New Orleans Civil Rights Markers

Winston Ho 何嶸.  
University of New Orleans,
Department of History 紐奧良大學歷史學系.

https://nolachinese.wordpress.com
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2020 Jun. 17, Wednesday (revised 2021 Jul. 3, Saturday).


McDonogh 19 - 1 (WH, 2020)
[Historical marker for McDonogh 19, on the neutral ground at 5909 St. Claude Avenue between Gordon St. and Albo St. in the Lower Ninth Ward.  Photograph by Winston Ho, 2020.] 

The following photographs are from historical markers related to civil rights history in New Orleans — all installed between 2004 and 2019.  There are more of these markers in the city, and there are historic sites where markers have been proposed but have not yet been installed.  However, I have selected four markers and two public works of art that have the greatest significance to national U.S. history.  Since May of this year, I have been studying the Filipino American tombs at the St. Vincent De Paul Cemeteries in the Ninth Ward, and I took these photographs while I was in that part of the city.  I drove past Duncan Plaza (near the historic Chinatown), Claiborne Ave., and the Crescent City Connection bridge within days before the current stage of the Black Lives Matters movement began, so it seemed like a good idea to post these photographs now.  While these markers are not directly related to Asian American history in Louisiana, they are nonetheless of importance to anyone studying U.S. history.

Ho, Winston.  NolaChinese:  New Orleans Civil Rights Markers.  2020.  Accessed from Researching Chinese American History in New Orleans (https://nolachinese.wordpress.com/2020/06/17/new-orleans-civil-rights-markers/). 

Ho, Winston.  The Civil Rights Movement According to the Movies, Youtube playlist (https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLepmcWUt_wgb-9GF2PEP7NHmQbT2gmb4U).  


 [Tomb of the Unknown Slave on 1210 Governor Nicholls Street near Henriette Delille Street in Tremé.  The artist who created this monument is not known.  Photograph by Winston Ho, 2020.] 

The Tomb of the Unknown Slave is located on 1210 Governor Nicholls Street near Henriette Delille Street at St. Augustine Catholic Church in Tremé. It was installed in 2004 by parishioners of the church. The entire Tremé neighborhood, including the church, was built over former plantation grounds.  An unknown number of enslaved people are to believed to have worked and died here in the 1700s, buried in lost tombs, their names long forgotten.  In 1798, a real estate developer named Claude Tremé divided the former Morand Plantation into streets and residential housing, many of which he sold to free people of color.  Also known as Creoles of color or “Black Creoles,” these French-speaking and Catholic families were the descendants of enslaved African women and French or Spanish men.  Though considered inferior to Whites and subject to discrimination, free people of color could own land, operate businesses, send their children to school, and even own slaves.  In 1810, additional free people of color began migrating to the city as refugees from the Hatian Revolution in Saint-Domingue, and many of them also purchased houses in Tremé.  Tremé became a commercial and cultural center for African Americans in New Orleans, and continues to be a majority Black neighborhood to this day.

[St. Augustine Catholic Church on 1210 Governor Nicholls Street near Henriette Delille Street in Tremé.  Photographs by Winston Ho, 2020.  St Augustine Catholic Church Restoration Project official website (https://staugchurch.org/restoration-project).  St. Augustine is currently engaged in a major fundraising campaign to restore their church.  For more information, please visit their website.

Land adjacent to the St. Augustine Catholic Church had been previously owned by the Ursuline Nuns, and later the Sisters of Mount Carmel, who operated a convent, orphanage, and school for girls in Tremé from 1840 until 1920, when they moved to their current campus in the Lakeview neighborhood.  The St. Augustine Catholic Church and parish was founded with the permission of Archbishop Antoine Blanc in 1841, with segregated pews for whites, free people of color, and enslaved Africans.  In 1842, a group of free woman of color led by Henriette Delille formed the Sisters of the Holy Family (Souers de la Sainte Famille, SSF) at St. Augustine to establish an orphanage and school for African American and Native American girls.  The nuns continue to operate that parochial school for girls to this day, now known as St. Mary’s Academy in New Orleans East, and Henriette Delille is currently under consideration for canonization as a Catholic saint.

Sources. 

St. Augustine Catholic Church official website (https://staugchurch.org/). 

St Augustine Catholic Church Restoration Project official website (https://staugchurch.org/restoration-project).  [St. Augustine is currently engaged in a major fundraising campaign to restore their church.  For more information, please visit their website.]

“St. Augustine Catholic Church.”  Accessed from New Orleans Historical (https://neworleanshistorical.org/items/show/551). 

St. Mary’s Academy of New Orleans official website (https://smaneworleans.com/history-2/).

