3 women who desegregated New Orleans public school as girls recall the experience, 60 years later: 'I was afraid'

Kamilah Newton
·4 min read

Sixty years ago in New Orleans, an elementary school became integrated, prompting white parents to protest the arrival of three Black girls: Leona Tate, Gail Etienne and Tessie Prevost, all just 6 years old. The uproar, in fact, led to a school boycott — by almost every single white family at the school, McDonogh 19, and the harassment of two white families who did not follow suit. From Dec. 14, 1960 on, the three girls became the only students left to attend, for the duration of the school year.

“I can remember trying to talk to a white student. … She didn't answer me. She didn't look my way.…” Tate tells Yahoo Life as part of a group interview, with her two peers, together known as the “McDonogh 3,” looking back on that day. “But the parents started pulling them out one by one… For a year and a half, we were there alone, with just our teachers.”

With the landmark Brown. v. the Board of Education Supreme Court decision having been made the same year they were all born, it seems their lives were destined to be brimming with social change.

McDonogh’s commingling of Black and white students happened concurrently with that of the all-white William Frantz Elementary School across town — the school desegregated by 6-year-old Ruby Bridges. But at the time, Tate, Etienne and Prevost all say they had no real understanding of their impact on the U.S. education system — or on the world, for that matter.

“When we turned on St. Claude Avenue, it was a massive crowd, but to me it looked like a crowd waiting for a parade, so that's what I thought they were doing,” says Tate.

One thing that was not lost on them was the culture of hate that they witnessed and withstood. “I don't remember what happened before we left the house, but I know when I got to the school outside of the school, in a Federal Marshal car, looking out the window, I was afraid. Terrified… I saw the crowds of people and they had angry looking faces to me,” says Etienne. But it turned out that getting through the angry mobs was only half the battle.

As Tate recalls, “At that time, you had to go to the office to register. And I think our parents attempted to do that, but we were asked to take a seat on a bench that was in the hallway, across from the office. We sat there half the day. We sat there so long that the three of us played hopscotch on the tiles on the floor.”

Etienne remembers, “As a kid, those kids that were ugly to us, a lot of them were ugly to us because their parents told them to do that. We'd actually had some that would touch us and then make the comment that they skin didn't turn black. A lot of those kids wanted to play with us, but they knew that they couldn't play with us because of their parents or the teachers.”

Still, the three young girls felt that their trouble was not in vain, as their parents continuously encouraged each of them to pursue a better education than what they had been previously afforded. “My dad said that [white students] were getting a better education than us,” recalls Etienne. “They had books that had all the pages and our books were torn and had pages missing.”

Today, six decades later, things have come full circle: In January, Tate became the owner of the McDonogh 19 school building, which the three women will repurpose as the Tate, Etienne and Prevost Center through which to share their experiences and inform the New Orleans education system of their vital role in history. Plans for the site include housing, racism workshops, an interpretive history center and a school for kindergarten through high school.

“I get to visit a lot of schools, and nobody knows about the desegregation of public schools here in New Orleans,” says Tate. “And I can go out of state and speak at a school and they know all about it, so our curriculum needs to be upgraded somehow.”

Etienne adds, “I think New Orleans has regressed. It looks like what we did and what we went through was almost for nothing, because it's back to the way it was before, and that's sad.”

Tate says, “I tell all little Black girls, when I speak to them, just stay focused. We had a path that we set a long time ago. Just stay on that trail and you can do anything you want to do.” Prevost, underlining the whole effort, adds her own simple words of advice: “Education is very important,” she says. “Strive for that.”

Video produced by Stacy Jackman

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