50 years later, I'm still trying to integrate my school
On the morning of my first day of first grade at a new school, 50 years ago Sunday, U.S. marshals knocked on my family's door. They had been sent by the president of the United States, they said, to take me to school. I was 6 years old, and I had no idea who these men in uniform were. Nor did I know what would happen that day as I became the first black student to attend William Frantz Public School in New Orleans - and one of the first to integrate an elementary school in the South.
Our friends, family and neighbors had been at the house that morning, helping my mother get me ready. I was wearing a white dress with white bows. Many people who have never met me or who didn't see me that day might remember that outfit, too: It's in Norman Rockwell's painting "The Problem We All Live With," in which I am perpetually the 6-year-old girl in a white dress and pigtails.
The problem Rockwell alludes to has been part of our history since the first enslaved Africans were brought to the Americas more than 400 years ago, and it is one that each of us still confronts. Even today, the painting reminds me of my purpose in life. That purpose can be found in the shell of the William Frantz school building in New Orleans's Upper Ninth Ward. The building has sat empty since the devastation of Hurricane Katrina five years ago. Before the storm, the school was predominantly black - the school that I integrated by force, under guard by federal marshals, slowly returned from being mixed-race to being segregated, by economics and demographics this time.
Now, I want to make a new school in its place, a school that will stand for integration and equality in education.
I have a lot of work to do to get to the first day of school at a revitalized William Frantz, but it is no less daunting than the obstacles that met me there five decades ago.
That morning, we drove the 10 blocks or so to my new school with the marshals, friends and family members walking behind the car. It seemed like a very important day. No one told me: You are making history. I was just told to behave.
By the time we got to the school, a crowd was gathered outside. We lived New Orleans, so I was accustomed to the crowds of Mardi Gras. I thought we had somehow stumbled into a parade. Police officers on horseback lined the streets, and in the growing crowd, people were shouting.
The federal marshals grabbed my hand and rushed me inside, where I was taken straight to the principal's office. That's where I sat for the rest of the school day.
Most people in the crowd outside were parents of other students. They had known that some of the city's schools were going to be desegregated that day, but they didn't know which ones. So they stood waiting, ready to pull their children out of class if their school had been chosen. All day, children left William Frantz as I sat in the principal's office.
Finally, someone came in and told me that school was dismissed. I remember thinking that this new school was really easy.
The next day, the marshals took us to school again. By the time we drove up, the crowd had almost doubled in size from the day before. Everyone seemed more agitated: screaming, shouting, chanting, carrying hateful signs. The marshals rushed me in again and said, "Walk straight ahead and don't look back."
It was completely different inside the building - dead quiet. The school had been emptied out. When I got to the top of the stairs, someone told me that my classroom was down the hall. A woman stepped out and said: "Hi, my name is Mrs. Henry. I'm your teacher."