Desegregating New Orleans Schools ~ November 1960

According to The Times-Picayune, “As New Orleans desegregated, it was the children who led us,” by Jarvis DeBerry on 17 November 2010:

They sent their babies into a mob.

That’s what’s so impressive — and bewildering — about the parents of Ruby Bridges, Gail Etienne, Pam Foreman, Yolanda Gabrielle, Tessie Prevost and Leona Tate. Fifty years ago this week, they sent their babies — five first-graders and a kindergartner — to William Frantz Elementary and McDonogh No. 19 through a gauntlet of spewing and sputtering segregationists so committed to their backwardness that they assembled to yell obscenities at small children.

If the natural instinct of most parents is to protect their children from harm, how remarkable it is that the parents of Gail, Leona, Pam, Ruby, Tessie and Yolanda deliberately sent them into harm’s way. The girls were sometimes escorted through the hostile crowds by badge-wearing U.S. marshals, which put the protesters on notice that physical violence wouldn’t be tolerated. But those stony-faced federal officers couldn’t protect the girls from the insults being hurled at them. We can take some solace, though, that some of the language was too complex for the intended targets to understand.

New Orleans

Ruby Bridges, for example, taught one of her playmates a new chant she’d heard, and the girls jumped rope to it: “Two, four, six, eight, we don’t want to integrate.”

Nobody would have blamed the girls’ parents if they’d decided to protect their children from such hate-filled madness. Good people would have understood if the parents succumbed to a loving impulse to cover the girls’ eyes and ears and remove them from a campus where so many bigots had gathered to yell at them. Nobody would have blamed them. Which makes their decisions all the more worthy of praise. They didn’t have to buck against the status quo. They didn’t have to offer their children up for the integration experiment. But they did.

New Orleans

That goes for the black parents who sent their children to Frantz and McDonogh No. 19 and the parents of the two white girls who refused to succumb to mob-rule and enroll their children elsewhere. Pam’s father was a preacher and a war veteran who, according to the writer John Updike, “wasn’t going to let a mob of women tell him what to do.” Yolanda’s mother was initially afraid for the girl’s safety but kept her at Frantz because, she said, “It was the principle of the thing.”

New Orleans
In Mark Twain’s 1901 essay “The United States of Lyncherdom” that he was, ironically, too afraid to have published while he was alive, Twain argued that lynchings were common not because mobs are uniformly blood-thirsty but uniformly cowardly. As he saw it, “man’s commonest weakness” is “his aversion to being unpleasantly conspicuous, pointed at, shunned, as being on the unpopular side …

“When there is to be a lynching the people hitch up and come miles to see it, bringing their wives and children. Really to see it? No — they come only because they are afraid to stay at home, lest it be noticed and offensively commented upon.”

New Orleans students are loaded onto buses to be transported to St. Bernard Parish, November 28, 1960, after McDonogh 19 school was integrated in September.

I’m sure Twain is going too far when he says the “only” reason somebody would show up to such a gathering would be out of fear. Even so, the peer pressure that kept bigotry alive cannot be discounted. One sees the photos of adults shouting at children and hopes that they felt pressured to be there. That doesn’t absolve them, of course. Their behavior was despicable. But the idea that every protester was as hate-filled and angry as the photos suggest and that they were all internally motivated to hurl obscenities at little girls is too awful to contemplate.

New Orleans

Children seemed to always be on the front lines in our country’s often bloody battle for civil rights. Not all of them wanted to be. The 1955 lynching of 14-year-old Emmett Till in Money, Miss., shocked the national conscience, and months later, Rosa Parks was refusing to budge from her seat on a Montgomery, Ala., bus. In September 1963, four little girls in Sunday School at Birmingham’s Sixteenth Street Baptist Church died when the Ku Klux Klan attacked their church with dynamite. The next year President Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act.

Police in front of demonstrators (Bettmann/CORBIS)

And in 1960, six little girls in New Orleans — four black, two white — were sent by their parents into a hate-filled mob. What a heart-wrenching decision that must have been.

