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The first time Leona Tate walked through the doors of the McDonogh 19 Elementary School, her life – and those of many other people – changed forever. The date was Nov. 14, 1960, and Tate, along with Gail Etienne and Tessie Prevost, were first graders being escorted by U.S. Marshals as part of the desegregation of public schools in New Orleans.
When Tate walks through those same doors later this spring, it will be to open the Tate Etienne Prevost Center – the TEP Center – a space dedicated to preserving the history of school desegregation in New Orleans, honoring sacrifices made during the civil rights movement and initiating restorative justice.
At a moment when racial inequities are in the national spotlight, Tate is optimistic about the role the TEP Center will play.
“I really want it to be a racial healing facility in some ways,” Tate said. “If you want to talk, come talk. That’s what we’re going to be there for.”
Her own Leona Tate Foundation for Change will be located in the center, along with an anti-racism training institution, a living museum to the neighborhood, and affordable housing for seniors.
The project is made possible, in part, by a $3.7 million equity investment from U.S. Bancorp Community Development Corporation (USBCDC), in New Markets Tax Credits provided by Central States Development Partners, Enhanced Community Development and USBCDE.
“Of all the projects I’ve worked on over time, this may be the most historically meaningful in terms of its enduring value,” said USBCDC Vice President Bill Carson. “U.S. Bank is so thrilled to be involved in preserving and advancing this important part of American history.”
The project, which USBCDC has been involved in since 2019, complements a companywide pledge that U.S. Bank made last summer toward addressing social inequities. The company has elevated the chief diversity officer role to its Managing Committee reporting directly to the CEO, established new initiatives to advance Black employees to leadership roles, and made an ongoing financial commitment to closing the racial wealth gap through community grants and by supporting Black-owned businesses.
Tate, Etienne and Prevost had no idea they were making history back on that November day in 1960. Across the canal to the west that morning, Ruby Bridges was doing the same, walking into William Frantz Elementary School. It was six years after the landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision struck down Plessy v. Ferguson’s “separate but equal” school mandate. Both the local school board and the Louisiana legislature fought hard against the desegregation order for years.
Tate compared the excitement at her house that morning to Christmas. She was surrounded by family and friends – all in good spirits – who were helping her get ready for her first day at her new school.
“All of sudden a black car pulled up in front of the door: the U.S. Marshals coming to escort us to school. The house got really quiet. I can remember that silence today,” Tate said. “As I was getting ready to go out the door, my mom said, ‘When you get in the car, get to the back of the seat and don’t put your face to the window.’”
After the short drive to school – McDonogh 19 was much closer than her old school – the girls were met by a crowd of people that had assembled in front of the building.
“I could hear the noise. At that time, I didn’t understand what they were saying,” Tate recalled. It being New Orleans, she thought maybe it was Mardi Gras and they were waiting for a parade. The girls were escorted up the front steps of the building and to the principal’s office.
“I can remember they asked us to take a seat,” Tate said. “There was a bench right across from the office. We must have sat there for three or four hours before they decided to place us in classroom.” The girls – who later became known as the McDonogh Three – passed the time playing hopscotch on the tile floor until they were finally placed in a classroom.
“I can remember trying to speak to a little white girl who acted like I was invisible,” Tate said. “By that time, the parents had started pulling their kids out of school. By 3 o’clock that day, it was just us in that entire building.” (She later learned that two brothers were also still in the school, but the McDonogh Three never saw them.)
In the days and months that followed, Tate said she felt comfortable at McDonogh – crediting her first-grade teacher, Ms. Meyers, in part. And in the years that followed, she started to gain a clear understanding of the role that she played in history.
“I did understand that I was going to a new school, but I didn’t know why,” Tate said. For a long time, she didn’t want to think about it at all. “I didn’t even realize how dangerous it could have been.”
The school closed in 2004, and then Hurricane Katrina hit, flooding the Lower 9th Ward neighborhood. Still, once permitted back in the neighborhood, Tate assessed the damage and didn’t give up hope for saving it.
When the TEP Center opens later this spring, Tate will have done more than saved the McDonogh 19 building. She will have preserved its history and brought it to life for future generations and created that space for healing.
“I’m just thinking about the conversations we’ll have,” Tate said. “I can’t wait to hear those conversations, because it’s amazing the things we hear and come out of those [anti-racism] workshops thinking about the different kinds of visions people have.”
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