City of New Orleans, Historical District Landmarks Commission.  Treme Historic District. 2011. Accessed from the New Orleans HDLC website (http://www.nola.gov/nola/media/HDLC/Historic%20Districts/Treme.pdf). 

Crescent City Living.  “Treme – A New Orleans Neighborhood.”  Accessed from Youtube (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tKmfeCO6hBI).  

Elie, Lolis Eric, and Logsdon, Dawn.  Faubourg Tremé – The Untold Story of Black New Orleans.  Serendipity Films, 2013.  More information about this documentary can be accessed from its official website (http://www.tremedoc.com/).  

“Tremé.”  Living With History in New Orleans’ Neighborhoods.  Preservation Resource Center, c. 2000s.  Accessed from the Preservation Resource Center (https://prcno.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/06/Treme.pdf).

Toledano, Christovich, and Swanson.  New Orleans Architecture, Volume VI:  Faubourg Tremé and the Bayou Road, p. 16-17.  Gretna, Louisiana:  Pelican Publishing, 1980.  

Gibson, Charisse.  “Tremé:  How ‘Urban Renewal’ destroyed the cultural heart of New Orleans.”  WWL-TV (2019 Nov. 26).  Accessed from WWL-TV (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1AIG7HwM7y0).  


[Historical marker for Straight University on the neutral ground at 1631 Esplanade Avenue and North Derbigny Street in Tremé.  Photographs by Winston Ho, 2020.] 

The historical marker for Straight University is located on the neutral ground at 1631 Esplanade Avenue and North Derbigny Street in Tremé.  It was installed in 2019 by Dillard University, the Preservation Resource Center, and the Plessy and Ferguson Foundation.  Straight University was a private university founded during Reconstruction in 1869 by the American Missionary Association (AMA), an abolitionist society affiliated with the Congregationalist Church (the modern United Church of Christ).  Straight was named after one its of wealthy White sponsors, a cheese and butter manufacturer, philanthropist, and outspoken abolitionist and civil rights advocate from Hudson, Ohio, named Seymour Straight (1816-1896).  Straight University was one of the first schools established in the American South for the higher education of African Americans, and it was primarily known for training students for careers in teaching, law, and medicine.  Its graduates included many community leaders and civil rights activists of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century.  The original campus building on Esplanade Avenue was destroyed by arsonists when Reconstruction ended in 1877.  Straight moved to the corner of Canal Street and Tonti Street, where it remained for six decades.  In 1935, Straight merged with another Reconstruction-era Black college, New Orleans University, forming Dillard University, and moved to its present campus on Gentilly Blvd. in the Gentilly neighborhood.  Dillard University is today considered one of the oldest and most prestigious historically black colleges in the country.  

Sources. 

Dillard University official website (http://www.dillard.edu/_about-dillard/history-of-dillard.php).

Records for S. Straight & Co.  Hudson Library and Historical Society, Hudson, Ohio.  Finding aid accessed from Ohiolink (http://ead.ohiolink.edu/xtf-ead/view?docId=ead/OHdHLH0008.xml;chunk.id=bioghist_1;brand=default).  [There is conflicting information about Seymour Straight, and some secondary sources describe him as a “wholesale grocer” from New Orleans.  However there is a Seymour Straight historic site and a collection of his papers in Hudson, Ohio, so this seems to be the same person who raised money to support the university in its earliest years.] 

Hasselle, Della.  “Dillard University looks to the future as it celebrates 150 years in New Orleans.”  Times-Picayune (2019 May 10).  Accessed from the Times-Picayune (https://www.nola.com/news/education/article_c2de4454-4801-55de-9f6c-691e55f243ad.html). 

Gipson, Becky O’Malley.  “Education during the Reconstruction:  The Genesis of Straight University.”  Preservation In Print (2017 Nov.).  Accessed from the Preservation Resource Center (https://prcno.org/education-reconstruction-genesis-straight-university/).

Toledano, Christovich, and Swanson.  New Orleans Architecture:  Faubourg Tremé and the Bayou Road, Volume VI, p. 100.  Gretna, Louisiana:  Pelican Publishing, 1980. Accessed from Google Books (https://books.google.com/books?id=vM5PQS8shnYC&pg=PA100&lpg=PA100#v=onepage&q&f=false).  


[Historical marker for Plessy v. Ferguson on Homer Plessy Way (formerly Press Street) and Royal Street in the Ninth Ward, near the campus of NOCCA.  Photographs by Winston Ho, 2020.]

