“You are never too young to learn.”—Mildred Martinez
As part of our NOLA4Women blog series, illuminating the historical contributions of New Orleans women, we will be highlighting the accomplishments of Mildred Bernard Martinez.
Mildred Martinez had a lifelong passion for educating children. Since African-American women were not permitted to teach in public schools after they got married, Martinez was forced to resign her position in the New Orleans Public School system after her nuptials. Undeterred, Martinez decided to open the Martinez Kindergarten School in 1934 to serve young black children, including her four year old son who could not attend the segregated Isidore Newman School with his playmates. At the time, the Martinez School was the first and only pre-kindergarten school for African American children in New Orleans.
Children weren’t merely babysat at the Martinez School, they were taught at an early age. Mrs. Martinez’s motto in life was that “you are never too young to learn.” This proved to be very progressive because, at the time, she was called crazy for believing that children could be taught to read before they were six years old. Needless to say, she proved that notion wrong. In addition to reading and writing, she taught her students dancing, rhythm steps, ballet, and tap dancing to help them develop self-control, muscular coordination, and self-assurance. Tuition was set at $3.00 per month plus a $1.00 medical fee at the time of registration.
The school soon attracted black professionals who enrolled their children. She remained undaunted by those who believed she shouldn’t admit children from poorer areas or the “others” as they were called. Her school’s popularity led to crowded classes and waiting lists of more than sixty students. By 1951, enrollment was at one hundred students but the staff remained small. Mrs. Martinez sacrificed luxuries so that her students had what they needed. She would save for small improvements at the school every year. Even when public schools were officially desegregated and most schools began offering kindergarten programs, she believed that her school still offered students something special.
Mrs. Martinez died in 1991, but the school continued to operate and grow under the leadership of her son, Numa Martinez. By 2000, the school had graduated over 9,000 students including influential people such as Liberty Bank president Alden McDonald and Pulitzer Prize winner Wynton Marsalis. Unfortunately, the school is now closed, but its legacy lives on through its graduates. Mrs. Martinez’s vision ensured that many young, black children got the opportunity to learn and cultivate high self-esteem in a world that didn’t always nurture it.
A description of the Martinez Kindergarten School records can be found here.
Image from the Martinez Kindergarten School records. Images from Amistad’s website, newsletters, and blogs cannot be reproduced without permission.