We wanted current, up-to-date books and quality scholastic materials, just like our white counterparts. It was never about "forced integration," but was and is still about fairness and equality.


Gliding past mobs, toward an education
 
LEONA TATE
 
May 20, 2004
 

On May 17, 1954, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in the case of Brown vs. the Board of Education that racial segregation in the public schools was unconstitutional.

That was the year I was born. And here in New Orleans, the "go slow" approach was in full effect. It took the Orleans Parish School Board six years to act upon the law of the land. By that time, I was ready for the first grade. In 1960, two other little girls [Gail Etienne, Tessie Prevost] and I became the first black pupils to attend McDonogh No. 19 Elementary School in the Ninth Ward.

I distinctly remember the first day of school. My house was filled with family members helping my mother, Louise Tate, and I prepare me to start first grade. Everyone was ecstatic. I remember how we all rushed around our house, getting ready.

Then the black car arrived carrying two men to drive us to my new school. They were white, but the color of their skin did not send up a red flag for me. However, I can remember having a somewhat strange feeling about the drive, even though it wasnít that far.

Iím sure my family was worried, but they never showed it around me. At six, riding in a car was a novelty to me, but my mother simply told me to stay seated and not to put my face up against the window. I did as Mama told me, realizing only later that it was a safety precaution.

As we arrived near the school, the car slowed down and everything I remember from that point seemed to go in slow motion. Somehow, we were able to maneuver through a crowd of cursing, screaming, yelling people who were being held back by the police.

I didnít understand why those people were being held back. The only reason I could think of was to keep them safe, so that the moving cars wouldnít hit them. It never dawned on me that I was the object of their yelling or that they were trying to get to me. I donít remember any crowds on the school site, other than the police officers.

After being escorted up the stairs of the school, the three of us were seated on a bench in the hallway outside the office. We stayed there for a long time. The school was full of students, but when we arrived in the classroom, they began to leave rapidly, as if they had been swept up by the wind. I remember trying to talk to the other students, but to no avail. On my first day of first grade, it was as if I were totally invisible.

For the rest of that year and approximately half of the next year, the three of us were the only students at McDonogh 19 Elementary School. We were given a lot of attention, though. I loved school. The information was so new, refreshing and thorough. And my teacher, Mrs. Meyers, seemed quite comfortable teaching me.

We were insulated from the yelling and screaming outside. The classroom windows were covered with brown paper. The schoolyard was off-limits: We were happy to have recess in the big auditorium, where there was even a stage on which to play. In another strange touch, the water fountains had been turned off. Did officials fear that someone might try to poison the three first-graders? Iíve never really been sure.

Thanks to the determination of my family, I went on to get a good education. Today, the success of integration is spotty. But for the most part, the intent of African-Americans in pursuing integration has been woefully misconstrued.

The primary focus was never our being able to sit next to white children in a classroom, as much as it was about equality in books, classroom and gymnastic facilities, etc. We wanted current, up-to-date books and quality scholastic materials, just like our white counterparts. It was never about "forced integration," but was and is still about fairness and equality.

Many public schools today are more segregated and in worse condition than they were before the Brown decision. Many state legislators harbor antipathy toward the needs of the inner cities, in particular toward the public school systems. They may support the schools with lip service, but not with money. And the schools, like any other idea, will fail if not supported with the proper financial resources.

Copyright 2004, The Times-Picayune
Publishing Corporation


Additional Reading
  • Chris Rose, "Ruby Bridges' long walk; An icon of New Orleans integration will witness another milestone 50 years later, The Times-Picayune, New Orleans, January 19, 2009, National, p. 1.

  • The McDonogh Three; In 1960, three first-grade girls integrated McDonogh No. 19.  After years of trying to forget the storm that swirled around them, today they are proud of their roles," The Times-Picayune, New Orleans, May 16, 2004, National, p. 19.

From: Leona Tate, "Gliding past mobs, toward an education," The Times-Picayune, New Orleans, May 20, 2004, Metro, p. 7.  Reprinted in accordance with the "fair use" provision of Title 17 U.S.C. § 107 for a non-profit educational purpose.

FRANK B. ELLIS, POLITICIAN

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