The historical marker for the Plessy v. Ferguson Supreme court decision is located on Homer Plessy Way (formerly Press Street) and Royal Street in the Ninth Ward, near the campus of the New Orleans Center for the Creative Arts (NOCCA).  It was installed in 2009 by NOCCA and the Crescent City Peace Alliance, with support from the descendants of Homer Plessy and John Ferguson.  Homer Plessy Way was originally known as Press Street, but renamed in 2018. Racial segregation had existed in New Orleans as an informal custom since the colonial era, when enslaved Africans were denied the rights enjoyed by free people of color, and free people color were denied rights enjoyed by Whites.  Even the poorest European immigrants enjoyed a few freedoms denied to wealthy Black Creoles whose families had lived in the city for generations.  But with the emancipation of all enslaved people following the Civil War, Southern cities like New Orleans struggled to define a new racial hierarchy, with some calling on all African Americans to be treated as citizens equal to Whites, and others calling on White supremacy to be maintained through force of law.  

One result of this conflict was the passage of Jim Crow Laws after Reconstruction, including the Separate Car Act of 1890, passed by the Louisiana State Legislature to require “equal, but separate” seating for Whites and people of color on all trains in the state.  A multiracial group of activists from New Orleans called the Citizens’ Committee (Comité des Citoyens) was formed to challenged this law in the court system.  The Committee included many graduates of Straight University, such Louis Martinet and Rodolph Desdunes, and they adopted a test case involving a shoemaker from Tremé named Homer Adloph Plessy (1863-1925).  Plessy was a Creole of color with 1/8th African ancestry and could easily pass for White.  But in 1892, Plessy was arrested at the Press Street Depot in the Ninth Ward and imprisoned for sitting in the Whites-only section of a train bound for Covington on the East Louisiana Railroad.  The original judge in that criminal case was John Howard Ferguson (1838-1915), a native of Massachusetts who moved to New Orleans after the Civil War.  Judge Ferguson ruled that Plessy had violated the Separate Car Act and fined him $25.  Plessy refused to pay, and the case was appealed in the Louisiana Supreme Court Case before reaching the U.S. Supreme Court in 1896.  

The Citizens’ Committee argued that the Separate Car Act was illegal under the 1868 Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, which declared that, “All persons born or naturalized in the United States…  are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside.  No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States…”  In other words, no law could exclude African American citizens from the rights enjoyed by White citizens, or treat African Americans as if they were inferior to Whites.  However, the Supreme Court stated in the Plessy v. Ferguson decision that, “The object of the amendment was undoubtedly to enforce the absolute equality of the two races before the law, but in the nature of things it could not have been intended to abolish distinctions based upon color, or a commingling of the two races upon terms unsatisfactory to either…  Laws permitting, and even requiring, their separation in places where they are liable to be brought into contact do not necessarily imply the inferiority of either race to the other…”  In other words, there is a natural difference between Blacks and Whites, and it is natural to separate them in society as long as their treatment is the same.  For the next sixty years, the decision protected other segregationist laws throughout the United States under the doctrine of “separate but equal,” including laws protecting segregated schools.  

[“These Are Times” mural on Homer Plessy Way (formerly Press Street) between Royal Street and Dauphine Street in the Ninth Ward, near NOCCA.  Painted by students led by local artist Ayo Scott.  Photographs by Winston Ho, 2020.] 

The Plesssy v. Ferguson marker is located on land managed by NOCCA, and there is a mural here entitled These Are Times,” painted by school students led by the local artist Ayo Scott.  The mural was installed in 2018, and it consists of a collage of symbols and historical figures related to Civil Rights history in New Orleans, including Ruby Bridges, an African American first-grader who became one of the first students to attend a desegregated public school in the South in 1960.  The mural concludes with references to the campaign to remove Confederate monuments in the city from the 2010s.  By the way, it was hard to see or photograph this mural because so many small trees were in the way.  One day, NOCCA should consider removing the trees, place a grassy area in front of the mural, and put more benches and trees along Homer Plessy Way for shade.  

Sources. 

Plessy v. Fergson supreme court decision, 1896.  Accessed from the Library of Congress (http://cdn.loc.gov/service/ll/usrep/usrep163/usrep163537/usrep163537.pdf). 

“Plessy v. Ferguson Summary.”  Quimbee, 2017.  Accessed from Youtube (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vsDTqtyiNZk).  

Plessy and Ferguson Foundation for Education and Reconciliation official website (https://www.plessyandferguson.org/history-plessy-v-ferguson).  

Ayo Scott official website (http://ayoscott.com/news/).  

Medley, Keith Weldon.  We As Freemen:  Plessy v. Ferguson, p. 95-223.  Gretna, Louisiana:  Pelican Publishing, 2003.  [Medley’s detailed and thoroughly researched book is the definitive source of information on Plessy v. Ferguson.  The book explains the Reconstruction-era attempts to establish private schools and colleges for African American students.  The book also describes the origin of the segregated public school system that appeared after the Plessy v. Ferguson decision was made.  According to Medley, “the Orleans Parish School Board acted to ensure that black public-school students would never have an opportunity for any education beyond menial labor…  The board’s education committee jettisoned any pretension to equality,” p. 213.] 

