Leona Tate and The TEP Center

August 27, 2020

In honor and support of the BLM movement and in an effort to provide context that will recall the regretful parts of America’s collective past and forge a more just, less distorted, and empathetic path forward, G&A wants to spotlight an extraordinarily important project: The Tate, Etienne and Prevost Center, known as The TEP Center. Our client, Leona Tate, is a significant civil rights trailblazer and we are excited to share her long-overdue story. 

 

Stepping into the Civil Rights Movement

On the morning of November 14, 1960, three African American first-grade students, Leona Tate, Gail Etienne, and Tessie Prevost, climbed the steps into McDonough 19 Elementary School in the Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans, Louisiana. Unaware they were stepping into the frontlines of the civil rights movement, the three girls entered the all-white school they would single-handedly integrate on that day. 

African American families were required to submit applications in order to integrate white schools. Of the 149 applications submitted, only five children were selected and four participated–Leona, Gail, Tessie, and Ruby Bridges (who attended another school in New Orleans). They underwent a number of psychiatric evaluations and interviews just to be given a chance at a better education. 

 

A Vision for The TEP Center

Leona has since been able to buy the building through her foundation, the Leona Tate Foundation for Change, in hopes of transforming it into a center for racial healing. The TEP Center will be a learning center that identifies the pivotal legal decisions and civil rights events that led up to those first steps and the paramount days that followed. The TEP Center will continue this legacy of education and activism with a focus on key individuals and events, both past and present, and with a vision to inspire visitors to recognize and act when confronted with social inequity and injustice.

We had the pleasure of speaking to Leona and gaining a better understanding of this time in her life. During the interview, her benevolence and passionate spirit shine through. About her memories of that historic first day, Leona recalled that as a 5-year-old she didn’t comprehend its significance. Of the crowd who gathered outside to protest desegregation, she surmised that a parade was underway and she was disappointed that she could not join in on the fun. She further recalls “I didn’t really understand even in 1st and 2nd grade [what we had done.] I knew I had done something later because of the attention being shown to me. From 3rd grade on, I could tell there was a difference only because of the color of my skin.” Leona shared that she had to prepare to attend McDonogh 19 and would sit inside doing work during recess time. When asked if as a child she questioned any of the segregation in her school life,  Leona responds In my days you didn’t question anything.” Leona shares her past experiences matter of factly and magnanimously. One wants to lean into her—to become closer to the truth, a truth that will put us on a path toward a better, more merciful, and conscientious mindset.

“The TEP Center will be a place for racial healing. Undoing Racism workshops will also be available by the People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond [a partnering organization that will share the Center’s space.] I think we need that dialogue just to speak freely about racism and understand how it was started and how to work through the system together. I want students to know what the four of us had to endure to go to a better school, but understand they can have a better outcome. This is for every student no matter what race you are. I know what’s in my heart, but expressing it gets hard.”

—Leona Tate

Leona’s Message

When asked “What is the most important message you can give to young people right now, those who are on the front lines of the Black Lives Matter movement, and working for change and making their voices heard?” Leona was clear: “Stay focused. Stay positive. Stay away from negativity. Just be peaceful. I love the idea that it does say “BLM” but it says everybody together. All colors are in the color black… we are a good mixture of gumbo.”

She shares an anecdote of a recent drive with her granddaughter. They drove by McDonough 19 and her granddaughter exclaimed “look grandma that’s where you were” pointing out the steps where it all started. Leona explained that the TEP Center is so important because it recognizes, educates, and gives back to the next generations and the entire community through these stories. Leona’s desire for peaceful protest is an outcome of the 1960s approach to racial injustice and the fight for civil rights and inspired her approach to framing the TEP Center mission and vision. Leona leads a life that exudes the message of positivity. 

 

Early conceptual renderings of The TEP Center, below. For more information on this project, visit: https://www.tepcenter.org/home