Leona Tate and two other six-year-old African-American girls, Gail Etienne and Tessie Prevost, made history in 1960 when they integrated the McDonogh 19 elementary school in New Orleans’ Lower Ninth Ward. Though parents pulled literally every other student out of the school within hours of their arrival, leaving the three girls as the school’s only students, the girls were educated for two years at the site, having to avoid daily threats and berating from protesters.
Today the school, more recently known as Louis D. Armstrong Elementary, sits empty, and has since 2004. Tate has been passionate about the site since her fateful schooling there, and today she is committed to seeing it reopen as an asset to the community. “I always hoped it could reopen as a school,” she said recently. “But they made the decision to close it.” Its vacancy has led Tate to think creatively about what the empty school could be — and the National Park Service recently invested in her plan, awarding her foundation with $500,000 towards the building’s revitalization.
Tate, through the Leona Tate Foundation for Change, plans to buy the school and open a museum dedicated to Civil Rights in New Orleans and the integration experience. Exactly how much of New Orleans’ civil rights history is explored within the museum remains to be seen, however. “Leona Tate’s story, and the courage the little girls and their families showed, drives the whole project,” said Benjamin Warnke of Alembic Community Development, an organization partnering with Tate’s foundation to redevelop the school. “But where does the story begin? In 1718? 1865? 1954, or 1960?”
Tate and Warnke have been working with the acclaimed International Coalition of Sites of Conscience to help answer some of these questions. Officials with the Coalition have visited New Orleans to tour the school, interview veterans of the civil rights movement, local officials and others, and brainstorm with Tate and Warnke. Though the scope of the museum has yet to be decided, the project holds huge implications for the neighborhood and for the collective remembrance of this critical era in New Orleans’ history.
The massive building — Warnke estimates it to be between 35,000 and 40,000 total square feet — can hold much more than just a museum, though. The International Coalition of Sites of Conscience is helping Tate and Alembic figure out that lingering question, too. Possible other uses for how to redevelop the rest of the building have included developing housing for low-income seniors. “No matter what, we need to figure out how to redevelop the school so that it is a vital part of this community,” Warnke.
The Leona Tate Foundation is still in the process of buying the building, which could cost as much as $14 million to renovate. The NPS grant is a sizeable chunk of that total, but there’s still a lot to go. “We’re brainstorming on fundraising ideas,” Tate said, adding that she was honored to be one of only 39 projects nationwide to receive a grant award. Stay tuned as plans for this important site develop.