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Subject: Fwd: PLEASE PASS ON TO TEACHER CONTACTS IN NEW ORLEANS - Youth Education Town Hall, Saturday November 14th, Warren Easton, New Orleans
The following article documents the struggle to integrate New Orleans schools. Leona Tate, one of the girls who integrated 3 New Orleans schools will speak at the Youth Town Hall. Please share this article with your students and consider giving extra credit for students to attend this event!!
THE McDONOGH THREE
In 1960, three first-grade girls integrated McDonogh No. 19. After years of trying to forget the storm that swirled around them, today they are proud of their roles.
By Brian Thevenot, Times Picayune
In 1960, the whole nation watched as three little black girls braved the gauntlet of screaming, spitting racists trying to block their path into the all-white McDonogh No. 19 Elementary School.
For months after that first day of integration in New Orleans, first-graders Leona Tate, Tessie Prevost and Gail Etienne stood at the center of a maelstrom of hate and love, terror and praise, as did the better-known Ruby Bridges, who integrated a nearby 9th Ward school that same morning. On some days, their mailboxes offered dead animals and death threats. Other days brought gifts from strangers and well wishes from Eleanor Roosevelt.
But before long, they all left: the press, the politicians, the federal marshals, the Yankee psychologist and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, along with the white mobs outside the school and every white student inside. All would exit the girls' lives before they faced the worst of their struggle, before they would find out what it truly meant to be the first black girls in an all-white school.
That first year at McDonogh No. 19, the white boycott meant the girls would attend school by themselves, and the second year with only a couple dozen black children. But when they entered third grade, their parents transferred them, integrating another 9th Ward school, T.J. Semmes Elementary near the Industrial Canal.
This time, the white students didn't leave. They stayed and fought.
More than four decades later, as Etienne, now Gail Etienne Netters, gave a speech recently at an elite private high school, she cringed at the memories that rushed back when a girl asked her the simplest of questions.
"What did they do to you?" asked a white girl in a plaid dress at the Academy of the Sacred Heart. Netters had promised herself before the speech that she wouldn't cry. She had always been the first of the three girls to cry as a child. But her promise to herself was no use.
"We were all spit upon," Netters said, wiping her face on her sleeve. "I had my dress ripped almost completely off of me. I was hit in the stomach with a baseball bat."
In all of the speeches she has given about her childhood, no one had ever asked that basic question. Netters doesn't know why. Maybe they had not wanted to pry. Maybe they had wanted to hear only about courage and victory. Maybe they felt just like she had.
"For so long," Netters said after her speech, "we just wanted to forget about it."
As they turn 50 this year, the same age as the landmark desegregation case Brown v. Board of Education, only now are the McDonogh Three beginning to grasp the full implications of that schoolyard struggle, on their own lives and on the history of their city and their race.
Through the white mob
Netters and Tate hadn't been born when the U.S. Supreme Court in 1954 outlawed segregated schools in the landmark Brown v. Board of Education court decision. When the court clarified its dictate the year after, requiring integration at "all deliberate speed," the white power structure in New Orleans deliberated five more years.
Not until Nov. 14, 1960, did the School Board let a carefully selected group of girls -- black boys were deemed more threatening to white parents -- into McDonogh No. 19 and William Frantz elementary schools. Out of 137 black students who applied to a white school and were subjected to an admissions test, the School Board ranked five as academically fit to learn alongside white students.
Etienne, Tate and Prevost went to McDonogh. At Frantz, Bridges walked through the white mob all by herself because the parents of a fifth girl changed their minds.
None of the girls had any idea what was coming. All of them, as they pulled up in cars driven by federal marshals, thought they were coming upon a Mardi Gras parade. At first it didn't dawn on Tate that all the people were white. Nor did the girls have any inkling of the fear and rage they would ignite in white politicians across the South.
In Baton Rouge that morning, legislators opened with prayers for strength and wisdom before proceeding to devise countless schemes to keep black people in their place. They fired the four members of the five-member Orleans Parish School Board who had voted for integration, and they cut off all state funds to integrated schools.
