Remembering “The McDonogh Three”
Re: “Ruby Bridges: The first black child to desegregate an elementary school in the South celebrates an anniversary,” Persona column by Sue Strachan. October 2010 issue.
The interview includes a claim that over the years has become an accepted part of civil rights accounts of those days in New Orleans – the author writes: “Bridges became the first black child to desegregate an elementary school in the South. (That same day, three other students integrated the McDonogh 19 Elementary School.)”
As is usually the case, Ruby Bridges is credited with being the first to step across the lines of desegregation in an elementary school in the South. The “three other students” (unnamed) are relegated to the parentheses of history.
However, this claim doesn’t accord with contemporary media coverage in The Louisiana Weekly, a newspaper that has served as the “voice of the African-American community” in Louisiana for the past 80 years.
(Here is what was reported on) the front page of the November 19 issue in 1960, the Weekly’s first edition to be published following desegregation of the schools on that prior Monday, the 14th. At the top of the page above the headline “N.O. Schools Desegregated: No Violence” appear three photographs, under which a lengthy caption explains the images. Part of this explanation details the times that the girls entered the respective all-white schools, as the U.S. Marshals orchestrated security on that historic morning.
“Without violence, as hundreds of New Orleans police officers encircled both Orleans Parish schools, three Negro girls unidentified at press time, entered McDonogh 19, 5919 St. Claude at 9:15 a.m. with their parents, while the fourth girl entered Frantz school, 3811 No. Galvez at 9:25 a.m. with her mother. In the first photo left, the Negro pupil escorted by her father and U. S. Marshals make the historic trek into McDonogh 19 school to end segregation, as crowds outside the school sounded cheers, jeers and some boos.” (sic)
As I’m sure you’re aware, the “fourth girl” to which the caption refers, entering the Williams Frantz school with her mother, is Ruby Bridges, whose historic walk evidently occurred 10 minutes after Leona Tate, Tessie Prevost and Gail Etienne – now commonly referred to as “The McDonogh Three” – already had become the first to desegregate an elementary school in the South.
In writing this letter I have no intention of diminishing Ruby’s achievement or marginalizing her struggle. As the sole black student at Frantz ostracized to a classroom by herself for an entire year, Ruby deserves every accolade she has received over the years. I have been privileged to meet her personally several times in the last three years and have been blessed on each occasion. She is gracious and personable and humble.
She just wasn’t the first. The attention garnered by Ruby’s solitary walk, Steinbeck’s mention of her in Travels with Charley, Rockwell’s illustration on the cover of Look magazine, not to mention the interest of Harvard child psychologist Robert Coles all combined to transform Ruby into a civil rights icon, while with the passage of time, Leona, Tessie and Gail live in relative obscurity for an achievement no less remarkable.
These three women also, whom I have never met, equally deserve to be recognized on this, the 50th anniversary of their historic walk. After all, their steps on the stairs of McDonogh 19 signaled the end of the segregated South in public elementary schools. Their “giant leap” should never be forgotten.
Robert M. Brian
Reply: We appreciate this letter drawing attention to the heroic efforts of Leona Tate, Tessie Prevost and Gail Etienne and the clarification of the actual timing of the events. We agree with the letter writer’s contention that the facts do not diminish Ruby Bridge’s significant role. All four young girls showed courage that helped open the way for others.
MAKING A PASS
Re: “Seat Wars”, Inside column by Errol Laborde. October 2010 issue.
I read your recent article about sitting by the computer waiting to check-in and get that “A” group boarding pass. I’ve done that so many times myself. Thanks for the laugh.
I write and illustrate children’s books and, in the late 1980s and early ’90s I was the cartoonist on WWL’s “Popeye And Pals” show. I’ve written and illustrated more than 35 children’s books and I speak at a lot of conferences. Thought you might enjoy this cartoon inspired by your column.
Reply: Thanks for the cartoon, Mike. We think we saw that guy sitting on the first row during our last flight.