What a sad place this would be if they hadn’t made it. (source: The Times-Picayune)

What was the Night of Terror 1917?

After peacefully demonstrating in front of the White House  on the 28th of August 1917, 33 women endured a night of brutal beatings, called a Night of Terror in November

Dorothy Day was described by her fellow suffragists as a “frail girl.” Yet on the night of November 14, 1917, prison guards at the Occoquan Workhouse, did not hold back after she and 32 other women had been arrested several days earlier for picketing outside the White House.

“The two men handling her were twisting her arms above her head. Then suddenly they lifted her up and banged her down over the arm of an iron bench—twice,” recalled 73-year-old Mary Nolan, the oldest of the prisoners, in an account published by Doris Stevens.

As members of the National Woman’s Party, the women and their fellow “Silent Sentinels” had been peacefully demonstrating in the nation’s capital for months, holding banners and placards calling on President Woodrow Wilson to back a federal amendment that would give all U.S. women the right to vote.

Now, these 33 women would endure the most harrowing night in the long history of the suffrage movement.

“Never was there a sentence like ours for an offense such as ours, even in England,” Nolan wrote.

Suffragist Alice Paul, leader of the National Woman's Party.

Suffragist Alice Paul, leader of the National Woman’s Party.

Bettmann Archive/Getty Images

Suffragists Divided

In 1913, frustrated by the lack of progress toward a federal women’s suffrage amendment, some younger members of the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA) decided to step up their efforts. Led by Alice Paul and Lucy Burns, they organized a suffrage parade held in Washington, D.C. on March 3, the day before Wilson’s inauguration as president. Police stood by when spectators attacked the demonstrators as they made their way down Pennsylvania Avenue, and army cavalry troops eventually had to be dispatched to restore order. Some 100 women were hospitalized with injuries.

Suffragists on picket line in front of the White House, circa 1917. One banner reads: "Mr. President How Long Must Women Wait For Liberty". 

Suffragists on picket line in front of the White House, circa 1917. One banner reads: “Mr. President How Long Must Women Wait For Liberty”.

Library of Congress

The Silent Sentinels

By 1916, nine U.S. states had given women the right to vote. Though he supported suffrage on a state level, President Wilson opposed the federal amendment, and Paul and the NWP decided to aim their protests directly at him. In January 1917, right before Wilson’s second term began, women began gathering outside the White House every day, regardless of the weather. They wore distinctive purple, white and gold sashes and held signs with slogans like “Mr. President, How Long Must We Wait for Liberty?”

“The picketing strategy really unfolds over quite a long time,” says Susan Ware, a feminist biographer and author of the forthcoming book Why They Marched: Untold Stories of the Women Who Fought for the Right to Vote. “By the time you get to that November night, the Silent Sentinels have been picketing outside the White House for more than 10 months.”

At first, Wilson tolerated the women’s protests, smiling at them as he passed and even inviting them in for coffee (they turned him down). But things began to change after the U.S. entered World War I in April 1917, and the NWP chose to continue picketing the White House, even as the mainstream suffrage movement, led by NAWSA’s Carrie Chapman Catt, threw its support behind the war effort.

National Woman's Party members being arrested as they picket with banners before the White House East Gate, in August 1917.

National Woman’s Party members being arrested as they picket with banners before the White House East Gate, in August 1917.

Library of Congress

A Cat-and-Mouse Game

Amid the wartime furor, many people began viewing the Silent Sentinels as unforgivably unpatriotic. Onlookers sometimes attacked the women and ripped their signs from their hands, while Wilson himself wrote to his daughter in June that the suffragists “seem bent on making their cause as obnoxious as possible.”

That same month, police began arresting the suffragists for obstructing traffic. At first, the women were released quickly, and without penalty, but soon the courts began handing out prison time. But the women kept coming back.

