At the age of 6, Leona Tate made history. Only she didn’t know it at the time. On November 14, 1960, Tate entered into the civil rights movement when she and two other African-American girls, Tessie Prevost and Gail Etienne, integrated McDonogh No. 19 Elementary School in New Orleans – six years after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in the case of Brown vs. Board of Education that racial segregation in public schools was unconstitutional. Tate shared her inspiring story with Middle and Upper School students, third- and fourth-graders, and members of the School’s Common Ground group.
“The McDonogh 3” as they became known, attended school for nearly a year and a half by themselves because of a white boycott. Tate recalled how she was escorted to and from school by federal marshals because the time was fraught with hate and fear. On that very first day, November 14, 1960, she was not aware of that fear and hatred. “I saw so many people lined up, and I thought it was Mardi Gras,” she said. “I thought I was missing the parade, and I was not happy that I had to go to school!”
When Tate got out of the car, she learned the crowd was hostile. “They spit on us, cursed us, called us the N-word,” she recalled. When Tate, Prevost and Etienne entered the school, they sat outside the office for a number of hours before being escorted to their classroom. They were the only three students taught there for a year and a half. “It never dawned on me that the other students left the school because I came,” Tate said.
Despite the hostile crowds that gathered outside and the brown paper that covered classroom windows for the girls’ safety, school was a sanctuary. “We were key participants in a movement to exercise our rights and participate fully,” Tate said of the three families. “During my first year, most of my difficulties were outside the school, such as the police presence and protesters. Going to school was actually a comfort to me because there was one brave teacher who provided our education in a safe place.”
In second grade, just after Christmas break, Tate’s classroom grew to 25 students—only two students were white. The Orleans Parish School Board opted to convert McDonogh No. 19 into a school “for the exclusive use of Negro children,” according to a letter written to the board by activist and former Civil Rights Attorney A.P. Tureaud, who represented the three families The girls were then moved to help integrate the formerly all-white T.J. Semmes. This time, however, there were no marshals, and the white students stayed—and fought.
“I wouldn’t wish what we endured on my worst enemy,” Tate said of the abuse she experienced at that school. “I learned to stand my ground while striving to do my best in school. I remember my mother telling me, ‘Everyone is watching you, you must set a good example.’ She firmly believed no door should be closed to me because of the color of my skin.”
Tate shared that her parents never showed fear as she attended school each day. “My mom was so courageous. She’d fight like a bull. She was brave,” Tate said.
“As a child, I realized I was doing something different,” Tate continued. “As an adult, I realized the impact.” Tate indicated to students that her family taking a stand was not so much about segregation or desegregation as it was about equal access to a quality education and a better life as a whole. “With recognition and honor comes great responsibility,” she said, “but we share in that responsibility. We must all live life to the fullest with meaning and purpose and spread the word to maintain and advance the freedoms we enjoy.”
Tate ended her inspiring presentation encouraging all students to “lead your best” life and to create “your own historical moment by studying hard and seizing every opportunity available.”
About the Leona Tate Foundation for Change
For Leona and many others in the city, November 14, 1960, played a pivotal role in the pursuit to build a unified New Orleans. In the 57 years following, there remains much to be done to improve equal access and opportunities for all in this area. It is widely recognized that the New Orleans public school system is the lowest performing school district in Louisiana. Research finds that education is the strongest and most predictive determinant of health, socioeconomic and criminal outcomes. Therefore, improving the quality and access to education can have a lasting effect on health and economics of the community.
Leona Tate, along with a group of dedicated citizens of New Orleans, formed the Leona Tate Foundation for Change, Inc. (LTFC), on the principle that in order to achieve harmony among humankind, every person should be afforded comparable opportunities and exposures. A component essential to implementing this principle is providing access to equal educational opportunities to area youth. As a result, LTFC’s mission is to promote human equality by offering a wide range of unique educational opportunities and experiences.
The goals of LTFC are to:
- Provide opportunities and resources for students of New Orleans inner city schools
- Increase awareness of the foundation
- Foster community involvment in an effort to improve outcomes of area youth
LTFC continues to advance its mission, goals and principles by hosting and participating in numerous community activities. These include numerous presentations, like the one at Fort Worth Country Day; Black History Month celebrations; town hall meetings; the Lower 9 Katrina Memorial Celebration; and more.