Sen. Speedy Long of Jena echoed dozens of others in the chamber as he declared "war" on the black race, calling for economic sanctions. "It would mean firing the colored maid, no matter how good she is," he ranted. "Do not patronize the barber who has a colored shoe shine boy. Do not patronize the service station with a colored grease monkey."
Back in New Orleans, students from Francis T. Nicholls High School brandished Confederate flags, a banner marked "KKK" and misspelled signs denouncing "intergration" as they belted out a hymn-like anthem they had devised: "Glory, Glory Segregation."
Passing through New Orleans, author John Steinbeck would hear "bestial and filthy and degenerate" threats from the howling white throngs and conclude that he had witnessed a "a kind of frightening witches' Sabbath."
Surrounded by hate
Even with all the hate swirling around the girls, McDonogh No. 19 served as a sanctuary. With the white mobs gone, Etienne, Tate and Prevost had the school to themselves once they got past the protesters each day with the help of their "boyfriends," the federal marshals.
In a pattern that would repeat itself at schools across the city over the next three decades, the white students never came back. In 1962, McDonogh No. 19 became the all-black school it remains today.
While the school got safer, her neighborhood got meaner, said Prevost, now known as Tessie Prevost Williams, recently. The white man from St. Bernard Parish who had picked up her father for work at the Loyola Street Post Office didn't show up the day after she entered McDonogh No. 19. The old white man on Gordon Street who used to stop the family for a long chat every time they walked by would no longer say a word.
As white residents bailed out, her mother, Dorothy Prevost, didn't much care that they no longer wanted to live next to her. But the neighborhood started a slow, steady decline that Dorothy Prevost still resents. The white people took their money, jobs, restaurants and grocery stores with them. Most of them went to St. Bernard Parish, a place where Williams' husband couldn't drive without being pulled over by police. Today she lives next door to her daughter in the same house the family occupied in 1960, and she resents still having to drive to St. Bernard for groceries.
Back then, the Prevosts had braced for resistance, but they hadn't expected the white people they knew well to shun them. Williams' father had grown up on one side of a shotgun house, with a white family on the other. He knew everybody, and they knew him.
"But that day just changed things," Tessie Williams said, "just like that."
The devil's bride
In third grade, Etienne, Tate and Prevost broke ground a second time by enrolling at T.J. Semmes, a formerly all-white school near the Industrial Canal.
Some white teachers and students treated them like any other children. Others were unspeakably cruel. The girls remember getting into fights or near-fights most days. For a while, a white mother would force her child to punch Prevost every day at the bus stop.
"Go ahead, fight her," the woman would say.
"I don't want to. I'm tired," the daughter would reply.
The mother would make her fight anyway.
And then there was a teacher Williams calls "the devil's bride."
"I can still close my eyes and see her piercing blue eyes," Williams said. "She had blond hair, she was thin and she wore pastel colors every day. She would hold her nose every time she had to get near us. . . . She would encourage the other children to fight us. She'd say, 'Hit her.' "
By the time the three girls left Semmes, they had been joined at the school by about 20 black students. Tate was the first to go, leaving in the fourth grade to join Bridges at Frantz Elementary, where she said the tension was less fierce. Then Tate went on to Kohn Middle School, another predominantly white campus. It was better there. Not perfect, but better.
The token integration at Semmes was representative of the system as a whole, where integration crawled forward, under a grade-a-year plan. The system made no effort to move large numbers of black students into white schools. Rather, black families had to take it upon themselves to apply to transfer their children into schools where they would face torment.
Meanwhile, white flight gained momentum. In 1954, the system had been half black, half white, with the black students crammed into half as many buildings as the white students used. By the late 1960s, black students outnumbered white students nearly 2-to-1, and Prevost and Etienne had wearied of their place on the front lines of the integration movement.