Reckdahl, Katy.  “Plessy and Ferguson unveil plaque today marking their ancestors’ actions.”  Times-Picayune (2009 Feb. 11).  Accessed from the Times-Picayune (https://www.nola.com/news/article_a11a310a-0f86-54f6-9a34-89372abf0c91.html).  


[Historical marker for the McDonogh 19 Elementary School on the neutral ground at 5909 St. Claude Avenue between Gordon Street and Albo Street in the Lower Ninth Ward.  Photographs by Winston Ho, 2020.] 

The historical marker for the McDonogh 19 Elementary School is located on the neutral ground at 5909 St. Claude Avenue between Gordon Street and Albo Street in the Lower Ninth Ward.  The marker was installed in 2010 by the Crescent City Peace Alliance and the Plessy and Ferguson Foundation for Education and Reconciliation, a historical society founded by the descendants of Homer Plessy and John Ferguson.  McDonogh 19 is named after a wealthy shipping merchant and landowner from Baltimore, Maryland, named John McDonogh (1779-1850). McDonogh lived in New Orleans for much of his adult life, where he owned a sugar plantation on the Westbank (in what is now Gretna and Algiers) and dozens of enslaved people.  McDonogh was also an infamous miser.  He never married or had children, and he hoarded his considerable wealth.  Nonetheless, he allowed his slaves to purchase their freedom after fifteen years, and he supported the settlement of freed slaves in the African colony of Liberia.  In his will, he donated almost all of his fortune to the construction of public schools for both poor Whites and free people of Color in Baltimore and New Orleans.  For more than a century after his death, public schools in both cities were named in his honor and built using the funds he left behind.

McDonogh 19 was an elementary school built in 1919 by the Orleans Parish School Board (OPSB).  Since the supreme court decision Plessy v. Ferguson in 1896, all public schools in New Orleans and other school districts in the United States were racially segregated under the doctrine of “separate but equal.”  But in reality, “White” and “Colored” public schools were never equal, as African Americans had no political power and little control over the decisions made for their schools.  Colored schools were consistently provided inferior facilities, obsolete and worn-out textbooks, less funding, and fewer qualified teachers compared to White schools.  African Americans experienced similar unequal treatment in libraries, public transportation, restaurants, stores, public parks, and other places.  

In 1954, the U.S. Supreme Court rendered its decision in Brown v. Topeka Board of Education, a case originating in Topeka, Kansas, where the public school system was also segregated.  The case ruled that “in the field of public education the doctrine of ‘separate but equal’ has no place.  Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.  Therefore, we hold that the plaintiffs…  [are] by reason of the segregation complained of, deprived of the equal protection of the laws guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment.”  The decision effectively reversed Plessy v. Ferguson and ordered that every school system in the United States must end segregation and allow White and Black students to attend the same schools.  However, the Supreme Court never gave a timetable for when schools should be desegregated, and the Orleans Parish School Board delayed desegregation as long as possible to protect its White schools. Over the next few years, OPSB was sued several times by Alexander Pierre “A.P.” Tureaud Sr. (1899-1972), the attorney representing the Louisiana chapter of the National Association for the Advancement for Colored Persons (NAACP).  The NAACP was the same organization that brought the Brown v. Topeka case to the U.S. Supreme Court, and they were now fighting battles in federal courts throughout the country to end racial discrimination.  In May of 1960, a federal judge in New Orleans named James Skelley Wright (1911-1988) ruled in favor of the NAACP and ordered that OPSB begin desegregating in the next school year.  Governor Jimmie Davis (1899-2000) and the Louisiana State Legislature passed numerous laws and executive orders to stop desegregation, including threats to defund and close them.  The state legislature even attempted to transfer control of the schools in New Orleans from OPSB to a new school board appointed by the governor.  The school year had already started in September when all of these laws were ruled unconstitutional in federal court, allowing integration to began on November 14, 1960.  

OPSB adopted a grade-by-grade integration plan, so that the first-grade would be desegregated first, then the second-grade, so that it would take at least twelve years to desegregate the entire system.  They also limited the first group of African American students who could attend White schools using a battery of aptitude tests to screen applicants (to protect White students from slower Black students).  The NAACP encouraged eligible African American families to apply for a transfer to a White school, but of the 137 applications, only five girls passed all of the requirements.  Of the five families, one feared retaliation and kept their daughter at a Colored school.  Another girl, Ruby Bridges, attended the William Frantz School in the Upper Ninth Ward.  Three first-graders — Gail Etienne, Tessie Prevost, and Leona Tate — attended McDonogh 19, where they became known as a the “McDonogh Three.”  They became the first African American students to attend a desegregated public elementary school in the American South. 

