Volunteers help conduct L'Ouverture interviews

Jan. 15—A group who helped conduct interviews with former L'Ouverture School alumni wanted to help preserve the former students' voices for future generations.

Two days of interviews were held on Friday, Jan.12, and Saturday, Jan. 13, at The Puterbaugh Center in McAlester.

During the interview sessions, L'Ouverture alumni were invited to share their memories of the school and recall some of its former students, teachers and administrators.

Members of the L'Ouverture Alumni Association hosted the interview sessions, said Jamie Wright, who traveled to McAlester from Texas to assist her godmother, Ester Hozendorf, with the project.

Wright said the interview sessions were a project of Dr. Erica Johnson, PhD, Faculty Coordinator and Associate Professor of History at Francis Marion University, in Florence, South Carolina.

A few of the L'Ouverture alumni who were interviewed included Clarance Ellis, Marilyn Smitherman and Ester Hozendorf.

Why did Wright make the long journey to McAlester to help with the L'Ouverture project?

"It's the importance of archiving history," Wright said.

She noted that too many former L'Ouverture school students have already passed from this earth without leaving records of their memories related to the school for the historical record.

"So many are passing away," she said. Wright said she didn't want to take it for granted that former L'Ouverture School students will always be available to interview.

"I consider it an honor to make sure their voices are heard," she said.

Others who helped with the project included Stephanie Giacomo of Eastern Oklahoma State College, Lacey Sudderth of the McAlester Public Library, Sholandra Harrison and others.

L'Ouverture served as the school for Black students in McAlester from the school's founding in 1907 until 1968, when it closed after L'Ouverture students began attending McAlester Public Schools.

When integration with McAlester Public Schools occurred, 115 L'Ouverture High School students transferred to McAlester High School. L'Ouverture's first through eighth grades continued to hold classes at the school for a brief time afterward.

The former L'Ouverture school building standing at 14th Street and Cherokee Avenue replaced the original building. McAlester Public Schools later used the L'Ouverture building at 14th and Cherokee as the site of the alternative school known as Key Academy.

Two members of the L'Ouverture Class of 1965, the late Primus Moore and Herbert Keith, purchased the building from McAlester Public Schools in 2014 after MPS moved its alternative school to another location.

Moore, a retired teacher and administrator at McAlester Public Schools and the Class of 1965 L'Overture Class president, died in 2022. This year's inaugural Primus Moore Invitational Basketball Tournament is named in his honor.

He and Keith, who was the 1965 valedictorian, spoke often about L'Ouverture's legacy and its best-known administrator, Dr. Willa Strong.

When Strong died in 1971, McAlester city councilors passed a resolution renaming part of Eleventh Street, between South Avenue and Electric Avenue in her honor, renaming it Strong Boulevard.

Moore and Keith formed a group that is still working to preserve the L'Ouverture school building.

Wright is glad she and the others who helped with the L'Ouverture interview project could contribute to the remembered history and legacy of L'Ouverture.

"It's my honor to be of service to make sure their voices are heard and go down in history," said Wright.