An Orleans Parish School Board committee voted Tuesday to move forward with plans to convert the historic McDonogh No. 19 School building in the Lower 9th Ward into an educational center and civil rights museum as envisioned by the nonprofit Leona Tate Foundation for Change.
The foundation wants to convert the space into an interpretive center that teaches visitors about the historic day in 1960 when the 6-year-old Tate was among the first black students to integrate all-white schools in New Orleans.
The first-floor center would teach basic facts about segregation and re-create scenes from when Tate was a student. The $14 million project would also include housing for low-income seniors on the top two floors.
Clutching a small purse, 6-year-old Leona Tate walked into McDonogh 19 Elementary School and helped to desegregate the South.
The project, which is in the early stages, calls for the school district to sell the property to the Housing Authority of New Orleans, which would then turn it over to Alembic Community Development, a local real estate development company committed to projects in underserved neighborhoods, public documents show.
In January, Alembic said the project was "moving forward" after the National Park Service awarded the Tate Foundation $500,000. However, the company said at the time it had not secured the rest of the $14 million.
Officials with HANO and Alembic did not return requests for comment Tuesday about how much funding still needs to be raised.
"McDonogh 19 occupies a particular place in the life and memory of the community," officials with Alembic said in a project update. "Since Hurricane Katrina, sitting vacant and boarded-up, the building has also become yet another symbol of disempowerment and neglect in the neighborhood."
On Tuesday, the OPSB's Property Committee agreed to support developers' application with the city for a conditional-use permit.
The school district still owns the building, which has been abandoned since being flooded after Katrina in 2005. It reached an agreement with HANO in March allowing the housing agency to buy the property, according to the school district's communications director, Tania Dall. That agreement expires in August.
The conditional-use permit is required because developers want the project to have more than 10,000 feet of community space.
"If the specific project doesn’t proceed, the conditional use would be voided," Dall said.
The proposal will go to the full School Board for a vote on Thursday.
McDonogh 19, a three-story, stucco school that was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2016, was built at 5909 St. Claude Ave. in 1929.
For years, it operated as an all-white school, even after the U.S. Supreme Court in 1954 declared that segregated public schools were unconstitutional.
That changed in November 1960, when four African-American first-graders began the slow and troubled process of desegregating the New Orleans school system.
Three of the girls — Leona Tate, Tessie Prevost and Gail Etienne — attended McDonogh 19, starting the same day that Ruby Bridges famously started at William Frantz Elementary School on the other side of the Industrial Canal.
They were all accompanied by federal marshals.
As other students' families got wind of the "McDonogh Three," the white parents started taking their children out of the school.
Eventually, the three were the only students left in the school, and to protect them from potential harm officials papered over the windows and prevented them from eating in the lunchroom or going outside for recess.
As some of the girls' families and the federal judges who ordered the desegregation process faced burning crosses and other threats, McDonogh 19's funding was cut by state officials, according to an article in the Hechinger Report.
The girls left in January 1962 after the School Board decided to resegregate McDonogh 19 as an all-black school. They went blocks away to T.J. Semmes Elementary, where they once again were tasked with integrating an all-white school.
Over time, the neighborhood changed, according to a summary of the proposed center written by Alembic Community Development.
Most white residents left the Lower 9th Ward for other parts of New Orleans and for St. Bernard Parish, and the neighborhood's white population declined by 70 percent from 1960 to 1970.
When Katrina hit, the old school was damaged and then abandoned.
The OPSB designated it as a surplus property in 2015 and put it up for auction, deeming it too expensive to repair. In 2017, it was appraised at $725,000.
When HANO acquires the funding it needs for the purchase, it plans to turn the school over to Alembic for development.