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Leona Tate, 64, who helped to desegregate the Deep South when she was six years old.
Leona Tate, 64, who helped to desegregate the Deep South when she was six years old. Credit: Gus Bennett/New Orleans People Project

NEW ORLEANS — Clutching a small purse, six-year-old Leona Tate walked into McDonogh 19 Elementary School here and helped to desegregate the South.

Images of that November morning in 1960 are seared into the national memory: Tate and three other little first-grade girls in white dresses and hair ribbons walking into New Orleans schools, flanked by federal marshals and heckled by hateful crowds.

From that day forward, Tate, now 64, knew that her lifelong mission was to make the world a more equitable place. Within a few years, Tate will have a new base for that mission, when the nonprofit Leona Tate Foundation for Change finishes its renovation of her former school in New Orleans’ Lower 9th Ward.

Tate is a practical person. Yes, she knows that many schools in New Orleans and across the country have been resegregated. She’s heard some people say that her walk in 1960 led to token integration, at best. Others tout the idea that segregated schools and institutions are inevitable, the inescapable result of bureaucracy, housing patterns, or poverty.

Tate listens and disagrees. She believes her walk into McDonogh 19 was important then — and she firmly believes that she can help make more strides against racism today. Her plan is to open an educational center on desegregation within her former school.

Once an elegant peach-stucco building, McDonogh 19 was flooded in 2005 by Hurricane Katrina’s storm surge and by a great wave of water from the Industrial Canal levee, which buckled and broke several blocks away. Disaster cleanup crews sent the first floor’s sodden contents to a landfill and shuttered the building. It’s now been closed for nearly 15 years.

Despite the building’s state of disrepair, Tate’s vision for the space is clear. On a recent visit with developers and museum designers, she stood on the building’s gutted first floor and described her plans for the center.

First, she’d like visitors to understand the basic facts of those years, she said. Tate’s parents were able to enroll her in McDonogh 19 because of the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark 1954 decision in Brown v. Board of Education, which declared school segregation unconstitutional. Though many other cities fought desegregation orders, New Orleans, like Little Rock before it, became a national flashpoint for white supremacy during years of vehement court battles, legislative end-runs and family sacrifice.

Because schools desegregated so slowly in New Orleans — by one grade each year — Tate’s struggles were shared to some degree by thousands of local black schoolchildren: Hers was the desegregation generation. Almost all of Tate’s years in public school — from first grade to high school graduation — were spent within the turmoil of newly desegregated schools.

Related: How the federal government abandoned the Brown v. Board decision

The story’s breadth is rarely explained, said Tate, who wants visitors to McDonogh 19 to learn the history, within the very space where history was made. “I want people to experience what it was like, what we had to endure once we got to school,” she said. “I want them to see how hard it was for us to get in there.”

But she deliberately avoids calling the space a museum, because she doesn’t want visitors to be rooted in the past. She prefers to call it an “interpretive center.”

For Tate, the center will allow her to re-open a conversation about racism that she believes has been pushed to the margins for most of her life.

She wants the center’s visitors to join her in that conversation. To help facilitate discussions, she’s enlisted help from the People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond, a New Orleans organization that has specialized in anti-racism training for nearly 40 years. People’s Institute trainers are known for breaking racism down into instructional diagrams showing the role of bigotry’s more nuanced cousin, structural racism: the institutional policies and practices that perpetuate inequities.

The first-floor center was jumpstarted by a $500,000 National Park Service grant awarded to Tate’s foundation last year, though most of the building’s estimated $14 million renovation will be footed by developers creating apartments for low-income seniors on the building’s top two floors.

Tate believes that education about racism is the way to get people to open up. “Otherwise, people just don’t want to talk about racism,” she said.

For Tate, the silence on the issue began in 1961, when she and the other three girls entered second grade. Somehow, in a year’s time, the once-celebrated little girls were no longer treated as special, and their role in the desegregation wars forgotten. Now she realizes that the adults around them may have found the memories too painful. “It used to depress me,” she said. “Nobody ever talked about it. It seemed like they didn’t care.”

For many years after graduating from high school, working in a community clinic across town, Tate didn’t talk much about desegregation either. Though she continued to live in the Lower 9, blocks from McDonogh 19, children in the neighborhood knew her mostly as a kindly mother and grandmother, not a civil-rights icon.

Her daughter, Cabrini Cooper, 42, first heard about her mother’s place in history from a great-aunt. Several years ago, Tate’s granddaughter, Beatrice Bartholomew became acquainted with her legacy during a Black History Month project. “I learned that my grandmother was one of the people who allows me to go to school, basically,” said Beatrice, 13, who said her classmates usually respond: “For real?” They are surprised to hear that schools were desegregated that recently, by a person who is still alive.

As he stood outside McDonogh 19 on a recent day, People’s Institute founder Ron Chisom squinted toward the front stairway that Tate trod on her way to making history. “You confronted structural racism here at six years old,” Chisom told her. “But we don’t want people to look at it as something that happened, past tense, in this country.”

