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Herstory

circa 2020 Peter Forest

The New Orleans Four

Leona Tate, Ruby Bridges, Gail Etienne and Tessie Prevost

They Rocked the Nation and Moved the World

The school crisis in New Orleans was one of the most significant events not only for New Orleans and Louisiana, but for the United States and the entire world because of FOUR 6-year-old girls Leona Tate, Ruby Bridges, Gail Etienne and Tessie Prevost. In her speech on the 60th Anniversary of school desegregation Alanah Odoms stated "Black girls and black women have always shouldered the immense responsibility of perfecting our Democracy. The New Orleans Four were emissaries of justice and freedom, turning the tide of hate in this nation and calling us towards the liberties enshrined in the United States Constitution." 

 

Jim Crow was the law of the land and white segregationist lawmakers in New Orleans and across the state of Louisiana had no intention of abiding by the 1954 Supreme Court case Brown v Board of Education; in which the justices ruled unanimously that racial segregation of children in public schools was unconstitutional. Brown v Board of Education was one of the cornerstones of the civil rights movement, the premise of the argument in this case was that "separate-but-equal" was unconstitutional. This argument was first brought before the Supreme Court in the landmark case Plessy v Ferguson in 1896.

Efforts to integrate New Orleans' public school system stemmed from the efforts of African American leaders during the 1930s and 1940s, as well as national efforts on the part of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) to attack segregation in the U.S. courts.  The first school equalization case, Aubert v. Orleans Parish School Board pre-dated the Supreme Court's 1954 decision in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas.

 

The Supreme Court ruling of Brown v Board of Education  helped establish that "separate-but-equal" education and other services were not equal at all. 

 

The duty to organize a plan for integration fell to Judge Skelly Wright by chance in 1952. New Orleans would wait another 6 years following Brown v Board for the dismantling of such inequalities, an effort that author Liva Baker would call "The Second Battle of New Orleans." On February 15,1956, Attorneys A.P. Tureaud, Robert L. Carter, A. M. Trudeau Jr. and Thurgood Marshall filed a lawsuit Bush v Orleans Parish School Board. This class action was brought on behalf of minor children of the Negro race by their parents, guardians or next friends, seeking the aid of the court in obtaining admission to the public schools of Orleans Parish on a nonsegregated basis. Judge Wright, after years of resistance by Louisiana legislators ordered the Desegregation of Orleans Parish public schools with all deliberate speed and he drafted a desegregation plan for the School Board to implement. 

 

On the faithful morning of November 14, 1960, Leona Tate, Ruby Bridges, Gail Etienne and Tessie Prevost became the first African Americans to integrate formerly white only public elementary schools in New Orleans. That morning, 3 of the girls Leona, Gail and Tessie enrolled at McDonogh 19 school at 5909 St. Claude Ave. in the lower 9th ward. Minutes after they crossed the threshold to integrate McDonogh 19, the fourth girl, Ruby Bridges enrolled at William Frantz school at 3811 N. Galvez St. in the upper 9th ward.

 

With world-wide attention focused on New Orleans, Federal Marshals wearing yellow armbands began escorting the four girls to schools at 9 a.m. By 9:25 a.m. the first two public elementary schools in New Orleans, Louisiana were integrated. Those courageous little girls rocked this nation to its core and changed the world when they marched up those stairs to break barriers of injustice. As frontline soldiers in the Civil Rights Movement, these four brave 6-year-olds became the LEGACY of the New Orleans Resistance Movement and the inspiration that sparked the Children's Crusade of 1963. The girls, their families and white families who kept their children in integrated schools endured taunts, threats, violence and boycotts of integrated schools by white segregationists. 

The integration of New Orleans Public Schools marked a major focal point in the history of the American Civil Rights Movement. Those four little soldier girls finally brought it home for the FIRST Freedom Rider Homer Plessy who was arrested, tried and convicted on June 7, 1892 for violating the Louisiana Separate Car Act in New Orleans. Their courage paved the way for a more peaceful expansion of integration into other schools in the following years as they continued to lead integration of Junior and Senior High school levels together.

 

On the 60th Anniversary of School Desegregation November 14, 2020, the City of New Orleans celebrated an unpublicized outdoor Proclamation Ceremony at Gallier Hall with a guest list of only 150 invited friends, families and civic leaders. On that day, the City Council  proclaimed November 14th - NEW ORLEANS FOUR DAY. On January 5, 2022, Governor John Bel Edwards posthumously pardoned Homer Plessy thanks to the tireless work of Mr. Keith Plessy and Ms. Phoebe Ferguson, the board members of the Plessy & Ferguson Foundation and the many who supported their mission. 

 

Today the McDonogh 19 Elementary School Building is a newly renovated multi-use building. The Leona Tate Foundation for Change purchased the school building in 2019. On May 4, 2022, Leona Tate, Gail Etienne and Tessie Prevost made history again with their Ribbon Cutting Ceremony to officially open the Tate, Etienne & Prevost (TEP) Civil Rights Interpretive Center. This building project was made possible by the City of New Orleans, the State of Louisiana, Alembic Community Developers, Housing Authority of New Orleans (HANO) and various generous donors.

It is high time to celebrate Homer Plessy, The New Orleans Four, the Freedom Fighters of the New Orleans Resistance Movement and the culture of the great city of New Orleans! 

The New Orleans Four Legacy Tribute....COMING SOON!

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