C.M. Washington: Educating the Community

jennifer marts staff

In 1902, a Black woman named Cordelia Matthews Washington pioneered the Negro Corporation Training School in “back of town” Thibodaux, Louisiana. African American children traveled lengthy distances from Cut Off to Houma and even Napoleonville to attend this all-Black school. 

“I had to make a round trip of 70 miles a day, because I decided I wanted a high school education. It was such a long trip to and from school, I tried to do some of my work on the bus.”

The vision for the school began with Washington’s passion for education, driving her to create the first African American educational institution within the tri-parish area.

“The best education I got was going to the all-Black C.M. Washington High School,” says 1963 graduate Donald Johnson. “The teachers really cared about the students, and they made you learn.”

In 1942 the school board changed the name to C.M. Washington Elementary and High School in honor of the founder.  After integration in 1968, the school’s name changed to South Thibodaux Elementary School despite pushback from the community and the school’s alumni association.

“Our goal was to get the name (C.M. Washington) returned to at least one of the schools in the area,” says Marian Ellis, a 1959 graduate of C.M. Washington and member of the school’s alumni association.

With pressure from the alumni association, the Thibodaux City Council changed the school’s name back to C.M. Washington in 2019.

“The vote was unanimous,” says Ellis.

A century after Washington started the school, current principal, Gina Johnson, says the school is still serving the area’s children.

“The teachers here work really, really hard and their main focus is doing what’s best for our kids and putting things in place to motivate them, challenge them, and keep them abreast academically as well as socially and emotionally."

Washington left an educational legacy along Bayou Lafourche that built a foundation for the Black community. 

Ellis says, “I am proud to be a graduate of C.M. Washington.” 

Born in Lafourche Parish, Louisiana in January 1876, Cordelia Matthews Washington was an educational pioneer who championed a school for the Black children of the Bayou Region.