Even the history has largely been forgotten, Chisom said. People prefer to view New Orleans as a place where individuals of all races mix, united by an easygoing mindset that’s best illustrated by the local catch phrase, “Laissez les bons temps rouler” — “Let the good times roll.”

It’s an age-old misconception, said historian Raphael Cassimere, Jr., 76. “People thought that because it was the Big Easy, certain things didn’t happen here, that New Orleans was an exception to ultra-racism.” Cassimere knows the falsity of that assumption from first-hand observation: A native of the Lower 9th Ward, he was already active in civil rights by 1960, as president of the New Orleans NAACP Youth Council.

After the Brown decision, the Orleans Parish School Board made no progress toward desegregation without unprecedented judicial intervention, said Cassimere, who knows the history well. Aware of the fervor it would create, U.S. District Judge J. Skelly Wright even withheld held his first desegregation order until February 16, 1956 — Ash Wednesday, the day after Mardi Gras — when he knew that the town would be sleepy and focused on the start of Lent. Over the next four years, state and local officials repeatedly tried to evade desegregation and Wright ruled their efforts unconstitutional, in 41 different decisions.

The Louisiana Legislature did not relent, even as integration seemed inevitable. On the eve of Tate’s enrollment at McDonogh 19, the legislature made a last-ditch effort to stop the schools from opening, passing a raft of laws and orders during a special Sunday-night session that lasted until 9 p.m. By 9:45 p.m. that night, Wright had responded with a sweeping restraining order that barred hundreds of state and local officials from “interfering with the operation of” New Orleans public schools. Named within his order were all 140 members of the Louisiana Legislature, the governor and the lieutenant governor.

Tate’s story began the next day, within the peach stucco walls of McDonogh 19.

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Tate was born in October 1954, five months after the Brown decision. She attended kindergarten several blocks from McDonogh 19 at an all-black elementary school, Joseph A. Hardin, where teachers gave her “a little extra push,” on academics and penmanship, she said. “They wanted to make sure I was on target.” The four girls who desegregated New Orleans schools were selected from a pool of 134 black students who applied and were evaluated academically and psychologically by the school board.

Even today, Tate can close her eyes and hear the mob from the street that hollered racial epithets and chanted “Two four six eight, we don’t want to integrate” while she climbed McDonogh 19’s steep front stairway.
Even today, Tate can close her eyes and hear the mob from the street that hollered racial epithets and chanted “Two four six eight, we don’t want to integrate” while she climbed McDonogh 19’s steep front stairway. Credit: Bettman/Getty Images

In 1960, news cameras were focused on two schools: McDonogh 19 and William Frantz Elementary School, two miles away, where first grader Ruby Bridges was also escorted into school by federal marshals.

Even from a distance, it’s easy to identify the so-called “McDonogh Three” as they walked into McDonogh 19. Tessie Prevost sported cat-eye glasses; Gail Etienne tied her hair with a large white bow. Then there was Tate. “I’m the one in the front with the purse,” Tate says matter-of-factly, whenever anyone asks her about those old photos.

Early that morning, a car of federal marshals pulled up to Tate’s family’s home on Delery Street. She climbed in with her mother, knowing only that she was going to attend a new school.

White students started classes at 8:30 a.m. that day. At around 9:15 a.m., according to newspapers reports, Tate’s car reached the crowd gathered in front of the school. New Orleans Police Department officers held back the crowd. Tate had only seen throngs like that during Carnival, and she thought a parade was coming.

Even today, Tate can close her eyes and hear the mob. She doesn’t remember individual voices, but television news broadcasts from that time show people standing on the street yelling racial epithets and chanting “Two four six eight, we don’t want to integrate” as Tate climbed McDonogh 19’s steep front stairway with her skinny six-year-old legs. She can still remember the number of steps — 18.

It remains a vivid memory: the wall of sound and how it disappeared once she walked through the school’s heavy front doors. As her exhibit designers took notes, Tate said that she would like visitors walking up the steps to hear that audio, as she did.

On their first school day, the three girls mostly sat on a bench outside the principal’s office. “We waited for hours. We played hopscotch on the squares of tile by the bench, that’s how long it took to enroll us in class,” said Tate. At Frantz school, Ruby Bridges never made it to class — she sat on a chair outside the office the entire first day.

For the girls’ protection, they brought their own lunches from home and weren’t allowed to drink from the school’s water fountains, which were shut off. They were also kept inside during recess, often playing under a stairwell outside their classroom.

During the 1960-61 school year, the New Orleans Police Department kept a 24-hour guard on the homes of the four little girls and their parents, along with the few white parents who dared to keep their children in newly desegregated schools. Though any mail sent to the girls’ families was screened by the NAACP office, others lacked such interventions and ended up moving from place to place all year after receiving serious mailed threats. Many parents were fired from jobs; their names, license plates and home addresses were published in White Citizen Council flyers. Some, including Wright, the judge, found fiery crosses in their yard.

Though McDonogh 19 had been quiet during Tate’s second-grade year, a portion of its funding was deducted by spiteful state officials. Facing shortfalls, school board decided to resegregate McDonogh 19, this time as a school for black children.