With the blessing of their parents, the girls enrolled in one of the better all-black middle schools, Rivers Frederick in the 7th Ward. There, for the first time, they felt truly safe and independent.
Prevost wanted to escape her white tormentors, but also her parents' watchful eye. "My parents had been so protective, especially because of the integration and all," she said. "I just wanted to go somewhere where I could take the bus by myself."
After a teacher told her mother that she was musically talented, an attribute that she said never would have been noticed at Semmes, Prevost picked up the flute.
At Frederick, Etienne and Prevost hardly spoke of their elementary school experience. They never told even close friends who they were or what they'd been through.
One more battle
But Tate and Etienne had one more school to help integrate, Francis T. Nicholls High on St. Claude Avenue. They had no civil rights agenda. The alternative to Nicholls was the all-black Carver, which they and their parents saw as a dumping ground for the Desire public housing project. They judged an integrated Nicholls, even with its "Rebel" mascot and Confederate hero namesake, better than a segregated Carver.
Nicholls was Prevost's neighborhood high school, too, but she refused to go, transferring instead to the all-black Joseph S. Clark. She aimed to play her flute in the marching band, and she wasn't about to march under a Confederate flag.
By the early 1970s, the school system had an administration committed to following federal law, perhaps even to achieving racial balance and harmony. But that effort would prove more difficult than anyone had envisioned, as the example of Nicholls would show.
Sixty percent to 70 percent white, the place was a powder keg when Prevost and Tate enrolled in 1970. That fall, black students organized to protest the school's mascot. And soon, after public marches and school boycotts, they succeeded in convincing school officials to pick a new mascot -- but not without fierce resistance from white students, who along with alumni held their own marches up to City Hall, sporting the Confederate blue and gray, waving the flag and belting out "Dixie."
Administrators created a biracial student committee to work things out. When talks broke down, Superintendent Alton Cowen ruled in the black students' favor: The students could collectively pick a new name, which ultimately would be the Bobcats. The school paper, the Rebel Yell, became the Nicholls Yell, and the Confederate flags were scuttled, save for the ones pasted all over the cars of many white students.
The resolution didn't resolve the anger. About 150 white students walked out of school over the new Bobcat mascot, saying it was a little too close to panthers, as in Black Panthers, and "favored blacks."
Etienne and Tate wanted nothing to do with the fight. Even amid the constant tension, the girls made white friends.
"I don't know if you'd call them the educated whites or whatever, but the ones that had common sense," Netters recalled. "It wasn't everybody that was fighting."
The ones that did fight, though, fought like hell, with fists and chains and chairs, in classrooms and in the cafeteria, on the street and on the school steps. Police cars became a routine fixture outside the school. Tate peered out the window of a classroom one day to see a white mob and a black mob advancing on one another with weapons. The next day, her parents pulled her out of the school for two weeks.
By the time the girls attended their segregated proms and graduated, the school was almost all black. It reflected the neighborhood.
"We were pretty separate by the end," Netters said.
Pride and doubt
Today, the question of what they accomplished elicits a long sigh from all three of the women. They are more proud than ever of their role in ending segregation. But they have moments of sadness and doubt, especially when they consider today's school system.
Fewer than 3,000 white students remain in New Orleans public schools, and the physical condition of some all-black schools is only marginally better than the segregated campuses of 50 years ago.
And yet, beyond the school system, the gains are obvious. The ceiling of opportunity for African-Americans has risen to heights formerly inconceivable, even while many continue to struggle.
The raving racists, while they haven't completely gone away, long ago lost the moral high ground. Netters can't remember the last time someone called her a "nigger."
After a long pause, she formulates a terse summation of all she has been through, all she helped to make happen: "It's better," she offers. "It's much better."
Blowout Consciousness is a bi-monthly youth band showcase attracting a diverse cross-section of New Orleans to come together, celebrate, network, and build movement for social justice... presented by Finding Our Folk, Fyre Youth Squad, the Hot 8 Brass Band and grassroots organizations across New Orleans.