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For Some, School Integration Was More Tragedy Than Fairy Tale

Almost 60 years later, a mother regrets her decision to send her 6-year-old into a hate-filled environment.
Digital Public Library of America

More than 55 years after Raymond and Vera Landry, a longeshoreman and a nurse, allowed their daughter Sheryl Ann to become the only black student to attend an otherwise all-white New Orleans public school, the mother reached out for help tracking down the Sept. 8, 1961, newspaper photo. As Vera Landry explained to me in a February 2017 message, it wasn’t a major anniversary year; she was reaching out on Sheryl’s 62nd birthday.

Sheryl had integrated McDonogh No. 11 when she was 6. But the mother was still beating herself up over the decision to send her child into that hostile environment. “It breaks my heart,” she wrote, “to know what I put my child through.”

This year is a kind of major anniversary year. Sixty-five years ago, the U.S. Supreme Court, in Brown v. Board of Education, declared that “Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal,” making it possible — eventually — for Sheryl to go to a school that would have turned away her parents.

To the extent that the public thinks of school integration, it thinks of those black people who were first: the Little Rock 9 in Arkansas, Ruby Bridges at William Frantz Elementary; Leona Tate, Tessie Prevost and Gail Etienne at McDonogh 19. And to the extent the public thinks of those integration pioneers, it thinks of them as the heroes in a civil rights fairy tale that ends with black folks and white folks living happily ever after.

But America’s schools remain largely segregated. So there was no “ever after,” and the Landrys, who put themselves in the center of an integration story, have felt mostly anguish since then.

As strange as it may seem, those in the second wave of integration pioneers likely have more horrible stories than those who went first — if only because the second group didn’t get the same amount of attention from the media or law enforcement.

The Landrys believe Sheryl’s 1961 ordeal was tougher than Ruby Bridges’ ordeal in 1960 because when Ruby entered Frantz, almost every white child withdrew, leaving the 6-year-old in a classroom by herself. The mob of adults gathered outside was, well, a mob, and it’s no small thing that a 6-year-old had to walk through it daily, but Ruby was shepherded in and out by U.S. marshals. Once inside Frantz, she had a teacher she’s described as loving and supportive.

According to The Times-Picayune, in 1961, 175 students appeared at McDonogh No. 11 for the first day of school: 174 white children and one Negro girl. Across the city, 12 black children entered six formerly all-white schools, but according to that report, “No U.S. deputy marshals accompanied them this time, as was the case last fall.”

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