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Preserving the History of Civil Rights in New Orleans

On the same morning that 6-year-old Ruby Bridges became the first Black student to integrate an elementary school in the South, three young girls completed the same historic act just a mile away. On November 14, 1960, Leona Tate, Gail Etienne, and Tessie Prevost were escorted by Federal Marshals past angry protestors into McDonogh 19 Elementary School in New Orleans.

Tate went on to devote her life to civil rights activism. In 2009, she created the Leona Tate Foundation for Change, Inc. to promote racial equality through education. In 2020 — 60 years after Tate, Etienne, and Prevost made history — Tate and her foundation purchased the McDonogh 19 building. It’s now the home of the Tate, Etienne, and Prevost (TEP) Center: a mixed-use facility and exhibition space dedicated to the history of civil rights in New Orleans.

Tate is also part of the ACLU of Louisiana’s first-of-its-kind Black Donor Network, a group of 30 African American supporters who work in philanthropy, education, public health, and other fields. The network brings together a community of people devoted to the historic movement for racial justice.

Here, Tate discusses a lifetime of experiences promoting civil rights in New Orleans and beyond.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

“McDonough 19 and now the Tate, Etienne, and Prevost Center represents the education of racism — mostly undoing racism. It’s a place for dialogue. It’s a place to come and see what we went through. And we need to understand why those things happened and the change that they meant.

“Nobody is teaching civil rights the way we think it should be taught. We’ve got to get this history to [a point] where it’s never going to be forgotten again.

“Today, I continue my activism with the community, with civil rights leaders, with the ACLU. [For] any kind of social justice changes that need to be made and made for the right reasons — the ACLU is here.

“Donating to the ACLU is one of the most powerful things you can do to fight for justice. They have been a great support of us. And I hope to be a great asset to them. I think we’ve got the same mission here — doing positive work to get things done in this community. The ACLU is all about that.”