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.
Conversation with Ruby Bridges and Pam Foreman
Who: Sally Ann Roberts interviews Ruby Bridges and her classmate Pam Foreman
When: 6:00 p.m. Sunday
Where: Louisiana Children’s Museum, 421 Julia St.
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.
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The 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.
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Civil 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.
Women 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.”
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Katy Reckdahl can be reached at email@example.com or 504.826.3396.