McDonogh 19: Desegregation of the New Orleans School System

On November 14, 1960, three African American girls Leona Tate, Tessie Prevost, and Gail Etienne walked into McDonogh 19 Elementary School to attend their first-grade classes, integrating the traditionally all-white school located in the Lower Ninth Ward. 

The U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education (1954) declared separate public schools for Black and white students unconstitutional six years earlier, but McDonogh 19 and many other schools remained segregated due to the resistance of Louisiana State officials and the Orleans Parish School Board (OPSB). In response to this refusal to integrate, Federal Judge J. Skelly Wright ordered the nation’s first court-ordered school integration plan in New Orleans. The mandate allowed Black families to enroll first-grade students in the school closest to them, regardless of race. However, potential students had to complete an application process to transfer to all-white schools, involving arbitrary and white-washed standards of intelligence and behavior. Out of the 137 Black children who applied for transfers, OPSB approved only five, including Tate, Prevost, and Etienne who became known as the McDonogh Three. [1]

Segregationists in Louisiana pulled out all the legal stops they could to block integration. They passed legislation to replace the elected officials on the OPSB with state-appointed committee members, while Act 496 also gave the governor the ability to override court orders for schools. Despite such attempts, Judge Wright used his seat on the federal bench to overrule the state’s overstepping. [2] 

On the morning of November 14, Tate recalls how “a car pulled up, a black car which was the marshals…” [3] She references the federal marshals who arrived at the homes of the McDonough Three to escort them to school. As the news spread, the white parents of the Lower Ninth Ward came to protest and take their children out of the school. In a 2017 interview, Etienne reflects on the protestors: “I remember the crowd—the bigger thing to me that day was the crowds of people, the way they were acting and making all the noises, and hollering at us.” [4] As the three girls sat outside the principal's office waiting to go to class, children streamed out of the school in protest of integration. “And then after that it was just the three of us for an entire year,” Prevost explains, describing how white parents removed their children from the integrated school. [5]

In January 1962, the school board decided to convert McDonogh 19 into an exclusively African American school. Due to this change, the parents of the McDonogh Three removed them from McDonogh 19 and transferred them to T.J. Semmes, another school in the process of integration. McDonogh 19 remained an active school until Hurricane Katrina caused flood damage in 2005. Thanks to the Leona Tate Foundation, McDonogh 19 is now home to The Tate Etienne Prevost Interpretive Center, serving as a civil rights exhibit, community center, and affordable housing location as of May 2022. [6]


Leona Tate shares her experiencing entering McDonogh 19 as one of the "McDonogh Three". Part 1 of 2.
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Leona Tate shares her experiencing entering McDonogh 19 as one of the "McDonogh Three". Part 2 of 2.
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