A New Orleans Rehabilitation Marks a Fresh Start for the Site of a Key Civil Rights Moment
The memory was never not close at hand: For decades, when Leona Tate (above) made her rounds through New Orleans’ Lower Ninth Ward—running errands, rushing to work, or ferrying her children—she’d catch sight of a familiar building, its salmon stucco facade now definitely worse for the wear. For all these years, while she’d kept her eye on the history that was hiding in plain sight, she also kept the swarm of jagged emotions mostly to herself. When that same structure at 5909 St. Claude Ave. was shuttered in 2004, Tate felt a tug—not sentimental, more a sense of urgency. Her nondescript former elementary school building—McDonogh No. 19 Public School—had fallen into deep disrepair. After Hurricane Katrina in 2005, it had sustained enough structural damage that the school board calculated it a loss. When word circled around about possible end-game scenarios, it stopped her cold: “They talked about demolishing it, and it was like, ‘No. That is not going to happen.’”
Tate was one of three girls—along with Gail Etienne and Tessie Prevost—who steeled themselves and climbed the 18 steps to McDonogh 19 Elementary on November 14, 1960, desegregating the school. This was a historic moment because while the Supreme Court of the United States had outlawed public school segregation in 1954 with its Brown v. Board of Education decision, no public schools in New Orleans had been integrated yet. That same morning, across the city’s Industrial Canal, a fourth little girl, Ruby Bridges—whose name has gone on to serve as a hopeful metaphor in the ongoing fight for social justice—desegregated William Frantz Elementary School. The girls would be known collectively as the “New Orleans Four,” with Tate, Etienne, and Prevost also known as the “McDonogh Three.”
Too much had transpired here for it all to be erased by one swing of a wrecking ball. Tate heightened her mode from watch to action: “Nothing was being done in it. It was just sitting there.” She ticks off a list. “It was in a land bank status. The superintendent positions changed so many times during and after [Hurricane] Katrina. And ... we kept trying to talk to the same people and keep communicating about it, but it just seemed that they weren’t communicating among themselves.” Every day, something new: some new hurdle to clear, some dead end to circumvent. “I told everyone in the beginning, ‘I know what I want, but I don’t know how to get there. Somebody’s got to lead me.’” She eventually quit her full-time job so she could focus on her nonprofit, the Leona Tate Foundation for Change (LTFC), devoted to finding a way to restore the property while sharing the history of Civil Rights in New Orleans.
All told, it would take decades, and a series of what often felt like insurmountable bureaucratic thickets, but Tate would achieve her dream of obtaining the property and begin to turn a bitter memory into a teaching experience. In partnership with Alembic Community Development, the building will open as the Tate Etienne Prevost (TEP) Interpretive Center in the fall of 2021. The former McDonogh 19 School will also contain 25 units of deeply affordable housing for low-income seniors ages 55 and up.
The ground floor of the TEP Center will be dedicated to recontextualizing the history of New Orleans public school desegregation, while also examining the struggles of the Civil Rights and restorative justice movements across the city, and region, over the decades. The site also will be the new home of one of Tate’s longtime partners, the People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond, a national organization dedicated to social transformation and focused on dismantling racism and various forms of oppression. The second-floor centerpiece will be an immersive exhibit in the hallway where the three little girls waited to be admitted to school—and in the process altered the trajectory, and narrative, of U.S. history.
The former McDonogh 19 Elementary School—a three-story Italian Renaissance Revival–style building completed in 1929—was a pivotal site of Tate’s personal journey. But she didn’t make a habit of broadcasting why the then-down-on-its-heels building might be important to her. For a long time, in her day-to-day life, even some of the people closest to her—work friends, her own children—didn’t know that at 6 years old she had stepped across its threshold and into history.
Grainy newspaper photos of that day capture Leona, Gail, and Tessie being escorted by dark-suited U.S. Marshals: Eyes wide. Faces stoic. Focused. Leona, captured for posterity in a dress, Mary Janes, and white ankle socks, daintily grasps a little black pocketbook one might carry to church. Years later, she would recall in interviews that when she saw the crowds and police on horseback flanking the school she thought a parade was coming; the frenzy and press of the assembly reminded her of Mardi Gras.