Three girls leave the previously all-white McDonogh 19 Elementary School after spending their second day in the newly desegregated school. The girls are delivered to the school in the morning and are called for in the afternoon by the U.S. marshals who are shown escorting the girls from the school.
Three girls leave the previously all-white McDonogh 19 Elementary School after spending their second day in the newly desegregated school. The girls are delivered to the school in the morning and are called for in the afternoon by the U.S. marshals who are shown escorting the girls from the school. Credit: Bettman/Getty Images

Local NAACP lawyer A.P. Tureaud consulted with the girls’ parents and wrote a letter on their behalf to the school board. “These parents respectfully request that their children be assigned to the same school to which their white classmates have been assigned,” he wrote.

Two years later, Tate was again plunged into chaos, this time without federal marshals or any other outside protections. During the 1961-62 school year, the school board had been cautiously desegregating first-grade classes at a handful of other white schools, though it limited the number of black students to 10. In the fall of 1962, the school board allowed the three girls and six additional black students to enroll at T.J. Semmes Elementary, several blocks away from McDonogh 19. Once again, they were desegregating an all-white school.

“At Semmes, the students hated us. And there were teachers that hated us,” Tate said. The small group of black students were spit upon and punched. Two teachers held their noses each time black students passed, implying that they smelled. The girls faced constant insults and physical aggression from white students, who were often egged on by adults within the school.

“I think that was the worst year of my life,” Tate said. After that year, her family moved closer to the Frantz school, where she joined fellow trailblazer Ruby Bridges in class.

Six years later, at Francis T. Nicholls High School, they would again find themselves in the midst of racial animus and physical fights amid backlash over an effort to change the school’s mascot, the Confederate Army “Rebel.”

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Today, Tate is working with the exhibit designers to re-create her first-grade classroom. Almost certainly, visitors will see three small desks pulled close to the chalkboard in the corner classroom. All the windows will be covered in brown kraft paper, as they were in 1960, so that no one could see in or out.

But visitors to her classroom will see no other desks. At Frantz school, a handful of white students braved crowds of hecklers for the entire school year. But McDonogh 19’s enrollment quickly plummeted to three. “For the rest of the year, it was just me, Gail, Tessie, and Miss Meyer, our teacher,” Tate said.

At first, people expected the white students would return to New Orleans schools, after a few days or maybe a few weeks. That didn’t happen. It was a prime example of structural racism in action, Tate said.

Some students from the two desegregated schools in New Orleans transferred to newly built, all-white “private” academies that used state per-pupil funding to operate. Immediately after desegregation, school buses paid for by segregationists picked up white students from the city’s 9th Ward and took them across county lines to neighboring St. Bernard Parish, where the all-white schools took them in, with the state picking up the tab.

Tate would like the interpretive center to include perspectives from some of the students who left, she said, but she hasn’t yet determined how that will be done. Hoping to find some former classmates, she posted a call-out to her Facebook page, but got no response.

Tracking down some of those families was made easier by a list of McDonogh 19 “Room Mothers” from the school desegregation archives of the Amistad Research Center at Tulane University. The list includes Mrs. Lee Cannizaro of 1210 Caffin St., the mother of Gary Cannizaro, Tate’s classmate for one day.

Reached at his home in St. Bernard Parish, Gary’s older brother, Steve Cannizaro, said that his mother told him she pulled her sons out of McDonogh 19 because she feared the school would be bombed.

For the next year, his family drove him, his brother and his cousins to school in Arabi, in St. Bernard Parish. Then he attended Catholic schools. Like many other white families, the Cannizaros would eventually move from the Lower 9th Ward — they moved to New Orleans East in 1971 and later sold their home on Caffin to a red-hot piano player named Antoine “Fats” Domino, who wanted to enlarge the musical compound he was building in his home neighborhood.*

Like many other white families, the Cannizaros soon moved from the city, selling their home on Caffin to a red-hot piano player named Antoine “Fats” Domino who wanted to return to his home neighborhood.

Cannizaro, 66, has long hated to see his former school dark and empty as he drives into New Orleans. He said he’d welcome the chance to sit down with Tate to talk about the center and what happened at the school in 1960.

“First, I would apologize to her,” Cannizaro said. “I really don’t understand why it was such a big deal. We’re talking about adding a few black kids in my class. How would it possibly have hurt me to know and get along with them?”

When Tate heard what Cannizaro had to say, she stayed quiet for a minute.

Tate said that when she speaks in public, it’s not unusual for white people in the audience to tell her that they’re sorry she had to go through what she did. But she hadn’t before received an apology from someone who actually was there in the midst of it. “Times have really changed,” she said quietly. “Thank God. That’s all I can really say.”

Tate anticipates that, as she moves forward with the center, she’ll encounter others who may have less charitable responses. And she’s prepared for that. “That’s part of the work,” she said.

*Clarification: This paragraph has been updated to include additional details on the Cannizaro family’s move to a different school.

This story about racism and public education was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.

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