For Woman Who Desegregated Schools as a Child, the Notion of ‘Radical Change’ Is Subjective

The first Black children to blaze a trail for others to follow were first graders Leona Tate, Tessie Prevost and Gail Etienne. They were the first to attend McDonogh No. 19 Elementary School in 1960 and later became known as the McDonogh Three.

Lillian has never taken for granted the simple act of existing as a Black woman in white America. In fact, “there was blood and sweat and tears to win” her position in this country, she told Inside Edition Digital.

The Louisiana woman’s fight for a seat at the table began in the classroom, where her experience as a child was marked by federal marshals, credible death threats and poisoning attempts – all of which made her place in the world feel all the more hard-earned. 

Lillian, who is 67 years old, grew up in an era of segregated schools, and went on to become one of the first Black students to attend an integrated school in New Orleans. 

But life is not so different today, she said.

“There is disparity in how people are treated,” said Lillian, spoke to Inside Edition Digital on the condition her last name not be used. "A child that's born in Flint, Michigan or a child that's born in an urban area of a major city does not have the same opportunities as a child in a middle class neighborhood." 

That imbalance rings all the more true in an America grappling with the aftermath of George Floyd’s killing – one that followed shortly after Breonna Taylor’s and Ahmaud Arbery’s, and joined a list including the names of a plethora of other Black individuals whose lives were cut short at the hands of white people. 

“People who think that those are isolated cases; they are not,” she said. “There are those who would say, ‘Well, surely not someone like [myself] has had an experience with the police that's less than honorable.’ Yes, I have. My son has, my husband has, my brothers had, and it's so common.”

As the Black Lives Matter movement forces Americans to confront what many view as their and their country’s implicit racism, Lillian said that has been something she’s had to deal with since the first day she set foot in school. 

“I know that I am equal, but I have a past that has always tried to tell me I’m not equal,” Lillian said.

Lillian grew up in the Lower 9th Ward neighborhood of New Orleans. The area, located strategically near the Mississippi River, was originally developed as sugar cane plantations. As it industrialized, it became a working class neighborhood offering labor jobs. The neighborhood is isolated, and eventually became home to many poor African Americans and immigrant laborers, according to the Lower 9th Ward CSED. 

The Lower Ninth Ward was also hit the hardest by Hurricane Betsy in 1965 and Hurricane Katrina in 2005, as well as by the economic devastation that followed. 

But Lillian has fonder memories of her neighborhood. “Most of the neighborhoods were [made up of] very nice working class people … most people knew who I was. You would wave to people, speak to people as you were going to school. We had a lot of white neighbors. The store that we frequent was white-owned, and many families had a credit, if it was near to pay day and they needed something from the store.”

When Hurricane Betsy hit and broke the levy, Lillian recalled her neighbors coming to her home to rescue her and her siblings at 3 a.m., when her father was out at work. 

She attended school about a mile away from her home, making the journey there and back every day, all the while another school was located barely a block from her backyard.

“There were all Black teachers and principals, and everybody professionally dressed,” she recalled. “I could remember a very strict decorum when it comes to behavior and all, but very dedicated teachers, to the students.”

The school was segregated, still adhering to and abiding by the rules followed before the Supreme Court  declared such schools to be unconstitutional in 1954, a ruling known as “Brown v. Board of Education.” Her experience wasn’t unique, she said, recalling that many schools in the South continued to be completely segregated. And then her father took a stand. 

“He pressed for civil rights, he pressed for voting rights, and so he was the one to talk the talk,” Lillian said. “Certainly [he] would not want us in harm's way, but my dad’s philosophy was it had to start somewhere, and it had to start with someone.”

The first Black children to blaze a trail for others to follow were first graders Leona Tate, Tessie Prevost and Gail Etienne. They were the first to attend McDonogh No. 19 Elementary School in 1960 and later became known as the McDonogh Three.

On their first day of school, federal marshals escorted the 6-year-old girls through a throng of shouting adults into the formerly “whites-only” school, according to the Leona Tate Foundation. They were the only three students at the school for nearly two years – save for the teachers and police officers – and brown paper shielded them from the protesting crowds that would regularly amass outside.

Recess was held inside the school auditorium to keep the students from going outside, and water fountains had been turned off, perhaps for “fear that someone might try to poison the three first graders,” Leona Tate wrote in a 2004 recount, arguing for better resources for Black-majority schools. 

“How very frightening it was for the entire community, let alone unimaginable for them and their families because of the threats,” Lillian said.

On the same day, Ruby Bridges started attending William Frantz Elementary school, another all-white school located across the bridge, all on her own. She later said she thought the barricades, policemen and screaming adults meant she was walking into a Mardi Gras event, according to a 2009 article in The Times-Picayune. Her would-be classmates, all white, were all pulled out of school by their parents, and she was the only student at that school every day, being taught by the only teacher who agreed to stay and teach. 

“Ruby Bridges had to bring her lunch, because they threatened to poison her,” Lillian recalled. “As a child, those are things you just don't understand. Those are some things as a child you should never have to understand.

Their experiences were a part of the Civil Rights Movement, in full swing at the time. In 1961, Black and white activists known as Freedom Riders took a Greyhound bus tour of the South to protest segregated bus terminals. Their protest followed the 1960 ruling in “Boynton v. Virginia,” which declared segregated interstate transportation facilities unconstitutional. 

Martin Luther King made his “I Have a Dream” speech during the 1963 March on Washington. Rulings in 1964 forbade racial discrimination in places of public accommodations and racial discrimination in restaurants. Three years later, it was determined in “Loving v. Virginia” that any law barring interracial marriage was unconstitutional. 

It was not long after the McDonogh Three integrated McDonogh No. 19 that Lillian and her younger sister followed them into the school.

“We would be told that we could start school at McDonogh 19, only to be notified, maybe that night or the next day, that it was unsafe to go,” she recalled. “It was unsafe because there would have been threats. It would have been unsafe because maybe the teachers couldn't show up.”

By the time they did begin school, Lillian said she didn’t have any white classmates. In fact, even the teachers were all Black.

At first, she was intimidated by the new school. Not just because of the threats she said she faced, but because the new school was bigger than her previous school. “It had multi-stories whereas the one that I attended was only one story,” she said. “It had a basement. It had a huge playground.” 

Lillian also recalled having more resources at her new school. They had televisions, which were brought into the classrooms so the students could watch news coverage of John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther Kings’ assassinations. The TVs also came in handy to do French lessons, as that was in their curriculum, growing up in Louisiana. They also had more equipment and books than she could imagine.

Beginning that new school in the fourth grade was the moment she understood “separate was not equal,” she said. Even though she felt more comfortable and safer at the all-Black segregated school, the amount of resources the previously all-white school was provided opened her eyes to why it was so important to set up a society in which Black people and white people could coexist. 

Lillian went on to become the first Black senior class president of her school. Today, Lillian is a grandmother of two, and considers herself successful in her line of work. It’s why she hopes today’s Black Lives Matter movement will prove to be an opportunity America seizes on to reassess the ways in which Black people continue to face inequality in every sector of their lives.

“How it is that people can go to work every day, pay taxes, but then not get equal protection under the law?” she said. “It's not right. It will never be right. There is more than enough for the people of America to have liberty, to have life and to have abundance. America is a very rich and industrious and wealthy nation. 

Having been there as change once considered radical was adopted into everyday life, it’s with authority that Lillian said: “This moment in history is different. I stand here knowing that change can happen, and indeed it will happen.

“But I also know that the changes that need to occur have to happen little by little and it won't happen overnight,” she continued. “I don't want my grandchildren to have to come to this place again and face all the injustices in our society.”

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