Prepped for this day by their parents, aunts and uncles, community organizers, and members of the NAACP, Leona, Gail, and Tessie threaded past a wall of noise—agitated white faces shouting epithets. Up the steps and then into a hallway, the three girls and their parents gathered on a bench outside the door to the principal’s office waiting to be admitted to the school rolls. As the hours passed, the girls played hopscotch using the outline of floor tiles as a grid.
After four tense hours, their admission formally processed, the girls were granted entry. But by that time all the white students had been pulled out of the school permanently by their parents. Leona, Gail, and Tessie filed into a classroom with their teacher, finding the windows covered with brown paper to both discourage peering in and block the girls’ view of the voluble circus outside. In this surreal setting, the three girls attended McDonogh 19 for more than a year—going to class, taking recess, and having lunch by themselves in an empty campus.
That first-day event, for them, would begin a string of “firsts,” as they moved through their education in the New Orleans school system, crossing thresholds to other schools and, with that action, taking historic steps toward demolishing Jim Crow laws in the city.
For Tate, Etienne, and Prevost the memory is indelible. But as years flew by, fewer and fewer people seemed to know what had transpired on St. Claude Avenue in the “Lower Nine.” Some, says Gail Etienne, made it seem as if they simply wanted to move on. “Sometimes you go to different places, you have some people saying, ‘Oh, they talkin’ about that again.’ I thought ... maybe they are ashamed about how their people acted; I don’t know,” she says. “But that’s why for so long, the only time we talked about it was when we three were together, because we really didn’t think people were interested in it.” It was difficult for her to process the disregard. “And for them to act as if they don’t remember. I just can’t believe that everybody forgot.”
Over time, Tate, too, made note of the diminishing awareness about what happened at McDonogh 19. And as time passed, the community’s makeup dramatically changed. Post-Katrina, many longtime, native-born Black New Orleanians who were directly affected by the strictures of Jim Crow—and the long-term echoes of racism and social injustice—did not, or could not, return to the city. That absence transformed not only the landscape but the depth of civic memory.
For a time, adds Tessie Prevost, “People recognized us, people who were still living down in the area. But then there were people who should have remembered, but they’ve passed away.”
While Tate had often downplayed her role, the vanishing history deeply troubled her. That, she says, “changed my focus to at least be able to talk about it.” Over the years, she reflects, she’s been asked to speak in many different settings, and like Etienne and Prevost, she began to notice a disparity: “You go to a school in your own city and nobody knows about it, that’s a problem. But when I’m invited to a school out of state—they know all about it. And that was kind of hurtful to me.”
Like the empty school, the erasure put her firmly on a path. “I felt like if McDonogh 19 couldn’t be a regular school, it needed to be something where people could be taught their Civil Rights education.”
For some time, only within her inner circle did she express hopes to revive the building in some way. “My first plan was to try to get it reopened as a school, because after Katrina there was only ... one [public] school coming back [in the Lower Ninth Ward]. But that couldn’t happen.” Shifting gears, she kept on her personal path to honor the history. In 2009, with friends and family, she founded LTFC.
“But that’s why for so long, the only time we talked about it was when we three were together, because we really didn’t think people were interested in it.”Gail Etienne
By 2015, the Orleans Parish School Board had designated the former McDonogh 19 as a “surplus property.” Whittled away by neglect and damage from Katrina’s storm surge, it was deemed too expensive to repair. Time, Tate feared, was running out. She connected with developer Benjamin Warnke and his team from Alembic, which focuses on creating affordable housing and community facilities in underserved neighborhoods in New York City and New Orleans. They provided her with the assistance and guidance she had sought. “They were the first persons who told me that my vision could be done,” she says.
She also learned of a new wrinkle: The Orleans Parish School Board had put up a “for sale” sign. A couple of community members who knew what she was attempting to do gave her a call. She collected herself, stood before the school board, and gave a presentation. “Even there, nobody knew the history of the building. Well, I guess God was with me that day, because they all decided to take the sign down.”
