Biography & History of Cordelia M. Washington
Cordelia Matthews Washington was born in Lafourche Parish, Louisiana in January 1876. She was one of eight children born to Mr. Dave Matthews (a laborer) and Mrs. Matilda Brown Matthews (a housekeeper). Cordelia, being the eldest daughter, helped to raise her siblings, but her overwhelming desire was to get an education. Cordelia’s parents allowed her to enroll in the American Armstead Missionary School in New Orleans in response to her desires.
Cordelia attended Straight College of New Orleans, LA in the 1890’s, which is currently Dillard University of New Orleans, LA. Cordelia successfully completed her education earning a Bachelor of Education degree. She then pioneered and championed a move to open a school to educate the children of the community in which she lived, namely, Lafourche Parish. In 1902, a graded public school (The Negro Corporation Training School) was erected on Narrow Street in Thibodaux; boundary streets being Ninth Street & Lagarde Street. There the journey to educate black children of the area began.
As this school began to receive exposure, so did the interest of those who desired an education for their children. That interest extended to Terrebonne and Assumption Parishes. Parents in these parishes discovered ways to allow their children to live with relatives or friends to attend school during the week but return home on the weekend to work.
Ms. Cordelia M. Washington was so respected that she was invited in 1918 to deliver words of encouragement to seventy African American soldiers as they prepared for departure to serve in World War I. In attendance was a reporter from the local newspaper who marveled at Ms. Washington’s eloquence. He wrote, “She has a fine command of language and understands how to deliver her utterances effectively, being, we presume about the best educated colored woman in the parish”. Her character was believed to be so outstanding and her resounding speech so impressive, that it impacted the school board and community. Her speech was also printed in the newspapers of New Orleans and Baton Rouge, as well as, the local paper of Thibodaux in its entirety.
To honor Ms. Washington, the school board voted to change the name of the “Negro Corporation Training School” to “Cordelia Matthews Washington Colored School!” Ms. Jesse Weber, who knew Ms. Washington well and also worked as an instructor and librarian at C.M. Washington, stated this fact as she addressed the body of the alumni and community on Sunday, July 2, 2000 at the Reunion 2000, Historic Site Celebration.
In further action by the school board of Lafourche Parish, under the leadership of Superintendent R.O. Mocla, an excerpt from the minutes of a regular scheduled meeting, a motion by Mr. Riviere and seconded by Mr. Naquin, the decision was made that the existing buildings, as well as, any other new additions were to remain under the name of C. M. Washington Elementary and High School, named after Cordelia Matthews Washington, a pioneer and leader in negro education in the Thibodaux area. As a school forged as a unit with education and community involvement there was always a commitment of high degree to making a difference. Superb leadership engaged the school to be a power house to be reckoned with as we manage to fill three large trophy cases to capacity in the areas of academics, music, and sports.
Ms. Cordelia M. Washington was highly regarded as a pioneer, leader, administrator, and instructor in Lafourche Parish. She devoted her entire life to educating children. She knew that education was the cornerstone to a more excellent way of life. Her philosophy: Be the Very Best that You Can Be! She also served the community, being a woman of sterling moral character.
Ms. Washington passed away on June 6, 1937, leaving a legacy of tremendous worth that span into three parishes. The Lafourche Parish community shall forever remember and value this remarkable woman, as well as her contributions.