Edwin Buggage Editor-in-Chief
The Great Divide: Education in New Orleans (Bold)
Today education in New Orleans continues to be a topic that sparks controversy, as people are divided as to what is the solution to a system that seems to give a high-quality education to some; while others receive one that is sub-par by many measures.
As we look back as part of our series; “Re-Writing the History” we had the opportunity to speak with Leona Tate, who is one of the New Orleans 3. It was in 1960 that Tate along with Gail Etienne and Tessie Prevost integrated McDonough 19 in the Lower 9th Ward of New Orleans.
They along with Ruby Bridges, who integrated William Frantz Elementary at the same time are etched in the History of a City that is still working towards educational equality for all its young people. It is a story that many are familiar with from photos, videos, and artwork, but the story of these courageous six-year-old girls helped change the racial landscape of the City.
A Group of Six-Year-Old Girls Making History (Bold)
Recalling the first day of school and her time at McDonough 19, Tate says, “I was never afraid. I remember trying to speak to a little White girl and she ignored me; by the end of the day, we were the only three students left in the building myself, Gail Etienne, and Tessie Prevost. All the Whites had pulled their children out and it was that way for a year and a half. All the teachers were there without students except for our teacher.”
During these times of White intolerance, Tate continues, speaking about what they endured as pioneers integrating the public schools in the City of New Orleans.
“Our second-grade year it started out the same way we couldn’t eat from the school, we could not look out the windows because they were covered with paper and the water fountains were cut off. We never played in the yard. Our play area was under the stairwell outside our classroom, and I am sure that was for security reasons.”
“Twenty-five students joined us, but only two of them were White, the NAACP wanted to keep us in a White school then they transferred us to T.J. Semmes. This time we did not have the U.S. Marshals like we did at McDonough 19, where they would pick us up and drop us off. We did not have that protection at Semmes. We were afraid to go in the cafeteria because you wouldn’t be able to eat your food because either someone would spit in it or would knock it out of your hand.”
The Continued Battle Against Confederate Symbols and Segregation
Later Tate changed schools at the end of the year and joined fellow trailblazer Ruby Bridges at William Frantz Elementary, then attending Kohn Middle School, then she helped to integrate Francis T. Nicholls (Today it is called Frederick Douglass, that is part of the KIPP Charter Network).
It is interesting to note that today the nation is engulfed in conversations surrounding removing Confederate monuments and street names. During her time at Nicholls, this was an issue as she and other Blacks fought to change the school mascot.
“I went to F.T. Nicholls High School (A Confederate General and Governor of Louisiana) at the time the mascot was Rebels. In the 11th grade we asked for the mascot to be changed from Rebels and there were riots and fights, but eventually the mascot changed to Bobcats.”
The times were changing, as schools became more integrated and the demands for equality from Blacks and their allies grew louder, White flight as the White population of the 9th Ward declined by 70 percent in the 1960’s. As many the parents took their children out of integrated schools and sent them to schools in neighboring St. Bernard Parish, which was under the leadership of Democratic Party-Political Boss Leander Perez, who along with the White Citizens Council fought to preserve segregation.
This White flight caused a re-segregation of the schools in the City of New Orleans.
Today The Fight Is To Combat Re-Segregation And The Fight For A Quality Education For All
Since these times we have seen the re-segregation of the public schools in New Orleans; where there are few great schools, and even after Hurricane Katrina and the City’s questionable decision to introduce charter schools, where the results have been mixed.
“In my view we have regressed a lot in respect to education in New Orleans, and that’s what sparked me to do what I do today. I get invited to a lot of schools and it really is heartbreaking that kids in your town do not know about you, but out of town they do but that’s because they are not being taught about Civil Rights in their curriculum.”
Owning A Piece Of History And Telling The True Story Of A Movement
In the place where Tate, Prevost and Etienne made history as three little girls in 1960, is now being transformed to a place of hope as Leona Tate, now owns the building that was McDonough 19. She has plans to make it a place for racial reconciliation and understanding in New Orleans.
It is called the (TEP) Tate-Etienne-Prevost Interpretive Center.
“I now own McDonough 19 and I need to provide a space where they can get that history. So, they need to see it and it was just sitting there and nothing was being done. It took us 10 years to get the building and we got the funding that we need not all of it but some of it. The bottom floor will be an exhibit space where we will show what happened during the Civil Rights Movement in New Orleans and the top two floors will be affordable for the elderly 55 years or older.”
Today Ms. Tate also heads a foundation called the Leona Tate Foundation. “The focus is about education, Civil Rights and human rights.” Since launching her foundation they have held food pantry’s, after school tutoring and undoing racism workshops. Their goal is to continue to raise money to move into the school to continue the great work her foundation is doing.
“The story telling our story inaccurately, we want it told the right way. Culture being lost came back to a culture shock, put it all in one place.”
It Takes A Village
Since launching she is getting a lot of support in her effort to tell the “true’ story of the Civil Rights Movement of New Orleans and to heal the divide that keeps the City of New Orleans from becoming a place where all can have a chance to prosper and thrive.
“The response is overwhelming, but I am surprised by people who don’t know. But they can come in and take workshops because we are partnering with the People’s Institute and they’re going to be doing some of their undoing racism workshops.”
“We have in some ways come a long way, but in many ways our community is broken, so we need to do something to fix it. We used to be a village and we need to begin to revisit this because too many of our children are falling through the cracks because they are not getting the proper education, nurturing and support to be successful.”
TEP Center: A Place of Hope, Healing And Inspiration For The City of New Orleans
Today, many know the Lower 9th Ward as ground zero for Hurricane Katrina. But with the building of the TEP Center, it is now as it was in the 1960’s a place of hope and can become an example of people coming together to rebuild and renew the spirit of the entire City of New Orleans.
“We have a lot of work to do especially in the Lower 9th Ward, but where we are, we have to work together. We have to be a community unified. There is a lot of stuff that is needed, and we can make it work and I hope this building can be an anchor for that and racial healing can be done to inspire this and future generations.”