Going forward, she continued to steel herself and share her experience: “Whenever there was a meeting or when we needed to meet with someone who needed to be involved, I just presented my story, the history as I remembered it. … That was the sales pitch.” It didn’t just speak to people, but also filled in gaps, making many residents—even longtime New Orleanians—newly aware of the history that they walked atop and lived around.
Tremaine Knighten-Riley, who serves as LTFC’s program director, knows how large a personal step this has been for Tate. “She’s very humble about sharing her experience and her significance in the Civil Rights movement,” says Knighten-Riley, who got to know Tate as a coworker years ago. “One of the things that I always thought was interesting is that she didn’t even tell her children for a long time.”
For her part, Tate had her reasons: “I just wanted them to have a normal life ... [without] the attention.” Ultimately, she says, “I knew something would happen city-wide and that they would eventually find out. And that’s exactly what happened.” As a family, they attended a 23rd-anniversary celebration at New Orleans City Hall in 1983 that commemorated the desegregation and the girls’ roles. “My oldest must have been about 11 years old. I just watched the expression [change] on their faces.”
Her reserve isn’t about hiding history. The task of sharing the horrors of that first morning and the days, months, and years that followed, is—though she is not inclined to use the word—traumatic. “It’s overwhelming; I’m going to be honest with you,” she reflects. “It depends on who I’m talking to. Sometimes it’s emotional.” But if her journey, and survival, would secure support for her cause, so be it.
When Alembic’s New Orleans team met with Tate for the first time in 2016, her journey captivated them. “We were really motivated by the power of the narrative, the importance of the history of the building,” says Jonathan Leit, a director at Alembic. “And while we are real estate developers, we see our role ... as much more than bricks and mortar and buildings. We are trying to help others to achieve community impact through development.” They not only aligned with her mission, says Leit, “we became strong believers in it.”
From the outset, the team knew that configuring Tate’s dream to fit the challenges set before them would be a delicate process.
“One of the things that we worked on early on,” says Leit, “was figuring out the different uses in the building that could be financed up front and that could be sustained in the long run. And that included introducing affordable ... housing on the second and third floor.”
Tate took time to mull it over. “I was,” she admits, “truly against it at first.” She had hoped to use the whole building as a public community resource.
But for her, the interpretive element was the nonnegotiable feature. And as a team they were collectively looking at the long game. All in all, the goal was to be economically sustainable.
They began exploring funding options. “There are not many ... community development finance resources for community facilities,” says Leit. “Comparatively speaking, there are a ton for affordable housing. So we were able to attract millions of dollars toward redevelopment ... because of the affordable housing.”
Bottom line, the objective “is to thread the needle,” explains Leit. “What is financeable, what is sustainable, and then what still very much remains true to achieving and delivering Leona’s vision.”
In the end, incorporating the housing units would not only create an income source for the LTFC and its programming; the apartments also would help meet a need for the community. While she might have been hesitant at first, says Leit, “Leona came around and embraced it.” And, Leit stresses, “She was the one who said, ‘If we’re going to do it, it’s got to be seniors,’ because seniors had struggled to get back to the community. She really wanted that.”
Together, the LTFC and Alembic purchased McDonogh 19 in January of 2020 and embarked on the $16.2 million rehabilitation. Their funding for the redevelopment came from a combination of sources: federal New Markets Tax Credits, federal and state historic tax credits, the City of New Orleans, Louisiana Housing Corporation, the National Park Service, Reinvestment Fund, and additional public and private sources. The National Trust for Historic Preservation’s African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund contributed a $75,000 grant (donated by The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation) in 2020, as well as funding from Capital One for the Trust’s HOPE Crew preservation trades training program, which completed work on four staircases inside the school in the spring of 2021. As a partner in the National Trust’s “Where Women Made History” campaign, Benjamin Moore & Co. gave 700 gallons of paint for the building’s interior.
