"I didn’t realize there was a division just because of the color of your skin. I never experienced or knew of anything racist before then. Never.”
Leona Tate's perception of race changed drastically in November 1960 — when she became one of the first Black children to desegregate New Orleans schools.
Prior to that time, many held similar views of race relations in the city. According to published reports, New Orleans residents viewed themselves and the city as "cosmopolitan and tolerant" and assumed that New Orleans would be a "model Southern city for school integration."
But as years passed after the Supreme Court ruled racial segregation in public schools unconstitutional, New Orleans found itself in a situation widespread across the South, where resistance to desegregation ultimately escalated to violence.
Some stories from this era of "massive resistance" to racial integration are widely known, such as the Little Rock Nine, a group of Black students blocked from entering Little Rock Central High School when Gov. Orval Faubus called out the Arkansas National Guard; the violent riots at the University of Mississippi when James Meredith became the first Black student to enroll; and 6-year-old Ruby Bridges, whose path to enter a New Orleans elementary school accompanied by U.S. Marshals was immortalized in an iconic Normal Rockwell painting.
However, other stories from this violent and turbulent time in America's recent past are not nearly as well known in the public consciousness — including those of three other little girls who desegregated New Orleans schools on the same day as Bridges.
Nov. 14, 1960, marked the first day of first grade for Leona Tate, Tessie Provost, and Gail Etienne at McDonogh 19 Elementary School, and for Ruby Bridges at William Frantz Elementary School. Collectively known as the "New Orleans Four," each blazed a pathway to equity in America's classrooms at only 6 years old.
The journey leading to that historic November day was difficult and lengthy. Following intense public resistance and numerous attempts by the Louisiana State Legislature to maintain segregation laws, U.S. Circuit Judge J. Skelly Wright issued a federal order to gradually desegregate New Orleans schools, beginning with students in first grade, and expanding one grade level each year as the students progressed.
The unusual plan placed an incredible burden on the children, who would have to navigate each grade and various schools as the first — and many times, the only — Black students in their class.
Dorothy Prevost recalls the fear and anxiety she experienced when her daughter, Tessie, began attending McDonogh 19 Elementary School, escorted by U.S. Marshals.
Frightened by the angry crowds that gathered at the school to protest her child's presence, Mrs. Prevost was often upset when the U.S. Marshals came to pick up Tessie.
"Sometimes I'd be crying. My only child, scared, with those white people chanting, 'Two, four, six, eight. We don't want to integrate,' and calling us all kinds of names," said Mrs. Prevost.
“I was so afraid, I used to pray every morning when my baby would leave. One of the Marshals told me, ‘Mrs. Prevost, this child is in my hands. Nothing will happen to this child.’”
MRS. DOROTHY PREVOST
As a child, Tessie did not fully comprehend the weight of the day's events, and she remembers how, at the time, the large crowd of protestors in front of McDonogh 19 reminded her of a Mardi Gras parade.
Tessie's father worked at the post office along with the father of one of the other girls of the New Orleans Four, Gail Etienne.
Gail shares happy memories of her early childhood growing up in a Baptist church in an ordinary family. "If we were poor, I didn't know, because everything I wanted, I got," she said with a laugh.
Gail has vivid memories from Nov. 14, 1960, as well.
"I remember riding in the car, coming up to the school, looking out the window and seeing these mobs of people...I felt like if they could get to me, they'd want to kill me, and I didn't know why," she said.
Once inside the school, Tessie, Gail, and Leona Tate waited in the hallway outside of the principal's office for hours, and began playing hopscotch on the floor tiles.
By the time the three girls were finally placed in a classroom that first day at McDonogh 19, the parents of the white students had begun arriving to take their children out of class. By the end of the day, Tessie, Gail, and Leona were the only three students left in the building.
"The three of us bonded, because it was just us, and our teacher," said Gail.
As part of the plan to expand desegregation, after completing first and second grade at McDonogh 19, Tessie, Leona, and Gail attended third grade at T.J. Semmes Elementary School, located in a predominantly white New Orleans neighborhood.
By third grade, the girls were no longer escorted by the Marshals. Without this protection, the racism and abusive treatment from other students worsened.
"These kids came to school with things that had been taught to them, and embedded in them," said Tessie Prevost. "They came with some serious, serious things we did not expect at all, and it was terrible. It was a terrible, terrible time."
Gail also remembers the traumatic experience that awaited her at T.J. Semmes.
"The teachers didn't want us to be there, and they let us know they didn't want us to be there. And the principal sure didn't want us to be there, and the older students didn't want us to be there," Gail said.
Tessie remembers her father explaining how they had agreed to participate in the desegregation plan for at least three years.
After sixth grade, I told my daddy, ‘I have had enough.’ And he said, ‘Well, OK then. You don’t have to do it anymore.’ And — I was like a bird set out of a cage.
Leona and Gail continued with the gradual desegregation plan through junior and senior high school. In high school, they attended Francis T. Nicholls High School, which had a Confederate rebel as mascot.
"In 11th grade, we asked to have the mascot changed. And that caused a lot of fighting, a lot of riots," said Leona. "I can remember the fighting was so bad, the police came into the building on horseback. But — that mascot did get changed."
Despite their harrowing shared experiences, their story is one of resilience, not despair. The women are dedicated to ensuring the difficult path they paved is not forgotten by future generations.
Working passionately alongside them to preserve their history is Deidra Meredith, who created the New Orleans Four Legacy Project after Leona shared her intention to purchase the since-abandoned McDonogh 19 Elementary School building in 2017. Leona's plan to preserve and restore McDonogh 19 was approved by the school board.
Once Leona gained control of the building, she worked to have it recognized as a historic site, and it is now listed on the U.S. National Register of Historic Places. Leona then began fundraising efforts with support from the New Orleans Four Legacy Project — and in January 2020, she purchased the building.
"I always promised Gail and Tessie that if I get my hands on the building, it would be named after the three of us, and that's what I did," Leona said.
The Tate Etienne and Prevost (TEP) Interpretive Center is currently undergoing renovations, scheduled to open as a mixed-use facility in 2022. The space will feature 25 affordable housing units, and an interpretive education and exhibition space about the history of desegregation in New Orleans, civil rights, and restorative justice.
Leona hopes that the TEP Center will help today's children better appreciate education, and provide a path forward by preserving and honoring the past.
“We faced the racism there — I feel like we can end it there.”
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