In the summer of 2014, the West Baton Rouge Parish School board announced that the Cohn High School (1949-1969) would be demolished. Dedicated to the historical preservation and interpretation of the parish and south Louisiana, the West Baton Rouge Museum reached out to the school board for permission to save artifacts, archives, and pieces of the building for the permanent collection before the school building was destroyed. The landmark exhibition, Cohn High School: How We Love Thee, grew from this initial collection of saved materials and stories and provides the first comprehensive history of the only West Baton Rouge Parish high school for African Americans.
The assembly of Cohn materials spawned research projects to preserve the memory of education for African Americans before parish-wide desegregation in 1969. Partnerships developed among the museum, Cohn Alumni Association, City of Port Allen, local churches, Arts Council of Greater Baton Rouge, Zachary Historic Village, River Road African American Museum, LSU, West Baton Rouge School Board and others through a community-wide commitment to record and collect the stories.
The exhibit includes the publication (250 copies distributed for free) The 20-Year History of Cohn High School. Copies were donated to local, public, school and college libraries. The museum secured additional funding from the Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities to publish the history and from the private-not-for profit organization, DOC DHL (dedicated to uplifting education for young African-American men), to support the oral history portion of the project. The video in the exhibit, “Cohn High School: How We Love Thee” is a focal point and is available online. The exhibit reception included a dance performance, “Cohn High School’s Story” sponsored by the Arts Council of Greater Baton Rouge.
Public impact for this exhibit is far ranging, and response was overwhelmingly positive. Records indicate over 1,400 visitors viewed the exhibit. Visitors from outside Louisiana commented that this story resonated with their memories of segregated schools in their home towns. The exhibit has demonstrated that that even though the school is no longer standing, Cohn continues to be important to parish residents and their families. Cohn’s history illustrates how racially segregated education impacted a rural agrarian community and inspired civil rights achievements. As Mrs. DeCuir stated, “I can no longer show my grandchildren Cohn High School, I can now only say this is the site where Cohn used to be.” More than the building, however, Cohn High School fostered careers in science, politics, sports, education and the arts and shaped families for many generations. Cohn High School: How We Love Thee drew upon community memory and loyalty to bring the story of this influential institution to a new generation.