New Orleans, 1979: “It Was Worth It”
This article originally appeared in Southern Exposure Vol. 7 No. 2, "Just Schools: A Special Report Commemorating the 25th Anniversary of the Brown Decision." Find more from that issue here.
Tessie Prevost still lives with her parents in the same house she was raised in, and her grandmother, now 75, still lives next door. Tessie is now 24 and works as a typist for the city’s department of streets. She had wanted to be a teacher, but when she went to college at the University of Southwestern Louisiana in Lafayette, she found a breed of racism reminiscent of her first years in public schools. "I thought things had changed," she recalls, "but when I got to Lafayette, people we calling me nigger again, which is something I hadn't heard in 70 years. Finally, I didn't want to be a teacher anymore, I just came home."
In March, 1979, Clare Jupiter, former member of the Southern Exposure staff, talked with Tessie about her first years in school, and then talked with her mother and grandmother, Mrs. Dorothy Prevost and Mrs. Dora Prevost. Excerpts from their comments follow.
Tessie: I don't really remember the first time I learned I would be going to another school. I remember going to take the test. I guess it was the school board test, that's what it was.
Then we were chosen, so we went to McDonogh, three of us went to McDonogh, one went to Frantz, and I remember the first day cause we went to school in cabs. I remember seeing the other two girls. Now we parked not in the block of McDonogh, but the next street down from it. They parked around the back way, but how we got around to the front, I don’t remember that.
But I remember that first day. My daddy was with me. My mother told me that I asked her when we got up to the front of the school and there were hundreds of people out there – I thought it was like Mardi Gras - "Why you sending me to school when it’s Carnival. Everybody's out and I’m going to school." I don't remember if I realized what it really meant. It wasn’t my parents hid it from me, but it’s just that I was six years old. No way they could really explain that to me.
I don't remember the first day in class, but I remember going to school and seeing it all on TV. I was excited about that. I had a dog and it was on TV cause they came to the house. We used to sit and watch the news waiting for it to come on.
That first year, when they had all the people out there [hostile demonstrators], that was the worst, really a bad year. I think it was worse on my parents and grandmother than it was on me. I remember seeing all those people out there and just looking around. They had marshals out there. I guess I just really didn't know what it was all about.
That at first year, there were no other kids. It was just the three of us. They had only white kids going there before, but when we went they just kind of snatched them out. The second year, there were about 15 of us, and then the next year was when they turned that school over to blacks, and we had to go to another school. We went to Semmes. Now, that I remember very well. It was completely different from the way it was at McDonogh. Cause when we went to McDonogh that first year, it was just us three in the whole building. And we were the only black kids the second year, but the white kids were friendly. We would sit out t on the lawn, in the yard. The first year, we never went outside, but the second year we were able to go out and play.
When we got to Semmes, it was just a completely different scene. That's where the prejudice came in, and that's when my parents began telling me – I would say I really don't want to go to school, I'm tired of it—and they would sit down and talk to me, and say this is something that you're not doing just yourself, but for somebody else, maybe you'll have a little sister or little brother, and they'll be able to go to any school they want to go to, and the little kids around here, they'll be able to go to any school they want to. So then I kind of realized, and kind of put up with it.
But those years at Semmes were something. We used to have to fight every day. We used to get beat up every day. We used to get spit on every day. That first year at Semmes, we had about eight blacks at most. We had to band close together. Cause we were small. We were in the third grade and they had kids there in the fifth grade and sixth grade. They used to look like men and women to me, you know. We had a teacher, Miss Dunn, she hated us. She used to let the kids beat us, let them spit on us, and every time we passed, she would hold her nose like we stank, you know. She'd have all the other kids doing this - this was the teacher. She was the fifth-grade teacher.
In the fourth grade, we had gotten kind of used to it. More blacks came, but the ones that were there before, some of them didn't come back. Some of the ones that started that fourth year with us, they didn't stay. Their parents took them off - I guess they just didn't want to go through the hassle. But then it got better after we got older. We were able to defend ourselves. Cause we were getting up into the other grades and we were able to defend ourselves.
I can't say that I had any white friends from elementary school. I used to ask my momma and daddy why they were acting this way. I would ask them "What did we do?" And they would say that's just the way some people are, some people are just ignorant. They can't help it. The kids, they couldn't really be blamed for it, cause it's not their fault. It was their parents mostly that had put this into them. But it was bad for awhile, especially at Semmes. I got tired of it. I just didn't want to do it anymore. My stomach would start getting messed up while I was at Semmes.
I do think it was worth it now. I don't think I realized what we were doing then. It wasn't until some years later. I don't know what happened to that book, but we had a book here, Dr. Coles' book, did you see that? I don't remember him at all. Things like that, you don't hardly forget, but I don't remember him at all, coming here to visit and talk with me. But some years later, I went to see this movie - "Watts," I think it was – and at the beginning of the movie, they had clippings like with Jessie Jackson and his "I Am Somebody" speech. And they had that picture from the front of Dr. Coles' book, that picture was in the movie. And I looked at it, and it kind of like brought tears to my eyes when I saw it.
I said to my friend, "Look at this," because they were like talking about me and "I Am Somebody" and showing pictures of black leaders and reading from black poetry, and showing a picture from this book. I didn't realize it was as widespread as it was, or that other people knew about it. It didn't seem like a big thing to me really. But people would start talking, saying "Yes, I remember this, this was the first little black girl who went to the white school." And people would ask me about how I felt, and they still do, and I really can't remember how I felt that first day. But I know it was worth it.