Etienne, Prevost, and Tate were the only students to complete the first-grade at McDonogh 19 in 1961.  They attended the only class, taught by a Mrs. Meyers.  All of the other students had withdrawn because the White families refused to send their children to same school as Colored children.  In the fall, the three girls were joined by two more African American students and a few White students, but in 1962, McDonogh 19 was re-segregated as a Colored school.  The NAACP then demanded that OPSB send the students, now third-graders, to another White elementary school.  Many more legal battles took place, and New Orleans would not have a fully integrated public school system until the 1970s.  McDonogh 19 remained open until it was flooded by Hurricane Katrina in 2005, like most of the surrounding Ninth Ward.  The school was left abandoned for fifteen years, but there are currently plans to rebuild the campus as a Civil Rights interpretive center and home for the elderly.  Construction workers were present when I visited the site in 2020.  

Sources. 

Brown v. Topeka Board of Education supreme court decision, 1954.  Accessed from the Library of Congress (http://cdn.loc.gov/service/ll/usrep/usrep347/usrep347483/usrep347483.pdf). 

“Brown v. Board of Education Summary.”  Quimbee, 2015.  Accessed from Youtube (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=B-Pe3BTa1O8).  

Orleans Parish School Board official website (https://nolapublicschools.com/about/whoweare/history). 

Orleans Parish School Board. “It’s Up to You.” 1953.  Accessed from the Cowen Institute at Tulane University (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Dv8h7NjF48o).  [This is a fascinating 24-minute film produced by OPSB in 1953.  The film depicts New Orleans during the post-war era, when the city was growing rapidly, reaching a peak population of 627,000 by the end of the decade.  New construction was taking place throughout the city to accommodate new families and business.  Likewise, the baby boomer generation was reaching school age by 1953, and new schools were built, while old schools were renovated.  However, the careful viewer will note that the city was deeply segregated in 1953, with separate classrooms for Whites and Colored.  The film contrasts a modern and spacious White school with an antiquated and crowded Colored school.  The film also shows a Colored school were students could only attend class in shifts, with half of the students attending in the morning, and the other half in the afternoon, because there wasn’t enough space for all of them.  Historically and into the present day, OPSB has always struggled to secure enough funding for teachers and adequate facilities for all of its students.  Even White schools often lacked enough desks and textbooks, especially in working-class neighborhoods such as the Ninth Ward.  It was in this context that, in 1960, African American parents fought to send their children to the better funded White schools, and White parents fought back to stop African American students from flooding into them.] 

Etienne, Prevost, and Tate.  “We Were Born to Do This.”  Amistad Research Center at Tulane University, 2004.  Accessed from Youtube (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ydjykOqenW8).  

Leona Tate Foundation official website (https://www.leonatatefoundation.org/mcdonogh-19). 

Tate, Etienne, and Prevost Center (https://www.tepcenter.org/tep-center).  

Tate, Leona.  “Gliding past mobs, toward an education.”  Times-Picayune (2004 May 20).  Accessed from Tulane University (http://www.tulanelink.com/tulanelink/leonatate_box.htm).  

Tate, Leona.  “NOLA Resistance Oral History Project:  Public School Integration.”  Historic New Orleans Collection, 2019.  Accessed from Youtube (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gilibA09KqA).  

National Park Service “McDonogh 19 Elementary School.”  National Register of Historic Places Nomination.  Accessed from the National Park Service (https://www.nps.gov/nr/feature/places/pdfs/16000672.pdf). 

Devore, Donald E., and Logsdon, Joseph.  Crescent City Schools:  Public Education in New Orleans, p. 235-250.  Lafayette, Louisiana:  University of Southwestern Louisiana Press, 1991.  [According to Devore and Logsdon, OPSB was originally committed to resisting desegregation, but like the mayor, OPSB was unwilling to close its schools to achieve this.  After years of delay, it reluctantly began desegregating schools to “minimize the effect of the Brown decision,” p. 250.] 

Ferguson, Phoebe.  “Ceremony Honoring the McDonogh Three with US Marshals.”  2015 Aug. 12.  Accessed from Youtube (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=v3HVtwznmdA).  

Reckdahl, Katy.  “‘The McDonogh 3’ help unveil historical marker at their 1960 school.”  Times-Picayune (2010 Nov. 14).  Accessed from the Times-Picayune (https://www.nola.com/news/education/article_c10b1497-3208-5b6b-89d3-3e5aaf418503.html).  

