Getting Back to Abnormal

PBS Premiere: July 14, 2014Check the broadcast schedule »

In Context

The population of New Orleans has historically experienced dramatic fluctuations in ethnicity and race, stemming from factors such as colonization, slavery and immigration. From 1850 to 1950, the population underwent a substantial shift as the number of foreign-born residents decreased from more than 40 percent of the population to just 3 percent, while the number of black residents increased from 5.3 percent to 30.7 percent of the population. This pattern was widespread across the United States as the participation of black citizens in the burgeoning industries of large cities intensified.

On May 17, 1954, the verdict of Brown v. Board of Education determined that the segregation of public schools was in violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Resistance to the U.S. Supreme Court decision was fierce in many Southern states, resulting in both President Eisenhower and President Kennedy deploying the National Guard to assist in the integration of school districts and protect young students from protesters. In New Orleans, the desegregation of public schools is now referred to as the "New Orleans School Crisis" because of the violent and bitter responses from segregationists.

Federal district court judge J. Skelly Wright mandated that New Orleans public schools needed to begin the process of desegregation by September 1960. However, it wasn't until November 1960 that African-American students were actually admitted to white schools. Ruby Bridges, Leona Tate, Tessie Provost and Gail Etienne were among the first African-American schoolchildren to attend formerly all-white schools in the South when they enrolled at schools in the Ninth Ward in the face of fervent protest and backlash. Tate, ProProvost and Etienne attended McDonogh Number 19; Bridges attended William Frantz Elementary School. In response, many white parents pulled their children from those two schools, leaving behind fewer than 10 white students enrolled in both schools combined. Bridges was left alone in the classroom with the only white teacher who would agree to teach her.


» Fussell, Elizabeth. "Constructing New Orleans, Constructing Race: A Population History of New Orleans." Journal of American History 94 (December 2007).

» KnowLA Encyclopedia of Louisiana "New Orleans School Crisis."

» Landphair, Juliette. "'The Forgotten People of New Orleans': Community, Vulnerability, and the Lower Ninth Ward." Journal of American History 94 (December 2007).