Exchange Place: How A Small Struggling School Transformed Civil Rights in New Orleans and the Nation

Ep. 1 School Is In Session

November 30, 2022 The 431 Exchange; Mya Carter (Host); Kevin Gullage (Music) Season 1 Episode 1
Exchange Place: How A Small Struggling School Transformed Civil Rights in New Orleans and the Nation
Ep. 1 School Is In Session
Show Notes Transcript

Episode 1. School Is In Session.  On a cold December day in 1965, an experimental school known as the Adult Education Center started its first day of classes. Little did they know that over the course of the next seven years, 431 graduates of mostly African American women would go on to make history by integrating the secretarial offices of the Deep South and other parts of the United States.

This is a presentation of The 431 Exchange. We are a non-profit scholarship fund dedicated to adult students seeking to transform their lives through continuing education. We invite you to learn more about us by going to our website where you can hear more inspiring stories by signing up for our newsletter. Thanks!


The 431 Exchange Presents

Exchange Place: How a Small Struggling School Transformed Civil Rights In New Orleans and the Nation

Exchange Place is the story of a school whose mission was to train mostly African American women the skills they needed to integrate the secretarial offices of the Deep South, between 1965 and 72.

Those offices were not just segregated. For the most part, they were completely off limits to women of color and many were fighting to ensure the workplace would stay that way for years or decades to come. Over the course of the school's history it was shut down multiple times and constantly under duress from forces conspiring defeat it. But it survived to become one of the most successful programs of its kind in the War on Poverty lauded on the front pages of national newspapers, like the Wall Street Journal and the subject of an Emmy award-winning documentary in 1968 entitled, appropriately, "The School That Would Not Die." 

The first season of the podcast tells the inspirational biographies of the school's graduates who changed the moral skyline of their city, how they did it, and how the school's teachers and supporters struggled to overcome the massive forces arrayed against them.

I'm your host, Maya Carter. 

And this...

is Exchange Place.

Episode one. “School Is In Session.”

The first day of the experimental school known as The Adult Education Center began on Monday, December 13, 1965. The staff and students had waited anxiously for that day to come. As much as Alice Geoffray, the director of the program, had been anticipating it, when she awoke that morning in her small duplex, her thoughts were not solely on the opening of the school. Like many of her students, a large portion of whom were working mothers, she had a family--a big family--to worry about first. Clothes needed to be ready; necessary notes written; books gathered after the weekend; last-minute homework completed; and lunch money doled out like any other Monday. There was always a missing sock or shoe -- or child -- to be located; a misplaced pen or pencil to be found; or an unresolved squabble to be settled. Even though the children of the students and the director knew how excited their mothers were about the first day it did not cross their minds to question if their mothers were scared or apprehensive. The majority of the Adult Education Center's students were Black, and their kids had no idea their mothers were about to embark on a journey that would alter civil rights history in New Orleans and the country. In tandem, Geoffray's children did not know how nervous she was about the responsibility she was taking on, and whether she could accomplish it. Kids have their own problems. Kids and mothers alike simply got ready and went their separate ways.

Like most of her students, Geoffray did not own an automobile. That bitterly cold and sunny December day she skipped the iconic streetcar that she and many tourists enjoyed to take the faster route -- a 20-minute bus ride to downtown, plus a short, eight-block transfer to the fringe of the French Quarter near the bend in the Mississippi River that gives New Orleans its nickname...The Crescent City. Once she was downtown, the elaborate Christmas decorations in the display windows of Maison Blanche department store and their two-story-tall holiday ambassador, snowman Mr. Bingle, invisibly suspended above the sidewalk, caused her mind to wander to the gifts she still needed to buy -- and could barely afford -- for her children, extended family, and work colleagues.

As Geoffray changed buses and passed several well-dressed young ladies walking in the same direction, she wondered if they might possibly be her new students. However, she didn't recognize them as belonging to the group she had come to know so well in the previous months. Those students had helped save the school -- and Geoffray's confidence -- before the Adult Education Center even opened. Had they not stood by the school -- despite an epic hurricane that stirred up racial tensions in New Orleans, political controversies about the school's mission to desegregate white offices, and other unforeseen delays -- there would not be a school to open. Besides, Geoffray said to herself, it was too early for her to see any of those students on the way to the first day of classes. They would probably be straggling into school a few minutes before the scheduled 9 a.m. bell as students tend to do.