Mrs. Dorothy Prevost, Tessie's mother: My husband Charles always did say, "Why should Tessie go way back there to school when here is a school right here, a few blocks from us." This was McDonogh. Tessie had been in kindergarten, and she was very advanced. We didn't have the money to put her in a private school, but we wanted her to keep up her pace of learning. We knew McDonogh had better facilities. There were only 150 students over there, in this big building, but over at Hardin, it was crowded. And it was 15 blocks away, which for a little girl of six is a little bit too far.
So when it came time to register Tessie I went to McDonogh. We never realized there would be such a big to-do about it. They told me that I couldn't come there and that I had to go to the nearest black school. This was 1960. It was me and another lady I saw there. Just us two blacks. We just went on our own.
Then the school board decided to give tests to children about to go to the first grade. It was so hard, they knew plenty of black people wouldn't pass it. But Tessie was very smart. They chose her and two other girls to go to McDonogh. I remember they sent us a registered letter. Nobody was supposed to know which school she was going to; it was just between us and the school board. I was so excited when I got the letter. The man brought it at night, it was a special delivery letter from the school board.
We weren't really afraid. We were concerned about Tessie, that she would get an education. It was worth it. The schools are better now. I can see it with Tory's homework [Tory is Tessie's younger sister]. There are better materials, better facilities for black children. The children can grasp things better, and learn more.
Mrs. Dora Prevost, Tessie's grandmother: Well, time brings about changes. I wish they had some of what they have now when my children was going to school. They would have had better schools. But if things were like they are now, I'd be happy. But we had to struggle. One thing, I was determined that my children were going to have an education regardless. I felt in my soul - didn't know if I would live to see it - that things were going to be better for the black man, and I wanted them to be able to take their place. It was a struggle putting my children through school. Carfare then was a nickel, and my husband and I walked to work so they could have that nickel. I didn't want them to have to struggle like me. I wanted to be a nurse so bad, but I knew you had to go to school, and I couldn't.
I can remember when black people could first vote. Black people didn't always vote, no, no, no. I don't remember the year now, but that was a time when the Negroes found out they could vote, that was beautiful. But they didn't always vote. I do know that it was a joyous time among black people, because the vote is the thing that gives you a little power, you know. Course after they passed the law that people could vote, they still had a long ways to go. Because the people would try to discourage you, you know. But I never let an opportunity pass to vote, because I know what it means. See, I could remember when Negroes couldn't vote, so now I have an opportunity to vote, I'm certainly not going to let it pass.
I wasn't surprised by what we had to go through. I felt this way about Tessie going to school, that if we could hold out then all of this foolishness would pass. And sure enough it did. It did get better.
A lot of people is under the impression that you want to socialize with their people. Or that we want our sons and daughters to marry into their families. That's the kind of idea they had. We don't have that kind of idea. But that's what's in the back of other people's minds. But all people want is equal rights. Treat me as a person, don't treat me according to my color, treat me as a person. The next generation will see what it's all about, white and black, and start getting together. The main trouble we had those first years, we got from the people right in this vicinity here. This was a mixed neighborhood. Poor white people, you know. We had plenty of trouble, and I got most of it, cause Dorothy and Charles worked and I had Tessie. I got terrible phone calls. The only thing that stopped one particular lady from bothering me, she used to bother me all the time. See, I’m not an obscene person. I’m not going to call you a dirty name because you called me one. She found out the house, she got the number, and she called me up. She said, "You nigger s.b." She said, "If you don't get your granddaughter out that school, you're going to be sorry
So I said, "Aw, honey, what you want to call me a name like that for. Don't you know your grandmother is my aunt." Wham, she hung up. Well a lot of Creole people down here are mixed. Now she thought I was going to call her a bad name because she called me one. But I said, "Honey, you ought to be ashamed of yourself to talk about your ancestors that way. Wham, she hung up.
You see, what these people was trying to do was break us down so others would say, "Well, I'm not sending my child out there to be embarrassed." But Charles and Dorothy, they stuck it out. Even though it cost suffering cause they were suffering and worrying, we were all suffering. I would say to myself, poor little thing, she has to be out there with all those white people, they don't want her. I would say that to myself, but I wouldn't say that to her. I would let her see me smile.
She told me when she came home one day, "Some boys out there sure are bad, they say all these ugly things to us." But their parents were telling them that. They were trying to discourage Charles and Dorothy from sending her.
They had one teacher up there at Semmes who told Tessie, "I don't know why y'all come up here. You know they don't want you here." So when she came home and told me that, I felt, to embarrass a child like that. But I wouldn't let her see the tears in my eyes. When I went to make my prayers, I prayed for that school. I asked the Lord to break down that segregation so that the little kids wouldn't have to suffer. You see, I don't care what they do to me, I can take it. But when you come down to hurting little children, you know, that's a different thing.
Things are so much better now. But there's still room for a lot of improvement. I believe there's a lot of improvement on both sides. I do believe that in a few years maybe, this thing will go out to where a man is a man, but they're going to have to grow to that. You take where people been doing something for centuries, you can't get over that overnight. I believe it will be better, but not overnight. And the best thing for our children is education. We improve as we go. □
/*-->*/ /*-->*/ /*-->*/ /*-->*/ Clare Jupiter is a former staff member of Southern Exposure. She is now a lawyer in New Orleans. (1981)
Clare Jupiter is a former staff member of Southern Exposure. She now lives in New Orleans. (1979)