New Orleans, La. – Leona Tate, Tessie Prevost Williams and Gail Etienne Stripling walked up the 18 steps to the school front doors of McDonogh Number 19 in the Lower Ninth Ward, as they did 50 years ago in the forefront of desegregating New Orleans public schools. Again, their walk drew a crowd. But now Tate noted the people were cheering, not jeering at their presence.
"That's always a memorable moment, coming up these steps, you know. And it always brings back a lot of memories. But just to look down and see that crowd out there again, it was truly a happy feeling. Happy feeling."
Fifty years ago New Orleans elementary schools began the city's desegregation plan, putting the girls under pressure and at risk from opponents.
Al Butler is a former US Marshal, assigned to escort the McDonogh Three, as they've become known, to and from school. He traveled from his home in North Carolina to attend the ceremony of a historical marker being placed at the school.
"We knew that this was something that had to be done, and if we didn't get it done it was going to set the Civil Rights movement back God knows how many years.
And what were the little girls like at the time?'
Scared. Beautiful little girls, but scared."
A couple of miles away, another first-grader walked with marshals to her first day at the William Frantz School. Ruby Bridges says she's been asked repeatedly about her feelings that day for the past 50 years. At a meeting at City Hall last week with Mayor Mitch Landrieu, she was again asked about her memories.
"A little boy asked me today, you know, Were you really afraid?' and I said, "No. I wasn't.' Because living here, you know, it is so unique. I was accustomed to Mardi Gras and that's really what it looked like. You know I really thought I was in the midst of a parade in the very beginning."
Her walk under guard was immortalized in a Norman Rockwell illustration titled "The Problem We All Live With." She gave a framed copy to the mayor.
For WWNO, I'm Eileen Fleming