On September 7, 2023, Macalester College President Suzanne M. Rivera presented Ms. Leona Tate with the honorary degree of Doctor of Humane Letters.

The founder of the Leona Tate Foundation for Change in New Orleans was on campus to receive the honor as part of the college’s annual Opening Convocation.

President Rivera’s honorary degree citation for Leona Tate

Ms. Leona Tate. Civil rights pioneer. Educator. Activist. Leader. Visionary.

For decades, you have been a pacesetter in the struggle for equal access and opportunity. Through your work, you preserve and amplify the stories of the Civil Rights Movement—including your own pivotal role—and urge learners of all ages to connect that history to the ongoing fight for justice.

On November 14, 1960, six years after the US Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education landmark decision ruled segregation in public schools unconstitutional, you became one of the first Black children in the country to desegregate a Deep South public school. Alongside Gail Etienne and Tessie Prevost (and not far from Ruby Bridges at a nearby school that same day), you climbed the eighteen steps toward McDonogh #19 in New Orleans, escorted by federal marshals and surrounded by a hostile mob. In the weeks ahead, all of your white classmates enrolled elsewhere, and you, Gail, and Tessie finished the year as a class of three. You were six years old.

In the years that followed, you integrated two additional schools, facing physical attacks, emotional abuse, and social ostracism. Your nominators for this honor write that you pursued each opportunity with dignity and grace, and responded “with love, kindness, and a commitment to create opportunities to illuminate the struggle for educational access,” forming a foundation that guides your work today.

In Hurricane Katrina’s aftermath, you returned to New Orleans with a renewed commitment to preserving the city’s history. By 2009, you had founded the Leona Tate Foundation for Change. You launched an effort to purchase the building on St. Claude Avenue that had housed McDonogh #19, with a goal of restoring the property, then educating and empowering the community. In 2022, the building reopened as the Tate, Etienne, and Prevost (TEP) Interpretive Center, a community hub with space for local organizations, senior housing, and antiracism education.

Today, on Macalester’s campus nearly 1,300 miles away from the TEP Center, many students, faculty, and staff carry lessons from your legacy and advocacy. Your connection with Macalester took root in 2013, as the college’s hurricane relief work in New Orleans evolved into community partnerships that include courses, trips during college breaks, and urban faculty colloquia. With a generosity that’s squarely at the heart of your mission, you have hosted personal tours at the TEP Center. For the past decade, each Macalester College Bonner Scholars cohort has learned about school integration directly from you.

As Macalester educational studies professor Dr. Brian Lozenski writes, “We know that freedom movements are not based on the work of the most recognizable people, but those who have been consistent and dedicated to struggle over time.” You embody that dedication. Today, we honor you for your abiding activism and leadership—and for the countless people you have inspired to take action to build a more just world.

We hereby bestow upon you the degree of Doctor of Humane Letters, honoris causa.

September 8 2023

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