“One of the things that we need to give them credit for is that they knew, after June, that when they were on the picket line they could be arrested, and they could go to jail,” Ware points out. “This was something that respectable white women didn’t usually do.”

Tensions were running much higher by August, when the Sentinels rolled out a new banner accusing “Kaiser Wilson” of autocracy, followed by three days of attacks by an angry mob and police and the sentencing of six women to 60-day prison terms. When Paul, who had stayed off the picket line for much of that summer, returned in October, she was immediately arrested and given the longest sentence yet: seven months in Occoquan.

“They’re in this kind of cat-and-mouse game with the Wilson administration and with the police,” says Ware. “The arrests keep going on, the prison terms keep getting longer, the stakes keep getting upped.”

Suffragist Lucy Burns in a cell at the Occoquan Workhouse after women's rights protests in November 1917.

Suffragist Lucy Burns in a cell at the Occoquan Workhouse after women’s rights protests in November 1917.

Library of Congress

The Night of Terror

Faced with brutal treatment by guards and horrendous living conditions at Occoquan, including worm-ridden food and filthy water and bedding, Paul and others began demanding to be treated as political prisoners. After going on a hunger strike, Paul was repeatedly force-fed and transferred in early November to the District Jail’s psychiatric ward.

The 33 women brought to Occoquan on the night of November 14 also demanded to be treated as political prisoners. Instead, prison superintendent William H. Whittaker called on his guards to teach the women a lesson. Bursting into the room where the women were waiting to be booked, the guards dragged them down the hall and threw them into dark, filthy cells.

Burns had her hands shackled to the top of a cell, forcing her to stand all night; the guards also threatened her with a straitjacket and a buckle gag. Day (the future founder of the Catholic Worker Movement) was slammed her down on the arm of an iron bench twice. Dora Lewis lost consciousness after her head was smashed into an iron bed; Alice Cosu, seeing Lewis’ assault, suffered a heart attack, and didn’t get medical attention until the following morning.

Nolan’s account of the Night of Terror, as well as pages from a diary Burns kept while at Occoquan, was later published by Doris Stevens in Jailed for Freedom, her book about the NWP.

Suffragist Mary Winsor holding a banner that reads: "To Ask Freedom for Women is Not a Crime. Suffrage Prisoners Should Not be Treated as Criminals," circa November 1917.

Suffragist Mary Winsor holding a banner that reads: “To Ask Freedom for Women is Not a Crime. Suffrage Prisoners Should Not be Treated as Criminals,” circa November 1917.

19th Amendment Passes

In aftermath of the attack, many of the women began hunger strikes, as Whittaker denied them counsel and summoned U.S. Marines to guard the workhouse. But news of their mistreatment reached the suffragists outside Occoquan, as well as well-placed allies like Dudley Field Malone, an attorney who resigned his post in the Wilson administration in solidarity with the suffragists (he later married Doris Stevens).

In late November, under increasing public pressure, federal authorities agreed to release Paul, Burns and the other suffrage prisoners.

In early 1918, the D.C. Court of Appeals ruled that women had been illegally arrested, convicted and imprisoned. Within months, President Wilson had begun publicly calling on Congress to act on the federal suffrage amendment, a change of heart that was probably due not only to the NWP’s protests but also NAWSA’s more traditional lobbying strategies.

Meanwhile, the Silent Sentinels continued their protests. In early 1919, the women started lighting what they called “Watchfires of Freedom” outside public buildings, setting fire to Wilson’s speeches mentioning freedom and democracy. More women were arrested, more went on hunger strikes and were force-fed, though there were no more incidents as dramatic as the Night of Terror.

Finally, in June 1919, the U.S. Senate followed the House’s lead in passing the 19th Amendment. Over the next year, both the NWP and NAWSA worked tirelessly to win ratification in the necessary 36 (out of 48 states). On August 18, 1920, after a down-to-the-wire fight in Nashville, Tennessee became the 36th state to ratify the 19th Amendment.

