They were also kept inside during recess, often playing under a stairwell outside their classroom. During the —61 school year, the New Orleans Police Department kept a 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.
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Facing shortfalls, school board decided to resegregate McDonogh 19, this time as a school for black children. Tureaud consulted with the girls' parents and wrote a letter on their behalf to the school board. Two years later, Tate was again plunged into chaos, this time without federal marshals or any other outside protections.
The Rocky Road to Civil Rights in the United States
During the —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 In the fall of , the school board allowed the three girls and six additional black students to enroll at T. Semmes Elementary, several blocks away from McDonogh Once again, they were desegregating an all-white school. And there were teachers that hated us," Tate says. 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. 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.
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 , 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. 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 says. 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.
Eleanor Roosevelt and Civil Rights
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 says, 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 Caffin St. Reached at his home in St.
Bernard Parish, Gary's older brother, Steve Cannizaro, says 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 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.
Cannizaro, 66, has long hated to see his former school dark and empty as he drives into New Orleans.
He says he'd welcome the chance to sit down with Tate to talk about the center and what happened at the school in 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? Tate says 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. 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. This story originally appeared as As a six-year-old, Leona Tate helped desegregate schools. Now she wants others to learn that history. Subscribe to the magazine's newsletter and follow Pacific Standard on Twitter to support journalism in the public interest. Sign up for our free email newsletters.
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