Reckdahl, Katy.  “Leona Tate helped desegregate schools in New Orleans;  now, she wants others to learn that history.”  Times-Picayune (2019 Jan. 2).  Accessed from the Times-Picayune (https://www.nola.com/news/education/article_b10dfdfb-344e-515e-b94b-89d40c442ef5.html). 


[Historical marker for the William T. Frantz Elementary School on the campus of the modern William Frantz charter school at 3811 North Galvez Street between Pauline Street and Alvar Street in the Upper Ninth Ward.  Photographs by Winston Ho, 2020.]

The historical marker for the William T. Frantz Elementary School is located on the campus of the historic school at 3811 North Galvez Street between Pauline Street and Alvar Street in the Upper Ninth Ward.  The marker was installed in 2015.  William Frantz was built in 1937, and it remained open until it was flooded by Hurricane Katrina in 2005.  The school was renovated and has served as the campus of the Akili Academy charter school since 2013.  Divided by the industrial canal, the Upper and Lower Ninth Ward was a racially mixed but poor part of New Orleans, along the Mississippi River between the French Quarter and St. Bernard Parish.  The integration of New Orleans public schools began in the Ninth Ward on November 14, 1960.  While Gail Etienne, Tessie Prevost, and Leona Tate became the first African American students to attend the previously all-White McDonogh 19 School in the Lower Ninth Ward, a six-year-old first-grader named Ruby Bridges (1954-present) did the same at William Frantz.  

Ms. Bridges arrived for her first day of class with her mother, Lucille Bridges, and an escort of armed federal marshals, sent by president Dwight EisenhowerThey were met by a crowd of angry parents, as well as protesters from neighboring St. Bernard Parish.  Being from New Orleans, Bridges thought the crowd was there to watch a Mardi Gras parade, and at first, she didn’t know they were protesters.  The protesters held signs, yelled, threw eggs and tomatoes at her car, and carried a coffin with a black doll inside.  Even New Orleans police officers, a few of whom who had children at the school, attempted to stop Ruby Bridges from entering, but were forced to step aside by the marshals.  There were also protesters at McDonogh 19, though in smaller numbers.  Because there was only one Black student at William Frantz, the protesters apparently sensed she was more vulnerable, and they appeared at her school in larger numbers to force her to leave.  One the first day, the school refused to seat Ruby Bridges in class, and by the afternoon, all of the other students had been removed from school by their parents

On the evening of November 15, the Greater New Orleans White Citizens’ Council (GNOCC) and one of its leaders, a former judge and district attorney from Plaquemines Parish named Leander Perez (1891-1969), organized a pro-segregationist rally at the Municipal Auditorium near Basin Street.  An estimated 5000 people attended this event.  The next day, thousands of segregationist protesters amassed in front of City Hall, but were dispersed by the New Orleans Police Department (NOPD) armed with fire hoses and officers on motorcycles and horseback.  The protesters then wandered the Central Business District, breaking windows, and throwing bottles and bricks at cars and automobiles with African American passengers.  In the evening, hundreds of African Americans began their own counter-protest.  Hundreds, mostly African Americans, were arrested.  Unlike state officials at the capitol in Baton Rouge, mayor DeLesseps Morrison (1912-1964) and the New Orleans City Council refused to interfere in the desegregation of the city’s public schools.  However, they were sympathetic to segregation and encouraged “peaceful” protest.  The mayor gave a televised speech calling for “law and order” and an end to the violence.  He called on parents to return their children to school, but he also defended their right to protest, ordering the New Orleans police to maintain order on the streets around William Frantz and McDonogh 19 and stop any protesters who became violent.  The protests continued for weeks. 

Meanwhile, the father of Ruby Bridges, Abon Bridges, was fired from his job in retaliation for the situation at William Frantz, and the local grocery refused to sell to Ruby’s mother.  Threats of violence were made against the family at their home.  The parents of the three students at McDonogh 19 were likewise threatened and fired from their jobs.  Threats were even made against White parents who tried to return their children to school, so while McDonogh 19 and William Frantz normally had a student population of 1000 each, nearly all of the other students refused to return.  In St. Bernard Parish, the White Citizens’ Council and Leander Perez established a new private school near the parish line in a warehouse — the Arabi Elementary Annex — to accommodate White students from McDonogh 19 and William Frantz.  Students were also allowed to transfer to the White schools in St. Bernard Parish, and free buses were provided to transport them. 

