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'New Orleans Four' reflect on making history, desegregating public elementary schools 61 years ago

It's been 61 years since Leona Tate, Gail Etienne, Tessie Prevost and Ruby Bridges desegregated public elementary schools in the deep south. At just 6 years old, on Nov. 14, 1960, Bridges went to William Frantz Elementary in New Orleans. Tate, Etienne and Prevost went up the road to McDonogh 19.

"We were 6 years old, marching up those stairs, coming to this world and we had no idea what it was about," Prevost said.

U.S. Marshals and officers from the New Orleans Police Department escorted and protected them while mobs of white people stood outside yelling, shouting, spitting and throwing things.

"We were six years old. We were little babies. We were humans and we are humans just like them, but they didn't want to treat us like that. They felt like we didn't deserve to be there," Etienne said.

"We were introduced to racism here [McDonogh 19], you know. I want it to end here," Tate said.

Despite how awful and scary it was for them to integrate McDonogh 19, Tate, Etienne and Prevost said it wasn't anywhere close to what they experienced two years later when they helped integrate another all-white school in New Orleans.

The second school Tate, Etienne and Prevost integrated was T. J. Semmes, a school that once stood minutes away from McDonogh 19 on Jourdan Ave.

"TJ Semmes was horrific. I try not to think about the things we endured and I was only there for a year. I have never seen as many teachers and students so mean, I couldn’t understand why you had to act like that. I couldn’t understand that. We were deathly afraid to be there. We couldn't go in the cafeteria because we were afraid somebody would spit in our food or knock it out our hand, Tate said.

"All the parents took their kids out of McDonogh, but when we got to Semmes, they didn’t take their kids out of school. They left them in school with their ignorant, racist teachers, coming from ignorant racist parents, who instilled racist ideals in their heads and these children were angry and mean. I have never, in my life, encountered anything like that since. Never have I encountered anything like that. As an adult, I could’ve handled it. As a child, we couldn’t eat in the cafeteria. I didn’t eat in the cafeteria until I was a senior in high school I just couldn't go into the cafeteria," Prevost said.

"They don’t want the world to know what they did to us as little girls, little babies. They treated us horribly. They didn’t even treat us like humans. A lot of stuff happened to us and they just want to keep it a secret. They want to cover it up. They are ashamed. That’s what I think. The things that happened at Semmes. I'm really trying not to get emotional, but I'm the one who got hit in the stomach with a baseball bat. I had my dress ripped off of me across the front-end. You know, it was hell at Semmes and we weren’t prepared for that," Etienne said.

The story of what happened at T.J. Semmes, along with many others, will be told inside the old McDonogh 19 building, which now bears the name of the three historical icons.

It's called the TEP Center, which stands for Tate, Etienne and Prevost. Part of the building will be affordable housing for those 55 and up. Another part will be a museum with the goal to educate and inform.

"I want the story to be told just the way it happened, but I want them to accept it to where they’re going to do something positive with it. Not be mad and want to retaliate with it. I think our problem is we don’t talk. People don’t want to talk about it. We need some dialogue and, hopefully, we’ll have that here. Someone comes in to visit they may not be comfortable with what they’re going to see in here, but there’s a place to talk about it. Let’s talk and that’s what I want to see happen, you know? I want them to be educated about it in school. We need to bring the students here. You know, it’s not being taught in the schools. I think, maybe, they’ll appreciate it a little better if they knew, but they need to know it the right way," Tate said.

"People seem to have forgotten that it was the New Orleans Four and I'm glad that is finally coming out. It's taken 61 years to do it, but thank God the whole story will be told; the good and the bad," Etienne said.


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