Geoffray had been at the Center late the night before to finish last-minute items that needed to be ready on the eve of the school's opening. It was her secretary, the young and poised Sharon Rodi, who arrived early the following morning to open the doors at 8 am.

Geoffray walked nervously but excitedly toward the Center, just a short distance -- a half-block -- from Canal Street. As she neared the building, it was very quiet. Too quiet. There was little activity on the perpetually dark, trash-strewn street Exchange Place, and there was none in and around the front door of the Center. Geoffray hadn't expected to hear the chatter of ninety women as she opened the door, but she had anticipated a small gathering of early birds hanging around the vestibule. However, she was dumbfounded to hear nothing -- absolutely nothing -- as she stuck her head in the front door and headed toward her office.

Geoffray was filled with dread. Perhaps, she thought, no one had come. Perhaps, the students had grown impatient at the delays and had stopped believing the school would really open, and had moved on, giving up the hope that their lives would change. It was a constant fear that had plagued Geoffray and Rodi as delays pushed back the anticipated start of school from September to December. After all those delays, they had only received the go- ahead federal funding from the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare a few days before.

But the silence that greeted Geoffray was deceptive. As she looked beyond her office, she could see that everyone -- every single student -- was already there . . . waiting . . . quietly . . . very quietly. All seats in the typing room were filled. She passed through the room greeting everyone with a clear, bright, "Good morning," as she wandered casually into the shorthand room; there as well, not a vacant chair remained. She stood in the doorway to the speech room; there, too, she could see that everyone was present.

When the students had come in that morning, well in advance of the arrival hour, Rodi had greeted each one. She was familiar with every name and student profile. She handed each student their master schedule and a schedule for each day of the week. Everything was planned down to the minute. Rodi directed each student to first punch her time-card, a procedure the school used as a rehearsal for their future jobs. Then she instructed them to find their home room, and then sit down in a seat (any available seat) to await the bell. Each student prepared their own name card and was encouraged to write one word or two on the card that would help their fellow students remember them by. For instance, "Love to design my own clothes." All of this was done as quietly as possible, with Rodi helping those who needed assistance.

Geoffray and Rodi found out later that each student was so excited to be there, so eager to get started, so afraid she might not measure up, they didn't utter a sound. In fact, one young student thought if she said a word, the Center and everyone in it would just disappear into thin air.

Student Lorchid Favor Thomas sat anxiously in the typing room. Thomas described herself as an "angry young woman" when she arrived at the Center. Her family's home had been destroyed three months earlier in Hurricane Betsy. Many African Americans believed that the levees in their neighborhoods were allowed to flood to save white ones downriver. She was angry because she could not afford to attend college. After graduating from high school with perfect grades she discovered that the good jobs available to women with a high school diploma were not open to women of color. As one of the younger students in the room, she was fed up with Jim Crow and the Deep South's other laws and customs, the overcrowded schools and tattered textbooks, all that had prevented her from acquiring an education equivalent to her white counterparts but had somehow not diminished her desire for it or a well-paying job with benefits where she could thrive.

As the founders, faculty and students of the Adult Education Center well knew, the opening of the school -- the opening to opportunities in the job market in the 1960s for African American women -- was not inevitable. Recent changes in laws prohibiting discrimination in the workplace did not equate to changes in a society whose hearts and minds were bitterly divided by barriers of caste and color. The opening of the Adult Education Center, and the ultimate success of its graduates, was the result of an extraordinary effort on the part of many people, especially the students themselves.

Exchange Place is the story of how these students and their teachers brought their city together to make changes that were decades--no, generations--overdue, changes that challenged a legacy of white supremacy. The main argument of this book is that the school was successful because it made heroic efforts to foster an environment of mutual respect within its walls and then projected that understanding into the greater business community. It is part of the argument that this was possible because the school reflected the diversity and resiliency of the New Orleans African American community. By telling the story of what was considered a radical experiment for its time, it is the authors' hope that Exchange Place can provide lessons for our society today, a society where progress on civil rights is still not inevitable, and we are still bitterly divided around race.

On that first day of school, the majority of the Adult Education Center's students arrived having put everything on the line to attend. They were in their seats long before the official start time because despite all the obstacles, delays, and setbacks to the school's opening, they had waited so long for an educational opportunity like it to appear. They were there not only for themselves but for their own mothers, who had never had such an opportunity, and they were there for the children they had gotten off to school that morning, kids whose future depended on their success. When the bell rang at 9 o'clock, the Center's first students were ready. More than ready.