. There he built three classrooms, a school office below a residence that the family rented out for $25 a month, and another residence for the Martinez family. They paid $75 a month for the real estate, Numa Martinez said.

“He paid off the mortgage and everything else like you’re supposed to,” Numa said. “He was a good man. He busted his ass.”

If Maurice Martinez built the structures, however, it was his wife who built the institution. “She was the school in those days,” Barthelemy, the mayor, once told The Times-Picayune. Numa Martinez, a graduate of the school and its principal after his mother died in 1991, said she ran it with an “iron fist.”

Community support for Martinez Kindergarten School grew along with enrollment. Dr. Walter Young, one of the few black dentists in New Orleans at the time, provided the students with free dental care. Dr. C.C. Haydel Sr., a prominent black physician, provided the students with free inoculations and medical care.

Yet another challenge emerged when Interstate 10 was built above North Claiborne Avenue, a 1960s project widely considered to have crippled the black neighborhoods along the Claiborne corridor. Maurice Martinez stood in the schoolyard with City Councilman James Moreau and Mayor Vic Schiro to persuade them to move the planned angle of elevated expressway by four degrees, to “save the kindergarten school,” Numa Martinez said.

By 1998, 64 years after its founding, the school had educated more than 8,700 children. “The kindergarten has earned a reputation for turning out academically advanced students who enter elementary school routinely able to do 5-digit addition and subtraction, count in Spanish and pray in French,” The Times-Picayune wrote in 1988.

When Katrina hit and the federal levees failed in 2005, four feet of water flooded the school, bringing with it what Numa Martinez described as “rats and alligators and everything else around here.” He sought money for repairs but said all of the education funders were focused on nonprofit organizations that secured contracts with the Louisiana Recovery School District to run public schools as charters.

He might have done the same if he had help. “I would’ve jumped on that like a cat on a mouse,” he said. Instead, he and the school “went down with the ship.”

Numa Martinez still lives in the 7th Ward, and it was there that he was approached by Rev. Joe Connelly of Bethany United Methodist Church. Connelly is executive director of Action Empowerment Inc., a local nonprofit community development agency, and he asked whether they could work together to restore the property.

Green, the agency’s chairman and the founder and president of the Nationwide Real Estate Corp., said the site can house an entrepreneurial and business management support center. Other possibilities are a computer laboratory and technology training center, a music education center, and it could support health, wellness and community- based programs.

Community residents and boosters cleaned up the school site and other parts of the neighborhood earlier this month. Organizers will rely on private funding to restore to the property, Green said. They’re seeking contributions via a gofundme page.

Numa Martinez expressed appreciation. Standing in the schoolyard recently, he recalled how seven yellow school buses used to transport students there. He admitted he “can’t do all of this by myself,” but he’s hopeful the community will help him restore his parent’s legacy.

“It’s going to redevelop,” Numa said. “It’s going to come back.”

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Wilborn P. Nobles III

Wilborn P. Nobles III is an education reporter based in New Orleans. He can be reached at wnobles@nola.com or on Twitter at @WilNobles.

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Information from: The Times-Picayune, http://www.nola.com

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