A collaboration with the Leona Tate Foundation for Change
On November 14, 1960, US marshals escorted Leona Tate, Gail Etienne, and Tessie Prevost up the front stairs of McDonogh 19 Elementary School in New Orleans.
All three girls were six years old, and barely tall enough to peek over the handrail on the staircase. They all wore white bows in their hair. Leona Tate held a little patent-leather purse out in front of her, like a shield.
Then the marshals opened the school doors and the girls stepped inside—and so became the first Black children in the South to integrate a white elementary school.
Their achievement didn’t last long. That same day, white parents pulled every other child out of the school, and none of them ever returned. For the rest of the year, the three girls were the only students left at McDonogh 19.
Meanwhile, as one federal report later put it, “New Orleans exploded.”
White mothers crowded outside McDonogh 19, screaming racial slurs and throwing stones whenever one of the three girls came into view. Politicians goaded white mobs to “take matters into your own hands” and to “battle for your sacred heritage.” Black bystanders were attacked. Local officials were threatened in their homes.
Night after night, Americans watched as TV newscasts showed scenes of chaos, hatred, and—on the girls’ part—quiet persistence in New Orleans.
Today, 60 years after the “New Orleans school crisis” shocked the country, America's schools are again mostly segregated. In New Orleans, public schools are only nine percent white. In Chicago and Los Angeles they’re only 10 percent white, while both cities' populations are roughly 50 percent white. Meanwhile, majority-white public schools receive $23 billion more in funding each year than schools serving mostly children of color.
How did this happen? What became of the sacrifices made, not just by the “McDonogh Three,” but also by all the Black children who followed them, the “desegregation generation” of the 1960s and ‘70s?
Leona Tate, Gail Etienne, and Tessie Prevost want people to know that story. And so, in a turn of events fit for a Hollywood movie, Ms. Tate has started her own foundation, bought McDonogh 19’s derelict school building, and begun transforming it into an educational center focused on New Orleans civil rights history.
Over the 2020-21 school year, the XULA Investigative Stories Program will collaborate with the Leona Tate Foundation for Change to produce videos and interactive exhibits for the new center.
We’ll also produce a website to make these materials available to journalists, scholars, and students around the country.