Though representatives of the NWP and NAWSA were both on hand in Nashville to celebrate the long-awaited victory, the divisions in the women’s rights movement would continue long after the 19th Amendment’s passage. Still, after more than a century, the Night of Terror stands as a potent reminder of female solidarity and resistance, and just how much some women were willing to sacrifice to win the right to vote.

“They’re determined,” Ware says, recalling the Silent Sentinels on that notorious night in November 1917. “It’s pretty amazing what they were willing to go through, and what they had to endure.”

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students recall integrating New Orleans public schools -posted 2010


Pam Foreman’s kindergarten report card made history.


Signed by Miss Emmers, her teacher, it shows that Foreman completed the 1960-61 school year at William J. Frantz Elementary School.

Though virtually unknown today, Foreman was one of six little girls — four black, two white – who were the focal point for local angry crowds and for observers around the world as New Orleans began desegregating its public schools 50 years ago today. The day marked both the culmination of a years-long socio-political struggle and an flashpoint in one of the country’s most tangled and violent school desegregation efforts.

Only one other student attended Frantz for the entire year: Ruby Bridges, the 6-year-old African-American girl who, white ribbons in her hair, walked by herself into Frantz. At the same time, three other beribboned African-American 6-year-olds — Tessie Prevost, Gail Etienne and Leona Tate — integrated McDonogh No. 19 two miles away.

Around 10 that morning, as the word spread, white parents rushed to both 9th Ward schools to remove their children. A few hours later, all the white children were gone for good from McDonogh 19. According to School Board data, at least half ended up on free buses that took them every day from the 9th Ward to nearby St. Bernard Parish for classes in an industrial building that had been converted into an all-white school called the Arabi Elementary Annex.

But at Frantz, a few white parents kept their children in class, determined to create a New Orleans school system that was truly integrated. By the end of the first week, the school’s rolls included only Bridges and two white girls, Foreman, 5, and Yolanda Gabrielle, 6.

Each was taught in a separate classroom, remembered Gabrielle, a first grader like Bridges at the time and now a therapist in Rhode Island. “That’s the irony of this: We were still kept segregated,” she said, recalling that she caught sight of Bridges only once, through a slightly open classroom door.

To this day, Bridges doesn’t know who was there with her. “I thought at some point that there were no other kids,” she said, remembering how she heard other children in the hallway and longed to find them and play with them.

But from the outside Frantz was considered an integrated school, and so crowds of protesters continued to swell there. And some of the country’s best known writers and reporters rolled in to watch what was happening at Frantz, including John Steinbeck and John Updike, who wrote about watching Rev. Lloyd Foreman and Mrs. James Gabrielle escorting their daughters to school.

Before integration, the two schools each had an enrollment of about 1,000, with likely 2,000 parents, Updike wrote. But “one way or another, under the harsh and ingenious pressures that a community can apply,” he continued, “all have been chipped away, leaving, for us to see, two people – a Christian minister and an ex-WAC whose husband spent three years in a foxhole in New Guinea and wasn’t going to let a mob of women tell him what to do. Out of two thousand, two.”

In subsequent years, as the city hastened to forget one of its most painful chapters, the six students were forgotten.

. . . . . . .

Lloyd Foreman African American Integration Anti School Students LAThe Rev. Lloyd Foreman (left) walks his five-year-old daughter Pam to the newly ntegrated William Frantz School where they were blocked by jeering mothers on Nov. 29, 1960 in New Orleans. At right is Associated Press reporter Dave Zinman (AP Photo)

In 1960, outside observers expressed shock that desegregation provoked such strife in heterogeneous, easy-going New Orleans. Still, even though it was limited to two schools and a handful of pupils, the issue turned neighbor against neighbor and severed lifelong friendships and family ties. Anyone involved could lose jobs and endure continual threats and torment. “Years later, people would say some terrible things when they would meet Daddy,” said Foreman, now a real estate agent living in Houma.