Sites receiving historic tax credits must follow the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for Rehabilitation, and those guidelines are often focused on architectural integrity. The immediate challenge was moving forward with the renovation of a building that wasn’t being saved for its physical features but for history’s sake. “There are these standards that are the rules, these tablets in granite,” says Mike Grote, Alembic’s director of building programs in New Orleans. “And we realized that we might have to shatter a few.”
In the case of McDonogh 19, the hallway where the girls spent most of their first day emerged as a sticking point. Hallways, says Grote, are among the details the standards identify as “character-defining” for schools, so trying to both create an exhibition area and construct subtle ingress and egress for the apartment units proved to be contentious.
“Up until November 14, 1960, the center hallway of the school is the character-defining place,” Grote says. But after that, the girls didn’t spend time in that part of the building—they largely stayed on the ground floor for their classes—so in terms of the history, it became less important. This shift required rethinking preservation guidelines so that the hallway space could be reimagined and updated. After considerable back and forth, the team eventually was granted permission to move forward with the plans to create the openings it needed for access to the rental units. The experience “opened up a kind of Pandora’s Box of what and whose history are we preserving?” says Grote. “We need to preserve buildings for the stories and the people and events that happened there, and not just for the beauty of the architecture.”
“I don’t want them to take my story because it’s sad and do something negative with it. I want them to do something positive with it.”Leona Tate
In addition to the construction dilemmas, while everyone knew to make contingency plans for hurricane season, no one saw a pandemic on the horizon. But other than some delivery delays and slow-downs from workers’ distancing adjustments due to COVID protocols, they’ve been able to keep up a steady pace. “We got three storms and two direct hits. We lost our roof ... [and] had to replace it,” says Grote. But they’ve kept pressing. “This is the little project that could ... Everything you can think that could work against it is working against it. But it keeps going.”
Like Leona Tate.
“She was determined,” says Etienne, who will travel from her home in Tulsa, Oklahoma, to celebrate the building’s opening day this fall. “I’m so proud of her ... this is her baby. And I’m just glad that we are being given an opportunity to remind those who have forgotten. That the true and full story gets out there. That’s all we’ve ever wanted, really. Thank God it is finally happening.”
Prevost, too, will make her way from LaPlace, Louisiana, to join “my sisters forever,” she says. “This has all been in Leona’s heart and mind for a while. She stepped out on faith. Even quit her job to make this happen,” continues Prevost, who sees the project as a step to healing larger racial divisions. “We have to come together [as people] and forget all of this foolishness. That’s what we need to do.”
No matter the postponements and pauses, to Tate’s mind it’s never too late to make things right. Touring the site in the spring of 2021, she says the transformation in recent weeks has been remarkable.
“Yesterday, when I walked in and the walls were white, I had to say, ‘Now, where am I?’ They are really coming along well!”
With each step, the dream moves toward reality.
What must it feel like to walk in after all these years and all that has passed, and find that she’s in charge? To think, This is mine.
“No, no,” she’s quick to respond. “I don’t think about it that way.”
She believes it is the community’s. Always should have been. And now will be.
In steadily shepherding this center into existence, here again Tate is breaking through barriers. “This project affirms the importance of uncovering lost or under-recognized history, particularly in communities of color,” says Leit. “We hope that it is precedent-setting, so that some things can take a more assertive, aggressive approach to [historic preservation] standards.” Essentially, he adds, “it will give these buildings and these stories that otherwise don’t have a shot a chance to come back in different ways.”
The same goes for the neighborhood, and the people who make it up. It’s what Tate hopes the center will drive home. “I want people to recognize that the Lower Ninth Ward is New Orleans. It shouldn’t be thrown away the way that it has been. I really want educators and students to know that there is a better outcome,” she explains. But what’s most important to a woman who has been intentional with her words and actions for more than a half-century? “I don’t want them to take my story because it’s sad and do something negative with it. I want them to do something positive with it. And I feel like this can be a place of racial healing, really. And bring this community together.”
Walking over that threshold 60 years ago, Tate opened a circle she hopes to close: “That’s where I was first introduced to racism. It started there. It can end there.”
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