November 14, 1960, New Orleans. Three six-year-old girls, flanked by Federal Marshals, walked through screaming crowds and policemen on horseback as they approached their new school for the first time—McDonogh No. 19. Leona Tate thought it must be Mardi Gras. Gail Etienne thought they were going to kill her.
Four years after the Supreme Court ruled to desegregate schools in Brown v. Board of Education, schools in the South were dragging their feet. Finally, in 1960, the NAACP and a daring judge selected two schools in New Orleans to push forward with integration—McDonogh No.19 Elementary and William Frantz.
An application was put in the paper. From 135 families, four girls were selected—Leona Tate, Tessie Prevost, Gail Etienne and Ruby Bridges (who attended William Frantz Elementary). They were given psychological tests. Their families were prepared. Members of the Louisiana Legislature took out paid advertisements in the local paper encouraging parents to boycott the schools. There were threats of violence.
When the girls going to McDonogh No.19 arrived in their classroom, the white children began to disappear. One by one their parents took them out of school. For a year and a half the girls were the only children in the school. Guarded night and day, they were not allowed to play outdoors. The windows were covered with brown paper.
The story of integrating the New Orleans Public schools in 1960 told by Leona Tate, Tessie Prevost Williams, and Gail Etienne Stripling, who integrated McDonogh No.19 Elementary School, and retired Deputy U.S. Marshals Herschel Garner, Al Butler, and Charlie Burks who assisted with the integration efforts at the schools. We also hear from archivist, historian and pastor of Beecher Memorial United Church of Christ, Brenda Billips Square and from Keith Plessy, Co-Founder of the Plessy & Ferguson Foundation.
We produced this story a few years back. We want to put it out there again a because it seems critical, particularly now, to remember and pay tribute to the many Keepers of the archives, the stories, the truth about our past and the long fight for what is fair and just.