by Anitra D. Brown
The New Orleans Tribune
On Nov. 14, 1960, Tessie Prevost’s mother Dorothy Prevost stayed at home and watched local broadcast news accounts of her daughter and three other six-year-old Black girls desegregating two local public schools that day, she says. Her husband accompanied their daughter, along with U.S. Marshalls, to school, instead.
From home on television, she saw the angry mobs and admits to being “terrified” as the day unfolded. She “didn’t know what to expect”, she told a crowd gathered on Wednesday, May 4 in front of the former McDonough 19 school — the very campus her daughter desegregated nearly 62 years ago, along with Leona Tate and Gail Etienne.
Dorothy Prevost may not have known what was going to happen that day at McDonogh 19 School, but it’s safe to assume she could have never imagined that she would be standing in front of the same building 62 years later to celebrate the building’s new name and purpose — the Tate Etienne Prevost (TEP) Center.
“I have been around a long time,” she says. “I am 90. I have seen some things I thought I would never see.”
In addition to the jeers from those fighting against desegregation of public schools in New Orleans, Dorothy Prevost said she could also hear community support in the form of “cheering that brought tears to my eyes”, recalling how some continued to support her family from that day on, sending groceries for her family and gifts and toys to her daughter on birthdays and holidays.
“They were the reason we were able to continue and not give up. Their encouragement gave us hope, and now I hope this building will give the community the same hope they gave us,” she says.
Hope. If there is a singular purpose behind the Tate Etienne Prevost Center, it is hope, indeed.
The transformation of the historic building began with Leona Tate turning the school building where she, Prevost and Etienne attended school into a community resource where the history of and impact of public school desegregation would be preserved and shared.
“I want to thank everybody that supported this dream,” says Leona Tate. “We are in this together. This community is here and we are here to stay.”
Tate, through her Leona Tate Foundation for Change along with Alembic Community Development announced the purchase of the historic McDonogh 19 Elementary School building located in early 2020. In addition to Alembic, the project picked up a number of funders over the last two years including U.S. Bancorp Community Development Corporation, Louisiana Housing Corporation, Enhanced Capital, JPMorgan Chase, Central State Development Partners, the City of New Orleans, Federal Home Loan Bank of Dallas and the Reinvestment Fund.
And representatives from each of those investors were on hand to celebrate the ribbon cutting.
In addition to serving as the new home of two additional non-profit organizations, Beloved Community and the People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond, the TEP Center also provides 25 units of affordable housing for senior citizens.
The historic building, which had been shuttered since Hurricane Katrina in 2005, is sure to be the site of plenty of activity in the Lower 9th Ward. The TEP Center includes the TEP Interpretive Center, the national office and Communiversity operated by the People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond, the new home for Beloved Community in the former cafeteria building, and 25 affordable apartments for seniors.
“It’s about investing in and protecting our people,” said Mary Ottoson of JPMorgan Chase. The TEP Center provides an opportunity for our children and grandchildren to learn about the history of the community. We hope that this former school becomes a beacon of light for generations.”
A highlight of the project, the TEP Interpretive Center, is dedicated to educating visitors on the history of the New Orleans Public School Desegregation Experience and its role in the city’s Civil Rights Movement. The TEP Interpretive Center will include an exhibit of film, photos, oral histories, and interactive media, and will also relocate and integrate a new home for the Lower 9th Ward Living Museum.
The ground floor will also be the new home of the People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond. The second and third floors offer 25 affordable apartments for seniors earning less than 30 percent and 60 percent of the area median income.
A number of local officials were on hand to celebrate the ribbon cutting, including Mayor LaToya Cantrell and District E City Councilman Oliver Thomas, who represents the area. District D Councilman Eugene Green was also in the crowd.
“I am very much full and inspired,” Mayor Cantrell said during the ribbon cutting ceremony. “Sixty-two years ago, Ms. Leona, Ms. Gail, Ms. Tessie, you exhibited significant courage; and its courage that our community continues to stand on. On today, you are continuing to display, not only the courage, but the love of community. I know that as the first woman mayor, I am standing on your shoulders. And what you all have created for this community and our city is a path for us to not only to stand but to seek real justice, love and unity.”
The Mayor also highlighted the City’s $2 million contribution to the project and how the project is helping to address the affordable housing crisis in New Orleans.
“One of the best things that I know that we have done is to put funding into this project, to fill a gap,” . That $2 million may have been small, but absolutely mighty because we are here today. This is about affordable housing for our city as well and making sure we have quality housing for our seniors and programming that will meet our people where they are in the community that they live in.”
National Urban League President & CEO Marc Morial delivered the keynote address.
“This will forever be known as the Tate Etienne Prevost Center,” Morial says. “The opening of the Tate Etienne Prevost Center in the Lower Ninth Ward marks a pivotal moment in the history of a community, our city, this state, and our nation. Against the backdrop of events which took place in November of 1960, from this point forward we have an opportunity, united as one people, to choose an equitable pathway towards quality education for all of our children.”
While the ribbon cutting and official opening of the TEP Center marks a significant milestone for the institution, the work is not yet complete.
The Interpretive Center will host exhibits, including films, photos, oral histories and interactive media related to the history of school desegregation and the integration of other public places during the height of the 1960’s Civil Rights Movement in New Orleans. Development Director Greta Gladney said additional financial support is needed to complete the installation of permanent exhibits for the Interpretive Center.
For more information on how to support the TEP Center, visit https://www.tepcenter.org/donate.