John McDonogh (1779-1850) was born in Baltimore but lived most of his adult life in New Orleans as a businessman, plantation owner, sometime-politician, and a supporter of the American Colonization Society. His estate, which led to the creation of McDonogh School, was built through the use of slave labor. (Read about John McDonogh and Slavery in a 2009 essay written by Dr. John Wood and Ane Lintvedt, members of the Upper School History Department.)
McDonogh was known for his piety and frugality, financial and otherwise, derived from his Presbyterian beliefs. He was a hard worker, a bold leader, and a constant thinker, and his unrelenting devotion to work made him appear aloof to strangers and even close friends. These ideals and visions guided his action in his personal and business life, and in 1804, at the age of 24, he expressed his philosophy in his Rules For Guidance in My Life.
When he died, John McDonogh bequeathed approximately half of his enormous wealth to the City of New Orleans “for the establishment and support of Free Schools […] wherein the poor (and the poor only) of both sexes of all Castes and Colors, shall have admittance, free of expense for the purpose of being instructed….” His will also provided for the establishment of a "school farm" in the city of Baltimore. Because a public school system already existed, the mayor and City Council used the funds to solely endow “a School Farm on an Extensive scale, for the destitute, and the Poorest of the Poor, Male Children and Youth.”
McDonogh's dream was for students to learn in a disciplined environment under his philosophies of hard work, frugality, and compassion. In 1872, a tract of 835 acres was purchased for $85,000 for the school's establishment.
John McDonogh was originally buried in a cemetery in New Orleans in 1850. In 1865, his body was moved by the City Council of Baltimore, who was acting as trustees for his property, to Greenmount Cemetery. A grave memorial was commissioned by the City Council to honor his directive to create a farm school for underprivileged boys. In 1945, his body and the sculpted memorial were moved to McDonogh School.
Since 1873, the McDonogh community has lived by the words of John McDonogh who sought to leave the world a better place. The notion of doing “the greatest possible amount of good” is inculcated in McDonogh students of all ages. Through community involvement, students learn to broaden their sight, give to those less fortunate, and discover the joy in making a difference.