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In the last unit, we learned that racial segregation quickly returned to schools at the end of Reconstruction. Systems of government, businessman, and private white citizens worked in concert to prevent black New Orleanians from accessing public services, resulting in severe overcrowding in schools, reduced instructional time for black students. When the black community rallied together to build up services and commerce, white supremacy disguised as economic development, literally tore down black neighborhoods and businesses. It was clear that separate would never be truly equal and cries for integration continued to mount. That is where our story picks up.
At the beginning of Unit 1, you brainstormed the purpose of education for different groups of people. Based on what we've learned, let's revisit this question...
In Unit 3, we'll follow two paths, both dictated by white supremacy in our city. The first is the birth of an isolated neighborhood, created with the intent of segregating thousands of black families from the rest of the city. The second is the story of integrating New Orleans public schools, the bravery of little girls and their families, and the backlash that ensued. Remember to use your voice on FlipGrid. If you aren't registered with us, you can join the dialogue on Instagram @ourstorynola. Let's get started.
US Context: In Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka in 1954, the Supreme Court unanimously ruled that racial segregation of children in public schools was unconstitutional.
With severe overcrowding of black schools and growing demands for integration, city planners designed a new solution: construction of a “school village” with housing and schools for upwards of 14,000 black students and families. The plans began before the Brown v. Board decision, and was viewed as a more cost effective option than bussing black students to black designated schools across the city.
They chose a location in the Upper Ninth Ward, cut off from the rest of New Orleans by railroad tracks on two sides and an industrial canal on the other. In 1949, new homes built in the neighborhood were marketed to black World War II veterans. Across the street, the Desire Housing Projects would be the largest federal housing project in the country.
However, this site was originally intended for industrial use: a former landfill for residential and industrial waste. (Later, parts of the neighborhood would be designated as a Superfund site because of cancer causing toxins in the soil. Many residents are still waiting for government assistance to relocate their homes.) Despite the conditions in which the neighborhood was constructed, its residents worked hard to form a thriving community.
The construction itself was wrought with problems. The elementary school was constructed with windowless hallways with poor ventilation. On humid days, children would slip and fall on the cement floors. Parts of the ceiling fell onto students’ desks during class. Desire project buildings started sinking into the ground almost immediately upon their completion. (Sixty Years Later, New Orleans School Desegregation: A Look Back and A Way Forward—Zoom, 2020)
The neighborhood was wildly under-resourced for the number of people living there. “Just imagine, one playground with just about three or four swings and one sliding board and one Merry go round for thirteen thousand people” Dan said. “So we had to wait our turn to get on the swing, some time we had to wait two days to get on a swing!” (WWNO Desire Louisiana)
Although construction of the so-called “learning village” began before 1954, it is important to note that the schools opened after the Brown vs. Board decision made segregated schools illegal in the United States. As George Washington Carver Junior and Senior High, and the two neighborhood elementary schools, opened for an entirely black student body, the uphill battle for desegregation continued in the rest of the city.
Integration at a Trickle
In 1960, six years after Brown v. Board, New Orleans public schools had done nothing to comply with the mandate for integration of schools. When it finally moved forward with integration, it did so with an intentional slight trickle, placing the burden of integration on black families to apply for a transfer to white schools. The pupil placement law, created by the state legislature to be “racially neutral” outlined seventeen criteria to be considered when approving transfers including: intelligence, scholastic aptitude, home environment, “psychological effect upon the pupil,” and other subjective factors meant to perpetuate segregation. Of the 137 applicants, only five girls were approved. One of the girls was later denied the transfer when it the school board discovered that she was born to an unwed mother (Fairclough, 2008).
Then came the issue of picking the schools for integration. Historian and NAACP activist, Raphael Cassimere believed that the school district “maliciously calculated that if we start at the places where the tension is the greatest, then maybe we can defeat segregation by showing it just can’t work.” Although the PTAs of two white uptown schools had stated their willingness to accept integration, the district selected two schools in neighborhoods hostile to integration with largely working class white families: Frantz and McDonogh 19 (Stern 2018).
After additional delays, the desegregation implementation date was set for November 14, 1960. In an act of protest, the state legislature declared November 14 a holiday and ordered all parish school boards to close for the day. OPSB was the only one to remain open in the state. (Integrating McDonough 19, NOLA Resistance Oral History Project | The Historic New Orleans Collection). Still, on November 14, 1960, Ruby Bridges was the first black student to attend Frantz Elementary School, and three first graders, known as the McDonogh Three, were the first to enter McDonogh No. 19.