When the 1960-61 school year started in September, schools were segregated as usual. But U.S. District Judge J. Skelly Wright, in a series of orders, had told the Orleans Parish School Board that it needed to comply with the law of the land, set into motion six years earlier by the landmark Supreme Court decision Brown v. Board of Education. So after one final delay that avoided a September desegregation date, the School Board announced its plans to integrate schools on Nov. 14, 1960.

Segregationist Gov. Jimmie Davis held emergency legislative sessions and set countless roadblocks in the way, opposed by only a few legislators, among them the newly elected and fairly powerless Moon Landrieu, who later would become mayor. As a last-minute dodge of segregation, the state even declared Nov. 14 as a school holiday.

Schools nonetheless opened that day in New Orleans, although no one except the police chief knew which schools had been chosen to integrate. It’s unclear why Frantz and McDonogh 19 were chosen, although School Board discussions of that period include speculation that black children would be better off in schools with lower test scores, so that “they would not feel inferior.” Others have speculated that the working-class 9th Ward neighborhood had much less political sway than other parts of town and so was an easier choice for School Board members, who were less likely to have connections there.

But the 9th Ward also bordered St. Bernard Parish, led by arch-segregationist Leander Perez. The day after the schools were desegregated, Perez gave an incendiary speech before a crowd estimated at 5,000 during a meeting of the White Citizens’ Council.

“Don’t wait for your daughter to be raped by these Congolese,” he said. “Don’t wait until the burrheads are forced into your schools. Do something about it now.”

Perez donated a building and operating money for buses and a new private school for the younger children who had left Frantz and McDonogh 19, and he invited older children from the two schools to enroll in St. Bernard public schools, which remained white.

In New Orleans, Mayor Chep Morrison stayed mum, Police Superintendent Joe Giarrusso initially refused to protect the white children attending Frantz, and many of the city’s influential business owners and community leaders didn’t take a stand. An exception was a group of women called Save Our Schools, which published pamphlets, advocated for open schools and helped to transport white children to Frantz.

Like the women from Save Our Schools, School Board President Lloyd Rittiner took the position that the schools must stay open. “The only thing I am against is the closing of schools,” he told The Times-Picayune. “As an elected official, I feel it is my duty to provide public education, if possible on a segregated basis but, if not, on an integrated basis.”

His widow, Carol Rittiner, 90, recalls that people threw rocks at her future husband’s truck. He lost enough work at Rittiner Engineering that he got to the brink of bankruptcy, merely because people “knew he had something to do with integration in New Orleans,” said Rittiner, who was a secretary at the firm. In the days leading to integration, “everyone from the governor on down threatened to jail him if he opened schools,” she said.

She remembered attending a key School Board meeting where her uncle, segregationist board member Emile Wagner, a founder of the White Citizens’ Council, stood up and said, “Everyone in favor of segregation, stand up and come with me.” As he led the group to the door, he looked at her and said, “Well, Carol?”

“I’m not with you. I’m going with Mr. Rittiner,” she said.

. . . . . . .

14bridges todayCivil Rights icon Ruby Bridges spoke with New Orleans students, like Carl Akers, 12, at the Louisiana Children’s Museum about her experiences Friday.

To the children at Frantz, who didn’t completely grasp the politics of what they were doing, it was both frightening and fascinating.

Initially Bridges saw the crowd and thought it was Mardi Gras. After school, she taught a friend a catchy new chant she had learned, and they jumped rope to it. “Two, four, six, eight, we don’t want to integrate.”

Gabrielle was frightened but also curious, she said. “I was kind of amazed at the whole thing initially,” she said, recalling riding in a marshals’ car after the officers were assigned to them. “I remember being in their cars, with these big men sitting in the front and we’re in the back. And I remember people throwing things, smashing the windows. The sound of the siren as we moved through the crowd. I didn’t really feel scared when I was in their car.”