However, a teacher named Barbara Henry (1932-present), a native of Massachusetts, remained at William Frantz and agreed to teach Ruby Bridges.  For the rest of the school year, Mrs. Henry taught a class with only one student.  Everyday, the federal marshals drove Ruby Bridges to school, remained there all day, drove her home, and remained in front of her house to protect her.  Federal marshals also protected the three African American students at McDonogh 19.  On the second day after integration began, the parents of two White students returned their children to William Frantz — six-year-old Yolanda Gabrielle and five-year-old Pam Foreman.  An organization of sympathetic Whites known as Save Our Schools agreed to protect Yolanda and her mother, Daisy Gabrielle, from protesters and drive them to and from school every day.  A truck chased and attempted to ram the car carrying Yolanda Gabrielle.  On November 19, 400 protesters followed her home and smashed the windows of her house.  By December, at least 23 White children had returned to William Frantz under the protection of Save Our Schools.  They were accused of being “traitors” by the protesters and endured similar harassment and threats as Ruby Bridges.  However, the attempt to escort the White children to school failed when the license plates and phone numbers of the members of Save Our Schools was leaked to the public by the White Citizens’ Council.  As Yolanda later recalled as an adult, the irony is that William Frantz continued to segregate its classes, with Ruby Bridges with her own teacher and her own classroom, and the White students in different classrooms with different teachers.  Ruby Bridges knew there were other students attending her school, but was not allowed to see them.  

Yolanda remained in class until December, when her father, James Gabrielle, quit his job after weeks of harassment and threats and moved the family to his home state of Rhode Island.  In January, two brothers, Michael and Gregory Thompson, returned to McDonogh 19, after taking the bus to school in St. Bernard Parish for two months.  However, their father, John Thompson, was fired from his job when protesters appeared at his place of work, and their family was also forced to leave the city.  As for Pam Foreman, bomb threats had been made against her family, but her father, a Methodist minister named Lloyd Anderson “Andy” Foreman (1926-2005), walked his daughter to William Frantz everyday, and he moved the family between the homes of other ministers rather than leave the city.  Only Pam Foreman remained until the end of the school year.  In the spring of 1961, Ruby Bridges and Pam Foreman became the only students to complete the first grade at an integrated William Frantz school.  

William Frantz - Rockwell, Norman - The Problem We All Live With (1964)[“The Problem We All Live With,” based on Ruby Bridges and the desegregation of the William Frantz elementary school in the Upper Ninth Ward of New Orleans.  Painted in 1960 by Norman Rockwell.  The painting is part of the collection at the Norman Rockwell Museum.] 

The “desegregation crisis” in New Orleans was national news, and the “New Orleans Four” received letters of support from around the country.  The Bridges family received one from former first lady Eleanor Roosevelt (1884-1962).  In 1964, the artist Norman Rockwell (1894-1978) immortalized the desegregation of William Frantz in the painting The Problem We All Live With.”  The painting features Bridges surrounded by federal marshals attempting to enter her school.  The painting was commissioned by Rockwell’s employer, Look magazine, and it was originally an oil on canvas painting before publication.  Rockwell had not personally witnessed the events in New Orleans, so instead, he painted “The Problem We All Live With” based on photographs and news reports.  The following year, Rockwell also painted “Murder In Mississippi” for the cover of Look magazine, depicting the murder of three civil rights activists by the Ku Klux Klan in 1964.  Rockwell later said that his previous employer, the Saturday Evening Post, had a policy of only allowing African Americans to be depicted as servants, and that he was once forced to paint an African American out of a group picture because of this policy.  Art historians believe he deliberately searched for opportunities to create paintings such “The Problem” and “Murder In Mississippi” to correct the prejudice that had appeared in his earlier works.  

[Statue dedicated to first-grader Ruby Bridges in the courtyard of the modern William Frantz charter school.  Photographs by Winston Ho, 2020.] 

In 1999, Ruby Bridges Hall, now married and a mother of her own children, published a bestselling children’s book about her first year at William Frantz.  In 2015, a statue was installed in her honor in the courtyard of the William Frantz school.  But while the integration of the Orleans Parish public schools was successful, thousands of White families abandoned the Ninth Ward in the 1960s and 1970s, moving to predominantly White neighborhoods, such as nearby St. Bernard Parish.  The Ninth Ward became a predominantly African American neighborhood, and today over 95% of the students at the modern Akili Academy are African American.  In 2004, Leona Tate from McDonogh 19, as an adult, wrote an editorial in the Times-Picayune stating that “the intent of African-Americans in pursuing integration has been woefully misconstrued.  The primary focus was never our being able to sit next to white children in a classroom, as much as it was about equality in books, classroom and gymnastic facilities, etc.  We wanted current, up-to-date books and quality scholastic materials, just like our white counterparts.  It was never about ‘forced integration,’ but was and is still about fairness and equality.”  

