“Don’t take this as a sad thing or a bad thing. Take my memories to do something positive.” -Leona Tate
This is what Leona Tate asked of our 5th graders after she had walked them up the same stairs of McDonogh 19 Elementary School that she, Gail Etienne and Tessie Prevost ascended at the age of six when they desegregated New Orleans schools. She mentioned the angry, loud white protesters held back by police on foot and horseback as if it were Mardi Gras, but this was no parade. She pointed to where she sat for three hours in front of the principal’s office as the marshal negotiated with the principal about her entry into a classroom, and then she walked us all into the very classroom the three of them would occupy with their teacher Mrs. Meyers for the next two years, with the windows papered over for protection, none of them able to go outside or to eat anything that didn’t come from home. She showed them the area under the staircase, not bigger than a closet, where they were allowed to eat their lunches and play every day.
Then it was our students’ turn. Ms. Tate answered question after question from them about what it was like to be one of the “McDonogh 3.” Did she also know Ruby Bridges and that they became the “New Orleans 4”?
Were you scared?
Was your teacher nice?
The U.S. Marshal who escorted you up the stairs and in that picture?
Are you still friends with Gail and Tessie?
Did you have security guards at night?
What was the worst thing that happened to you?
How did you get through it?
These answers our students have, but they also wanted to know her favorite subject! Her least favorite. If she ever got into trouble. Foods she liked and didn’t like. Her favorite Mardi Gras parade. These were also important, as were the stories behind every single photograph on display at the Tate, Etienne & Prevost Interpretive Center. They wanted to know the things that would be important to them as they imagined themselves in her shoes, and they wanted to know the things that are important to them now as they imagined her in their shoes. By the end, they wanted her autograph and a hug. They simply wanted to be around her. It wasn't just the person in the New Orleans Historic Project video they’d watched the day before. They had been somewhere historic, and they had met somebody heroic, but most importantly they had connected with an adult they saw the good in because she saw the good in them. They heard the warmth in her voice and the wisdom in her words. They related.
We had scheduled this trip for our 5th graders before the racially motivated mass murder of ten black shoppers in Buffalo by a white supremicist. Need I even say it: there is so much hatred right now. There is so much fear and division, so much racialized and radicalized violence and so many ways for us and our children to access it with ease on our feeds and screens, just as the 18 year old boy-murderer had been doing for many years of his childhood. I had received an email that morning from a leader and a parent in our StG community who was “floored and again in despair at the hate in our country and trying to channel my energy into something positive.”
Upon leaving TEP Center, it dawned on me how profoundly Leona Tate had addressed Buffalo without once having mentioned Buffalo to our students. You need to know that TEP Interpretive Center just opened and had its ribbon-cutting ceremony on May 4th, that what we were seeing on Wednesday was the vision and the work in progress, with posters and visuals and descriptions of what will be exhibited and interactive rather than a completed thing. We were indeed the very first school and group of students to visit TEP Interpretive Center, something we did not know before our arrival! The vision for what’s to come is at once magnificent and impactful, and yet the vision has in almost every meaningful way already been realized.
Leona Tate and the educators there are keen to mention that this is not a museum. It is not a collection of artifacts or a mere building from the past conveniently landmarked and cordoned off as the past, as something that would suggest the history of racism and segregation does not have a present. It is an interpretive center, and its engagement comes from that living history and legacy made all the more profoundly present by the presence and vision of Leona Tate herself. She was fully present the entire two hours with our children, and so was her respect, compassion, integrity and perseverance. Her positivity is as legendary as her courage. She embodies what we aspire to be as educators at StG and what we aim to inspire in our students.
I mention this because one of the most poignant moments there came when one of our students asked her how the TEP Center was going to recreate the classroom and school the way it was when she arrived in 1960? She simply said, “Why, from my memories.” Indeed she has. She has taken the bad thing and the sad thing and done with it something positive. She has asked that our students and you and I do the same.
Our fifth graders are already thinking about what that directive means to them, and what it should mean to our school. I know the first thing our fifth graders have suggested is that the rest of the Middle School visit the TEP Center too. I look forward to all of them sharing with you what positive we will make of it. Thanks to Leona Tate and her example, we’ve already started.
- Dr. Kreutziger
- Middle School