At Civil Rights Camp, New Orleans Kids Learn History Overlooked In School

Jul 16, 2018

School is out for most New Orleans kids, but many of them are still learning at summer camps. Some of them are taking on big topics, like the history of civil rights. At the Leona Tate Foundation For Change camp, students get to interview real leaders in the battle for racial equality. 

In 1960, six-year-old Leona Tate became one of the first African American students to integrate an all-white school in the South. And it happened right here in New Orleans, in the Ninth Ward. But Tate, who is now in her late 60s, says when she visits the city’s schools, kids don’t know anything about what she did.

"Children right here in this city have no clue of what ground they're walking on," Tate says. "There's so much history in New Orleans, and our children are just not being taught history here. They're not being taught."

So she started a summer camp to change that. The camp is held inside a double shotgun house about a mile from McDonogh 19 — the school Tate integrated. For six weeks, about 20 and middle and elementary school students come for lessons on character building, math, writing and civil rights. 

The students spend part of each day interacting with civil rights history: listening to oral histories, watching archival footage, learning about freedom songs and interviewing local civil rights leaders. Today the students are going to interview Tate herself. The students pull their chairs into a circle around Tate, and 12-year-old Am’yra reads a question from her notebook.

"How did you feel being the first African-American girl at McDonogh 19?" she asks Tate.

Tate says she was only six years old, so she didn’t understand the gravity of what she was doing — entering an all-white school in front of a crowd  of angry white protesters.

"I didn't understand to have any feelings about it. I just had to do what I was told to do," Tate says. "Later on in life, you know, after thinking about it, it became overwhelming. So I didn't talk about it for a long time. But now I'm very proud to do what I've done."

Leilani and her fellow campers also learn to play musical instruments with members of local brass bands as part of the curriculum at the Leona Tate Foundation for Change summer camp.
Credit Jess Clark / WWNO - New Orleans Public Radio

Tate explains how after she and two other black girls showed up at McDonogh 19, all the white students left the school, leaving them alone in the building for the rest of the year. The girls were escorted to school every day by U.S. Marshals. They couldn’t use the water fountains for fear of being poisoned. And the school windows were papered over for safety.

"We couldn't even walk over to a window," Tate tells the students. "The pencil sharpener was on the window sill at that time, and we couldn't even sharpen our pencils. The teacher would have to do that because we weren't allowed to go near the window."

After Tate left McDonogh 19, she went to integrate T.J. Semmes Middle School, where she says the bullying was brutal. The kids want to know more about the bullying, but Tate shies away from the details. A tall girl named Alexis raises her hand — she seems to be grappling with a big question: How much has really changed since Tate and her black classmates stepped across the threshold of McDonogh 19?

"Do they still got like a little racism today? Because I hear it a lot," she asks.

At this point many kids in the circle are nodding. Leilani, a small girl with olive skin and big dark eyes says she recently saw a white classmate bullying a black classmate at school.

"The teachers broke it up," she says.

Tate’s advice to the students, who are all kids of color, is stay focused on your goals.

"You just have to learn how to put that in the back of your mind and not pay attention to it," she tells them. That's how Tate says she endured years of racist bullying.

The kids write in their journals. Tate hopes the camp will help students with their writing and critical thinking skills, so that they’re ready when school starts — and ready to carry on the legacy of Tate and other of the city’s civil rights pioneers.

Support for WWNO’s education reporting comes from Entergy Corporation.