Trail of Hope: Women talk about being the first to integrate school in 1960

Trail of Hope
Updated: Feb. 21, 2018 at 9:40 PM CST
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NEW ORLEANS, LA (WVUE) - On Nov. 16, 1960, angry white protesters chanted outside New Orleans City Hall.

"Two, four, six,eight, we don't want to integrate," they said, waving Confederate flags and confronting police.

Hundreds joined the mob resisting integration two days after three black girls walked into a white New Orleans school for the first time.

It was court-ordered integration. Leona Tate was one of the three girls chosen to integrate Mcdonogh 19 on Nov. 14, 1960. That was six years after the Supreme Court ruled that racially segregated schools were unconstitutional.

"As a 6-year-old girl, we pulled up, we thought it was the same thing. We thought it was Mardi Gras," Tate said as she remembers arriving at the school.

There were policeman on horseback and protesters screaming at the children. A group of black supporters applauded. Federal marshals protected the girls as they walked into the school.

"When I got out of the car, my daddy told me, 'Give me your hand and look straight ahead,'" said Tessie Prevost, another one of the girls to integrate the school.

Tate says when they turned the corner, it didn't stand out that the mass of people were white, and it didn't stand out that they were shouting ugly things. She said it sounded like a parade.

It was no parade.

That same morning, little Ruby Bridges walked into William Franz Elementary.

"They got places for you!" an angry woman shouted.

Other mothers encouraged their small children to use racial slurs and say say they did not want to integrate. When the McDonogh Three got into the building, white parents immediately started pulling their children out of school. For a year and a half they were the only ones left in the building.

"Keep fighting! Keep fighting," said two women on archival footage." Regardless of what they say, we will have segregated schools!"

Tate said they were chosen after filling out an application and taking tests. She says children in more than a hundred households were tested, but only a handful made the cut. They went through psychological testing, as well.

Federal Judge J. Skelly Wright issued an order for the Orleans Parish School Board to desegregate in 1960. Despite push-back, he struck down 29 nine segregation laws passed by the Legislature.

"We left here after second grade," said Tate. "The school had become predominately black, and the idea was to keep us in a white school. They transferred us to Semmes. We didn't have marshals anymore. We had to endure a lot."

Tessie Prevost says children would spit on them, kick them and punch them - and they were helpless.

Gail Etienne described how bad it got at Semmes.

"Hit in the stomach with a baseball bat. I'd been spit upon, the girl ripped my dress. But to be hit in the stomach with a baseball bat, that was physical pain," she said.

Leona says if she could talk to the parents who taunted her, she knows what she'd say.

"Why? Why for three little children? What could three little children do to your child? Why?What was the reason? Just not wanting to change?" she asked.

All the years, all the pain,tThey would not rewrite history or trade their tremendous strength.

"I guess for it to work, we had to endure," Leona Tate said.

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