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 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 2021 essay written by Ane Lintvedt, a member 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.” 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 Green Mount 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.
John McDonogh left behind a unique and complex legacy. Like the time in which he lived, his life is complicated and contradictory. The fact that he built his fortune on the backs of enslaved peoples—and that very wealth contributed to the founding of McDonogh School—is a part of our history we must acknowledge and confront. As an educational institution, we are committed to ensuring that John McDonogh’s ties to slavery inform our work as we arm students with the knowledge and skills to be strong, ethical leaders.
McDonogh School exists because of John McDonogh’s philanthropy, but our school stands for and represents the character, experiences, and contributions of thousands of students, alumni, parents, and faculty over the course of nearly 150 years.