But one day their escorts didn’t come, and so she walked through the yelling crowd with her mother. “That was the first time I had ever laid eyes on that kind of anger. People were screaming and saying things that a 6-year-old didn’t understand,” she said.

Gabrielle and Bridges remembered feeling alone during the school day. By contrast, Foreman had lots of teachers. “Yolanda and Ruby each had one, and I had the rest,” she said.

Still, she knew other kids were there and wanted to play with them. She’d seen the Gabrielle family walking to school, and she also knew there was a black girl named Ruby there. One time in the hall, she said, she peeked through pane-glass windows, saw Bridges and got in trouble. Much later in the year, after pressure from Bridges’ teacher, the children were allowed to play together during recess, they said.

14bridges gabrielleWomen crowd the sidewalk and jeer as Mrs. James Gabrielle, with police escort, walks her daughter Yolanda home after a day in integrated William Frantz school in New Orleans, November 30, 1960. (AP Photo)

Gabrielle’s mother, Daisy Gabrielle, now 92, was called a communist and countless racial epithets, and she was told that her child could get a disease from being in an integrated school. She had reluctantly removed Yolanda from school early on that first afternoon, fearing for the girl’s safety. But that night, she decided it wasn’t right to give up, so she took Yolanda back the next morning. “It was the principle of the thing,” she said.

Protesters holding Bibles often surrounded the Foremans’ parsonage, sometimes even throwing rocks at the family pet, which was black and white and thus “an integrated dog,” she said. “And they’d tell Daddy to go live in the French Quarter with all the crazy people and that they’d find a place for me.”

After one too many bomb threats at the house, the family began staying with other ministers, moving from house to house. “We couldn’t check into a hotel, because no one would take us,” Foreman said.

Protesters even waited outside Lloyd Foreman’s church on Sundays, and at one point people threw lightbulbs filled with creosote at the building.

On a School Board anniversary years later, Foreman returned to Frantz only to find out that no one knew who she was, much less that there had been any white children at the school that year. Foreman went to the car and retrieved some of the archive she’d brought along: the encouraging telegram from Christian evangelist Billy Graham, the articles from Life magazine and from newspapers around the world. “They were amazed,” she said.

First hailed as “the New Orleans Four,” the black girls from McDonogh 19 and Frantz also were largely forgotten. Since they’d had no other classmates, few knew of their acts even a few years later. No one seemed to notice that Bridges, Tate and Etienne graduated from Francis T. Nicholls High School, an integrated, majority-white school where students got into fistfights along racial lines over whether the school should adopt the bobcat as its mascot, replacing the school’s longtime symbol, the Confederate rebel.

Today, Bridges’ name is widely known now, thanks to a children’s bookwritten about her in 1995 by Pulitzer Prize-winning psychiatrist Robert Coles. Publication of it prompted her to quit her job as a travel agent and start her own foundation, travel to schools around the world and eventually write her own children’s books about her experience.

But like so many jazz musicians and other famous New Orleanians, she had to leave New Orleans to be recognized. She has three honorary doctorate degrees — none from a Louisiana college — and a school named for her in Alameda, Calif.. An Indianapolis, Ind., exhibit about her experience contains a replica of the Frantz school entrance and her classroom. A monument to be unveiled next year in Oakland, Calif., will bear images of 25 champions for humanity including 6-year-old Ruby.

In 1964, Look magazine published a two-page Norman Rockwell illustration called “The Problem We All Live With,” which showed beefy federal marshals escorting Bridges past a wall splattered with a thrown tomato and two grafittied words: “nigger” and “KKK.” Bridges didn’t see it until years later.

Once in a blue moon, she said, she’d get a call from a reporter wanting to do a story for Black History Month. Then her friends would say, “Really, that’s you?” she said.

“But otherwise no one knew. No one knew about any of us. … We’d been forgotten.”

. . . . . . .

Katy Reckdahl can be reached at or 504.826.3396.

resource: wiki