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Members of the ‘New Orleans Four’ celebrate 61st Desegregation Anniversary

By C.C. Campbell-Rock

Contributing Writer Louisiana Weekly

November 14, 1960 is etched in the hearts and minds of Gail Etienne, Tessie Prevost, and Leona Tate. When these three six-year-olds climbed the steps of McDonogh 19 Elementary Schools, their lives changed forever. These little Black girls carried the weight of the world on their shoulders. On the same day, little Ruby Bridges integrated the William Frantz Elementary School.

Bridges achieved fame due to the iconic painting of Norman Rockwell, one of America’s most celebrated artists. However, few knew about the ordeal endured by the McDonogh Three. For decades, their bravery and courage went unheralded here and nationally.

Fast forward to Sunday, November 14, 2021, a lovely sunshiny fall day. The McDonogh 3 are standing in front of the building that housed the public school they integrated. They climbed the school’s steps, which is now home to the TEP (Tate, Etienne, Prevost) Center.

The crowd on the neutral ground clapped and cheered in appreciation at the historical reenactment.

Sunday’s public celebration followed the 2020 commemoration of the 60th Anniversary. The coronavirus restriction prevented a large-scale event.

But during this 61st Anniversary, the love, admiration, and appreciation they so richly deserved flowed around them. A film crew captured the event for an upcoming documentary about their historic feat.

Leona Tate, the founder of the TEP Center, moved through the crowd with an aura of dignity and humility. Yet, she pulled off her vision for a center that teaches the community about the desegregation of the public schools in New Orleans.

On Sunday, November 14, 2021, Tate joined Etienne and Prevost in celebrating the center and commemorating the event that made them lifelong friends and bound them together in New Orleans history. Tate began meeting with others before 2009 to get another school opened in the Lower Ninth Ward. “There was only one school at the time, Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary School. “We’d be in meetings until 12 to 1 a.m.”

“What really pushed me was when we got our first Black president,” Tate explained. She attended the inauguration and returned home even more determined to establish an educational program. “I knew then that it (the project) needed to be something about education and the history of the public schools.”

Tate was the right person at the right time to lead the effort to establish the TEP Center. The mother of three, grandmother of 12, and great-grandmother to seven children studied business administration at San Antonio College. Her husband was in the military and stationed there.

The Leona Tate Foundation for Change spearheaded the acquisition of the building in partnership with Alembic Community Development, which invests in underserved neighborhoods through real estate development and organizational capacity building.

Founded in 2004, with offices in New York City and New Orleans, Alembic has developed more than 1,300 affordable and supportive housing units and more than 150,000 square feet of commercial and community space. The U.S. Parks Service also contributed to the project.

On Sunday, several U.S. federal marshals from the eastern district took part in the reenactment. In 1960, federal marshals drove the girls to the schools. They escorted Tate, Prevost, Etienne, and Bridges into the buildings to protect them from a rabid crowd of white parents and youth who were verbally abusing the girls, throwing things at them, and threatening their lives.

“The marshals needed to escort the children who helped start a movement,” U.S. Marshal Scott Illini said of first elementary school children to integrate the New Orleans Public Schools.

“I’m so excited and so proud of Leona. I can’t put into words how touched I am to see the crowd cheer us on,” Gail Etienne told The Louisiana Weekly.

Integrating McDonogh 19 was a very traumatic event for the six-year-old girls. Etienne remembers, “They hit us with garbage can tops sixty-one years ago.”

In addition to housing a civil rights interpretive center, affordable rental apartments for seniors are available on the TEP Center’s two upper floors. Also, the People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond (PISB) is moving its national headquarters to the TEP Center.

PISB co-founder Ron Chisom, the Reverend Tyronne Edwards, PISB trainer and long-time civil rights activist, and Barbara Major, PISB’s first woman anti-racism instructor, received commemorative awards by Dr. Kimberley Richards, PISB’s Interim Executive Director/Core Trainer. Chisom, who is retiring from the PISB started the organization 41 years ago.

PISB will establish a “communiversity” at the TEP Center, which will offer anti-racism training, workshops, and classes taught by people from the PISB’s international network. PISB will also help children, families, and community residents understand the pillars of racism,” Dr. Richardson explained.

“Racism is still alive and well in America, and people are calling for structural change,” Richardson continued. We want people in the community, who are feeling the brunt of racism and oppression in a real way, to experience an environment (at PISB) where they can get a sense of their own power.”

Chisom added that children need to know that they have the power to effect positive change. “We’re going to establish the first communiversity here, then franchise it across the nation.”

Keith Plessy, the co-founder of the Plessy and Ferguson Foundation and great-great-grandson of Homer Plessy, attended the celebration.

On June 7, 1892, Homer Plessy bought a first-class ticket for a train bound for Covington, La., and sat in the whites-only car. After refusing to vacate the seat, he was dragged from the train and charged with violating the Louisiana Separate Car Act. He pled guilty and paid a $25 fine.

Plessy and Phoebe Ferguson, a descendant of Judge John H. Ferguson, the defendant in Plessy v. Ferguson, founded the Plessy and Ferguson Foundation in 2009. The foundation teaches the history of the Plessy v. Ferguson case and why it’s still relevant today. Their work focuses primarily on education and marking sites of significance.

Two days before the TEP Center celebration and 130 years after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in the Plessy v Ferguson case that segregation was the law of the land, the Louisiana Board of Pardons unanimously approved a pardon for Homer Plessy.

Alanah Odoms, executive director of the Louisiana ACLU, and her daughter attended the ceremony. Elan Jolie Hebert, Odoms’ seven-year-old, gave an inspirational speech about children’s contributions, like the McDonogh 3, to the Civil Rights Movement and the need for children, like herself, to continue the fight for Civil Rights.

This article originally published in the November 22, 2021 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.


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