In the 1954 Supreme Court Case Brown v. Board of Education, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously ruled that racial segregation in public schools violated the Fourteenth Amendment prohibiting states from denying equal protection of the laws to any person. (1) This court decision declared separate educational facilities for white and African American students inherently unequal. Without clear instructions from the federal government on how public schools would integrate, public schools in southern states took full advantage of the lack of federal leadership and allowed schools to remain racially segregated. (2) Several years later, federal intervention forced the racial integration of public schools throughout the nation.
Judge J. Skelly Wright first ordered New Orleans Public Schools to integrate on February 15, 1956. (3) Ultimately the Judge had to execute his own integration plan after the New Orleans Public School Board refused to establish one of their own. (4) On the morning of November 14, 1960, Leona Tate, Tessie Prevost, and Gail Etienne entered the doors of McDonogh No. 19 Elementary School as its first African American students. The media dubbed them “The McDonogh Three.” (5)
As the young girls entered McDonogh No. 19, crowds of angry and verbally abusive white people gathered outside of the school. “Somehow we were able to maneuver through a crowd of cursing, screaming, yelling people, who were being held back by the police,” said Tate. (6) There was no physical violence that morning, but white parents removed their children from the school once the girls entered the building. (2) Federal marshals escorted the three girls into the school. The McDonogh Three became the public faces of New Orleans Public School integration. That experience would change Leona Tate’s life and set her on a course to her lifelong role in political activism. In 2009, Tate formed The Leona Tate Foundation for Change. Tate focuses her life’s work on promoting change through education and empowering and enriching her community. The Leona Tate Foundation for Change aims to address the community’s issues “from a spiritual, multicultural, economical, historical, and social perspective.” (7)
In 2005, McDonogh No. 19 School closed following the destruction of Hurricane Katrina. In 2019, Tate’s foundation, in partnership with Alembic Community Development, acquired the McDonogh No. 19 building. (7) Tate announced that the school she once helped to integrate would become The Tate, Etienne, and Prevost (TEP) Interpretive Center. (8) The center will focus on providing affordable housing for senior citizens, educational programs, training and workshops, and revitalizing the Lower 9th Ward. Tate stated: “I’m overwhelmed with unspeakable joy because I’m excited about what this project means for the city of New Orleans and the pivotal role it will play in revitalizing the historic Lower 9th Ward community.” (9)
Tate’s primary objectives in preserving the McDonogh No. 19 building are to create a permanent memorial site and exhibition dedicated to the McDonogh Three and the integration of New Orleans Public Schools; curate engaging programs that will attract visitors and address the needs of the community; and stimulate the local economy of the Lower 9th Ward. Tate wishes for all who enter the center to leave with an overall understanding of the importance of the events of November 14, 1960, and McDonogh Three’s contribution to the Civil Rights Movement and the possibilities for the further advancement of African Americans. Tate feels that there is more work to be done, as segregation has taken on new appearances such as restructuring school districts by creating tiered systems that greatly disadvantage poor African American New Orleanians. (10)