Businessman and real estate investor whose extensive involvement with slavery complicates his legacy as a benefactor of public education.
Born in Baltimore, Maryland, on December 29, 1779, McDonogh was the oldest son of Elizabeth Wilkins McDonogh and John McDonogh Sr., a Revolutionary War veteran who ran a brickyard and owned properties in Baltimore. McDonogh credited his parents with his passion for education and lifelong love of music. Raised Presbyterian, he was guided by strong Christian beliefs throughout his life.
In 1795 McDonogh began a five-year apprenticeship with the successful merchant William Taylor. In 1800 Taylor sent McDonogh to the then-Spanish port of New Orleans to serve as his agent. There, McDonogh partnered as a commission merchant with two former apprentices of Taylor. Working within an Atlantic economy profoundly shaped by the institution of slavery, they sold European and American goods arriving on Taylor’s ships and used the proceeds to send sugar, cotton, and other local products back to Baltimore.
Following the Louisiana Purchase trade in New Orleans increased significantly. McDonogh expanded his work to other merchants eager to take advantage of the new American port at the mouth of the Mississippi River. In 1805 he joined the board of directors of the Bank of Louisiana, a testament to his rapid success.
Real Estate Investment
With a growing fortune McDonogh’s attention turned toward real estate in the first decade of the nineteenth century. His accumulation of property in and around New Orleans, including city lots, plantations, and undeveloped land, provided revenue through rents and cultivation. In 1813 he purchased a plantation across the river from New Orleans in present-day Algiers and Gretna. He subdivided the property, selling and renting lots in what he called McDonoghville. In 1817 he moved into the plantation house, where he lived until his death in 1850. By that point, McDonogh owned over 600,000 acres in thirteen parishes and New Orleans.
Enslavement and Emancipation
As his landholdings expanded so did McDonogh’s enslaved workforce. Between 1820 and 1840 the number of people he enslaved increased from 16 to 192 men, women, and children. His enslaved workforce was highly skilled and performed a variety of duties, including sugar cultivation and processing, brickmaking, carpentry and masonry, medical care, dressmaking, and blacksmithing. Enslaved men also assisted McDonogh in business by collecting rents, clerking, leasing properties, and purchasing supplies. Despite an 1830 Louisiana law that made teaching enslaved people illegal, McDonogh educated the people he owned. In 1842 he listed two enslaved people on his plantation, Mark and Nancy, as teachers. McDonogh also sent two enslaved men, David Kinney McDonogh and Washington Watts McDonogh, to study at Lafayette College in Pennsylvania.
McDonogh provided an education to the people he enslaved, in part, to prepare them to live as free men and women, although he believed that white and Black people could never live as equals in the United States. As a member of the American Colonization Society, McDonogh fully supported the organization’s efforts to send Black Americans to settle Liberia. In 1825 McDonogh implemented a gradual emancipation plan that allowed the people he enslaved to earn their freedom under the condition that they emigrate to Africa. The plan involved an elaborate system that required individuals to work extra hours each day, accumulating payment towards freedom. After a fifteen-year period McDonogh manumitted the entire group. In 1842 eighty-one freed men, women, and children sailed to Liberia. Following the settlement of McDonogh’s estate, another forty-one people emigrated to Liberia in 1859, fulfilling the provisions in his will.
By providing his enslaved workers with a goal of freedom, McDonogh believed he maximized their productivity and efficiency. He boasted that they “performed more and better labor than slaves ordinarily do in the usual time of laboring … ” McDonogh calculated that the value of this extra work over fifteen years equaled a sufficient amount to purchase more enslaved people and start the plan over again. He envisioned his strategy catching on throughout the South but failed to convince other slaveholders of its efficacy.
Last Will & Testament
On October 26, 1850, McDonogh died at his home in McDonoghville. He never married or had children. In his will McDonogh left the bulk of his estate to New Orleans and Baltimore “for the establishment and support of Free Schools” for poor children “of both sexes of all Classes and Castes of Color.” He explained that his desire to provide education to underprivileged children motivated his attainment of wealth. He included detailed instructions for the governance of that funding, but most of his specifications proved impractical.
After years of litigation that eventually reached the US Supreme Court, McDonogh’s land was divided between New Orleans and Baltimore. In 1858 each city received property assets worth $704,440 (over $22 million in 2021 USD) to sell and manage the proceeds. Baltimore used the funding to develop a “farm school” for poor boys in 1873, which continues to operate as a private, college preparatory academy in Owings Mills, Maryland. Beginning in 1861, New Orleans utilized the McDonogh School Fund to augment the city’s public schools for almost a century. Although McDonogh stipulated his estate to be used to educate children regardless of race, officials did not apply the funds equitably. Initial allocations, for instance, supported the construction of schools for a public system that served white children only. Not until Reconstruction, when New Orleans public schools enrolled white and Black youths in both racially homogenous and racially mixed schools, did McDonogh funds support Black children’s education. Following Reconstruction, when schools became rigidly segregated, McDonogh’s bequest sustained the system as white Democratic leaders severely cut its budget. Yet from this moment through the Jim Crow era, far fewer McDonogh-funded schools were designated for Black students.
In New Orleans McDonogh’s legacy as a benefactor of public education has been both memorialized and contested. During Reconstruction school board officials began naming schools for McDonogh, each followed by a number. Movements to change the names of public schools in the 1990s and in 2020 have targeted McDonogh schools because of their namesake’s deep involvement with slavery. In 2021, following a review of school building names tied to “persons who were slave owners, confederate officials, or segregation supporters,” the Orleans Parish School Board voted to rename all public school facilities named for McDonogh.
Monuments to McDonogh have existed in several prominent places in New Orleans, including Lafayette Square and Duncan Plaza. Erected in 1898 the statue in Lafayette Square served as the site for a ceremony held in honor of McDonogh each May. During the Jim Crow era, Black students were made to wait until white students completed the “McDonogh Day” ceremony before they could participate. In 1954 Black teachers and students boycotted McDonogh Day, protesting what one activist described as a “public demonstration of racial supremacy.” More recently the Take ’Em Down NOLA organization called for the removal of the McDonogh monuments. In the summer of 2020 citizens toppled both monuments from their pedestals.