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Tessie Prevost, pioneer of Deep South school desegregation, dies at 69

Tessie Prevost, center, and 7-year-old Elan Jolie Hebert are escorted by U.S. Marshal Michael Atkins up the steps of McDonogh 19 Elementary School as Prevost was escorted in 1960, during a New Orleans 61st anniversary ceremony in 2021. Prevost was one of the first African-American women who integrated the all-white public schools in New Orleans.
Ted Jackson
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AP
Tessie Prevost, center, and 7-year-old Elan Jolie Hebert are escorted by U.S. Marshal Michael Atkins up the steps of McDonogh 19 Elementary School as Prevost was escorted in 1960, during a New Orleans 61st anniversary ceremony in 2021. Prevost was one of the first African-American women who integrated the all-white public schools in New Orleans.

NEW ORLEANS — Tessie Prevost, a pioneer of school desegregation in the Deep South, has died.

She was one of the first young Black girls who integrated New Orleans public schools after federal courts forced the system to abide by the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown vs. the Board of Education ruling that declared segregated schools unconstitutional.

Prevost made history on Nov. 14, 1960, along with Gail Etienne and Leona Tate, known as the McDonogh 3. At age 6, federal marshals escorted them past hostile white crowds to enroll in McDonogh 19 Elementary School in New Orleans' Lower 9th Ward. They were ostracized and formed a tight bond.

"The way we were prepared was not to do anything alone,” Tate recalled Tuesday in an NPR interview. “Whatever we did, we had to do it with the three of us.”

White parents pulled their children out of the school, so for the entire first grade the three African-American girls were alone. They weren’t allowed to eat in the school cafeteria, or use the playground, so they played underneath an internal stairwell.

The historic school is now preserved as the Tate Etienne and Prevost Center, an interpretive space to teach New Orleans’ civil rights history.

A fourth Black student in New Orleans, Ruby Bridges, integrated the all-white William Franz Elementary School the same year.

New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell called Prevost’s passing a profound loss, saying her courage paved the way for greater educational equality in the U.S.

“Her bravery and determination helped dismantle the barriers of segregation, inspiring countless others in the struggle for justice and equality,” Cantrell said in a statement. “Her legacy is a testament to the power of resilience and the impact a single individual can have on the course of history.” 

Prevost died Saturday at age 69.

Copyright 2024 NPR

Honorees Tessie Prevost (left), Gail Eitenne and Leona Tate of the New Orleans Four pose before leaving the stage during the 2022 CROWN Awards ceremony on July 3, 2022 in New Orleans, La.
Peter Forest / Getty Images
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Getty Images
Honorees Tessie Prevost (left), Gail Eitenne and Leona Tate of the New Orleans Four pose before leaving the stage during the 2022 CROWN Awards ceremony on July 3, 2022 in New Orleans, La.

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Debbie Elliott
NPR National Correspondent Debbie Elliott can be heard telling stories from her native South. She covers the latest news and politics, and is attuned to the region's rich culture and history.
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