Sources. 

Akili Academy official website (http://akiliacademy.org/about/our-campus/). 

National Park Service.  “Frantz, William School, Orleans Parish, LA.”  National Register of Historic Places Nomination.  Accessed from the National Park Service (https://npgallery.nps.gov/NRHP/GetAsset/NRHP/05000557_text). 

Bridges Hall, Ruby.  Through My Eyes.  Scholastic Press, 1999. 

Roberts, Sally Ann.  “Ruby Bridges Anniversary.”  WWL-TV, 2010. Accessed from Youtube (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d0wBXETJyHY).  

Bridges, Lucille.  “Ruby Bridges:  Story behind the story.”  KHOU Houston (2016 Feb. 14).  Accessed from KHOU (https://www.khou.com/article/news/special-reports/ruby-bridges-story-behind-the-story/285-65311441).  [While the story of Ruby Bridges is well known, few people know the story of her parents Abon and Lucille.  Corporal Abon Bridges was a veteran of the Korean War and was awarded a purple heart during his service.  Lucille Bridges was raised in a family of Mississippi sharecroppers and picked cotton as a child, as she was not allowed to attend school “when there was work in the fields.”  The Bridges family originally lived in Tylertown, Mississippi, just north of the state line from Louisiana.  But after their first child, Ruby, was born, the family moved to New Orleans to find a better life.  Abon found work at a local service station.  At first, Abon opposed sending Ruby to a White school, fearing for her safety, but Lucille believed the White schools were better than the Colored schools, and she wanted the best education for her child.] 

Bridges, Lucille.  “My Story:  Mrs. Lucille Bridges.”  Spring Branch Independent School District, 2016.  Accessed from Youtube (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CoJ1NXclO4w).  

Devore, Donald E., and Logsdon, Joseph.  Crescent City Schools:  Public Education in New Orleans, p. 235-250.  Lafayette, Louisiana:  University of Southwestern Louisiana Press, 1991.  

Haas, Edward.  DeLesseps Morrison and the Image of Reform, p. 249-282.  Baton Rouge, Louisiana:  LSU Press, 1974.  [By 1960, DeLesseps Morrison was serving a fourth term as mayor of the city, and earlier that year, he had run for governor of Louisiana, losing to Jimmie Davis, who pledged to protect segregation at all costs.  Morrison’s official policy was that the mayor’s office should not interfere with the work of OPSB and its public schools.  He also believed that the “token integration” of four African American students would have little impact on the rest of the city.  At the time, Morrison was considered a progressive reformer with political support from both Blacks and Whites.  He supported increased funding for segregated Colored parks and schools and other policies that benefited the African American community.  But like many Southern leaders of the time, Morrison favored segregation, yet he was unwilling to break the law to protect it.  He opposed the federal court’s attempt to integrate schools, but he also opposed the governor’s plan to close them to prevent desegregation.  Instead, the mayor ordered the police to allow the pro-segregation protests to continue (though he supported the arrest of anti-segregation sit-in protesters on Canal Street around the same time).  He blamed the violent protests in front of City Hall on truant high school students, “outside agitators,” and sensationalized news reporting.  He accused the media of provoking the protesters and exaggerating the situation at William Frantz and McDonogh 19, though he never actually visited the schools nor spoke to any of the parents of the children there.  The mayor even praised the protesters and said they “behaved quite well and attempted no violence,” p. 269.  To be fair, most Whites in New Orleans shared the same opinion, and demonstrated indifference to both segregationists and the civil rights activists.  The majority of Whites did not support desegregation, but preferred to keep the schools open, even at the cost of “token integration.”

Reckdahl, Katy.  “Fifty years later, students recall integrating New Orleans public schools.”  Times-Picayune (2010 Nov. 14).  Accessed from the Times-Picayune (https://www.nola.com/news/politics/article_c087accd-5bb7-5940-b062-8deadb53d0fc.html).  

White, Jacquetta.  “Statue recalls young girl’s ordeal during desegregation of city’s schools.”  Times-Picayune (2015 Dec. 19).  Accessed from the Times-Picayune (https://www.nola.com/news/education/article_326f254c-18fe-5070-9b8a-9d3a76c615ef.html). 

Henry, Barbara.  “Barbara Henry, A civil rights crusader.”  Kiwanis, 2018.  Accessed from Youtube (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Hfc9i9gfsd8).  

Obituary for Foreman, Lloyd Anderson (https://www.la-umc.org/obituary/1546884).  

Rockwell, Norman.  “The Problem We All Live With.”  1964.  Accessed from the Norman Rockwell Museum (http://www.nrm.org/thinglink/text/ProblemLiveWith.html).  

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