Gail Etienne is still alive.
Tessie Prevost is still alive.
The three little girls who walked past jeering, catcalling racists on Monday November 14th, 1960 at McDonogh 19 in New Orleans Lower 9th Ward are still alive 60 years later.
As cops on horseback rode through the baying mob; Tate, Etienne, and Prevost ascended the 18 steps of the building to begin their studies.
That morning, Leona Tate’s mama chastened her, “When you get into the car sit in the back of the seat and don’t put your face in the window.” The car carrying her to school from her home on Delery Street was driven by U.S marshals.
That afternoon’s headline in The New Orleans State-Item blared “Marshals Escort Four Negro Girls Into Two Schools As Crowds Jeer”
As the car carrying Tate and her mama turned onto St Claude Avenue, the little girl noticed the giant crowds of people and innocently thought it was Mardi Gras day.
She quickly learned the crowd was there for her and her fellow black students. And there would be no parade.
The water fountains were turned off. The three girls were not allowed to walk on the sides of the classrooms where there were windows.
There could be snipers.
The young girls had to bring their own food for their lunches because there was a fear that the cafeteria workers would poison them. A 24 hour police protection watch was set up at each girl’s home for the 1960-61 school year.
As the day went by the white students departed the school and Tate, Etienne, and Prevost continued their classwork alone in the big building that now sits moldering into the ground.
The next day pro-segregation mobs took to the French Quarter and launched wild protests with some threatening to take the School Board office buildings by force.
On November 15th 1960, vitriolic racist Leander Perez of St Bernard Parish spoke in front of a gathering of the White Citizens Council saying:
Don’t wait for your daughter to be raped by these Congolese.Don’t wait until the burrheads are forced into your schools. Do something about it now.
John Steinbeck made a special trip to the South during this time as he was fascinated by what was happening in New Orleans. He described his viewing of one of the racist, chanting swarms as “a kind of frightening witches’ Sabbath.”
The white kids never came back to McDonogh. In short order, Perez and the Council paid for the children to be bused across the Orleans Parish line to an all-white school called the Arabi Elementary Annex.
684 white students rode the buses into St Bernard Parish.
By 1966, Chalmette would be integrated racially but the school district then took the unusual move of segregating sexually by moving all the girls to the freshly-built Andrew Jackson High School. Locals claim that it was to remove the young white girls from the recently-integrated Chalmette High. That too would end by 1988.
At the end of their second grade year, Leona Tate, Gail Etienne, and Tessie Prevost left McDonogh 19 as it was now predominantly black.
“The thing was to keep us in a white school,” Tate explained.
“We were transferred to T.J Semmes, and this time we did not have US marshals or police protection.”
“The children didn’t leave, and they came to school with whatever they were told to do; that was not a good experience.”
“That’s when we really faced integration for the first time, it was really hard to stay focused”
“We were deathly afraid to go eat lunch in the cafeteria, somebody was going to spit in your plate or they were going to knock it out of your hand”
“Our safe haven… was outside in the yard on a tree stump.”
Darkened by gigantic cypresses, submerged; a land of reptiles, silence, shadow, decay
George Washington Cable speaking on the territory that would become the 9th Ward.
These naive little girls might as well have been hardened-marines facing off the Viet Cong.
Leona Tate would change schools at the end of the year joining fellow pioneer Ruby Bridges at Frantz Elementary, then Kohn Middle School before finally helping to integrate Francis T. Nicholls High School on St Claude Avenue.
The ‘Rebels’ of Nicholls were a particularly virulent band of racist teens who routinely gathered together to sing as one, “Glory, Glory Segregation,” a sort of twisted, school spirit song.
During the sixties, the white population of the 9th Ward would decline by 70 percent with many former residents leaving for nearby St Bernard Parish.
“For many generations, the South had been class-divided and poor and the tenuous privilege of being white was felt to really be something,” remarked historian Kim Rogers.
$500,000 down $13,500,000 to go
These days Leona Tate runs a foundation that is dedicated to repurposing the old McDonogh 19 building.
Last week I received an email from the National Parks Service stating that they had bequeathed the Leona Tate Foundation for Change a half a million dollars to help renovate the old building that has been abandoned since 2004, the year before Katrina.
It’s estimated that a full rehab will cost $14 million.
Once finished, the building will house The Tate-Etienne-Prevost Interpretive Center, and include “…the first New Orleans Civil Rights museum and educational space…”
The facility will include 25 low-income housing units.
Tate also wants the center to regularly hold talks on race relations from days of yore as well as modern times.
I live five minutes from McDonogh 19 and I’d love to see the building host second line band concerts, old New Orleans documentary screenings, and pop up restaurants from chefs all across the city.
Oh, and the racist, tyrant Leander Perez has been graveyard dead since 1969 while Gail Etienne, Tessie Prevost and Leona Tate raised families, and received international recognition for being pioneers in the civil rights movement.
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After the Education Wars: How Smart Schools Upend the Business of Reform By Andrea Gabor
Schooling Citizens: The Struggle for African American Education in Antebellum America by Hillary J. Moss,
Seeing Through Race: A Reinterpretation of Civil Rights Photography by Martin A. Berger,
“Southern Children Under Desegregation,”The American Journal of Psychiatry 120 (October 1963) by Robert Coles,
Towards the De Miseducation of the African American By Dwight Mosley
A Girl Stands at the Door: The Generation of Young Women Who Desegregated … By Rachel Devlin
Righteous Lives: Narratives of the New Orleans Civil Rights Movement By Kim Lacy Rogers
McDonogh 19 has been designated an official historic place