November 14th is New Orleans Four Day, officially declared by the City Council of New Orleans on the 60th anniversary of school desegregation. On November 14, 2020, a ceremony was held at Gallier Hall, attended by the director of the U.S. Marshals Donald W. Washington, city and state elected officials, family members and community advocates. On that day, Mayor LaToya Cantrell saw fit to honor Gail Etienne, Ruby Bridges, Leona Tate and Tessie Prevost with a long-awaited Key to the City.
Most of you know Ruby Bridges, due to the famous Norman Rockwell painting that depicts one little girl escorted by U.S. Marshals. Consequently, you may not know Gail Etienne, Leona Tate and Tessie Prevost because their equivalent contributions, like several civil rights pioneers, have gone unknown for decades. On November 14, 1960, with worldwide attention focused on New Orleans, federal marshals wearing yellow armbands escorted four girls to integrate two public schools in the 9th ward of New Orleans. Together, they ignited a movement that inspired millions across the country. They were referred to in history and in the media as The New Orleans Four, similar to The Little Rock Nine.
Most of you know Ruby Bridges, due to the famous Norman Rockwell painting that depicts one little girl escorted by U.S. Marshals. Consequently, you may not know Gail Etienne, Leona Tate and Tessie Prevost because their equivalent contributions, like several civil rights pioneers, have gone unknown for decades.
That December, the New Orleans Alumnae Chapter of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority Inc. organized 266 Chapters to support the Christmas Party they hosted for the four girls along with 80 other African American first graders. Hundreds of Christmas cards were mailed to the girls via the New Orleans chapter of the NAACP with unexpected messages of encouragement and hope. Among those cards was a card from former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt.
When asked how she feels about their anniversary now Tessie Prevost-Williams stated, “Over the years I would reflect on everything we went through and wondered why our contribution was not equally honored for so long. I was starting to feel like we didn’t matter. I appreciate the love and respect we are receiving now; it feels validating to know that what we did does matter to people.”
Gail Etienne said “I hope this important history never gets lost again. I’m thankful that The New Orleans Four Legacy Project was created, and that the City Council of New Orleans voted to honor all four of us on November 14th. I couldn’t believe it when I saw the front of Gallier Hall! It felt like a dream!”
When honoring Ruby Bridges in 2018, the Children’s Defense Fund wrote, “Ruby Bridges is a fierce advocate for integration and equity in education and for teaching children accurate history including stories like her own. She says, ‘If you really think about it, if we begin to teach history exactly the way that it happened, good, bad, ugly, no matter what, I believe that we’re going to find that we are closer, more connected than we are apart.’”
“Just knowing what we went through, and for people not to remember was hurtful,” Leona Tate recently told CBS News. “But now, I’m hopeful that the Tate, Etienne and Prevost Interpretive Center can be a place of healing and a place where anyone can learn about the full history of school desegregation and the New Orleans Resistance Movement,” Tate explains whenever she speaks of the center.
In her 2009 TED Talk speech about “The Danger of a Single Story”, author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie said that having a single narrative about a person, a culture, or a country can lead to misunderstandings. She said, “Stories have been used to dispossess and to malign, but stories can also be used to empower and to humanize...When we reject the single story, when we realize there is never a single story about any place, we regain a kind of paradise.”
As a native daughter of New Orleans, I felt it was my moral obligation to regain a kind of paradise for my elders and create a path to empathy. They inspired me to create The New Orleans Four Legacy Project which includes a 3-part docuseries to document and promote our accurate civil rights history with a focus on empowering the voiceless, especially the women of the movement.
It’s been 69 years since the Supreme Court ruled unanimously in Brown v Board of Education declaring that racial segregation of children in public schools was unconstitutional, but according to a 2022 report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office, public schools remain divided along racial, ethnic, and economic lines throughout the U.S. Yes, segregation is happening all over again. This year marks the 63rd anniversary of the four brave girls who showed exemplary courage to move this country forward. My hope is that we are inspired by their sacrifice to do our part and keep their legacy alive.