The Integration of McDonogh 19
“Three of the approved transfer applicants were Gail Etiénne, Tessie Prevost, and Leona Tate, and they became the first black students to attend McDonogh 19 Elementary School on November 14, 1960. The three six-year-old girls were accompanied by their parents and US marshals so that they could safely pass through the large mob that was screaming and yelling insults at them outside of the school. White parents immediately began pulling their children out of the school, and by the end of the day on November 14, no white students were attending classes at McDonogh. Gail, Tessie, and Leona continued to attend classes as the sole students at McDonogh for the rest of the 1960–1961 school year” (Integrating McDonough 19, NOLA Resistance Oral History Project | The Historic New Orleans Collection).
Tessie Prevost enters McDonogh No. 19 Elementary School along with her father and U.S. marshals on November 19, 1960 (Amistad Research Center).
This newspaper clipping shows young Gail Etienne being driven in a car with Federal Marshal Wallace Downs (Amistad Research Center).
The following videos show the voices of Leona Tate as an adult and her mother in 1960. The McDonogh 19 building is the future home to the Leona Tate Foundation for Change.
Given its proximity to the Ninth Ward, many white parents sent their children to schools in St. Bernard Parish. Parish leaders along with the White Citizens' Council, created an annex to Arabi elementary school and provided bussing for white families fleeing integration. In the following interview, WSB-TV reporter Ray Moore interviews Armand Duvio, a New Orleans plumber with a central role in arranging private education for white students from the desegregated William Frantz and McDonogh 19 elementary schools. Duvio explains that since the courts will not reverse the order to integrate schools, parents who want segregated education have to provide alternatives for their children (WSBN39378, 1960).
Virtually all white families boycotted the integrated schools. One exception was the Gabrielle family, who refused to withdraw their daughter from Frantz school after it was integrated by Ruby Bridges. The backlash from neighbors and co-workers was immediate. Jimmy Gabrielle eventually quit his job after ostracism and taunts from co-workers became intolerable.
The Gabrielle family did relocate to Rhode Island. At least three other white Frantz parents lost their jobs after refusing the boycott. Integration efforts at McDonogh 19 did not fare better. On January 27, 1961, the first white pupil arrived since November 17. His brother followed the next day. By the end of the week, the family left New Orleans after being evicted from their apartment.
Integrating McDonogh 19—Oral Histories | The Historic New Orleans Collection. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.hnoc.org/interactive-lesson/nola-resistance/integrating-mcdonogh-19%E2%80%94oral-histories
Kaplan-Levenson, L. (2018.). Desire, Louisiana. Retrieved from https://www.wwno.org/post/desire-louisiana
Lesson 3: Integrating McDonogh 19 | The Historic New Orleans Collection. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.hnoc.org/interactive-lesson/nola-resistance/lesson-3-integrating-mcdonogh-19
NOLA Resistance Oral History Project | The Historic New Orleans Collection. (n.d.). Retrieved February 20, 2021, from https://www.hnoc.org/research/nola-resistance-oral-history-project
Plan for Leona Tate center in historic New Orleans school building gets nod; here’s what’s next | Education | nola.com. (2019.). Retrieved from https://www.nola.com/news/education/article_3e1f8d37-5d2a-57f4-af3b-779370d44b94.html
Sixty Years Later, New Orleans School Desegregation: A Look Back and A Way Forward—Zoom. (2020). Retrieved February 26, 2021, from https://xula.zoom.us/rec/play/JIhBbe7oQjanc-BYebzierGkyK_BDgqlTK6e9NoFQW8CBWKRJO0y8Wgs5aBWvtnfi9RJ6LPsayRySmfS.f482jsULeyjrC-dx
Through a Crowd, Bravely—Amistad Research Center. (2021.) Google Arts & Culture. Retrieved from https://artsandculture.google.com/culturalinstitute/beta/exhibit/through-a-crowd-bravely /UAICTqdHep0pKA
WSBN39378, WSB-TV newsfilm clip of interviews with Police Chief Joseph Giarrusso, the Gabrielle family, and Mayor deLesseps Morrison as well as images of the community of New Orleans, Louisiana, 1960 November, WSB-TV newsfilm collection, reel 0251, 25:00/35:41, Walter J. Brown Media Archives and Peabody Awards Collection, The University of Georgia Libraries, Athens, Georgia