HOPE Crew Returns to the Field in New Orleans

By Special Contributor posted 06-23-2021 12:32


By Molly Baker 

With health and safety at the forefront, HOPE (Hands-On Preservation Experience) Crew returned to the field for the first time since the nationwide outbreak of COVID-19. Guided by stringent national, state, and local COVID-safe protocols, the HOPE Crew held a carpentry training program at the McDonogh No.19 Elementary Public School, located in the Lower 9th Ward of New Orleans.

A recipient of a 2020 African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund grant, McDonogh 19 is also a Where Women Made History campaign notable site due to the significant events that took place here during the 1950s and 1960s Civil Rights movement. On November 14, 1960, six years after separate-but-equal schools were ruled unconstitutional in Brown v. Board of Education, six-year-old Leona Tate, Gail Etienne, and Tessie Prevost were escorted by federal marshals through a crowd of shouting protesters to attend McDonogh 19, becoming the first Black Americans to attend formerly white-only schools in Louisiana, along with Ruby Bridges who simultaneously integrated William Frantz Elementary School just blocks away from McDonogh 19.

A group of apprentices work on carpentry on a set of wooden stairs.
HOPE Crew participants working on west staircase at McDonogh 19. | Credit: Harlin Miller Photography 

When the ongoing rehabilitation project is complete, the building will serve as an interpretive space to tell this story. The remainder of the building will be used for community events, provide affordable housing for elderly community members, and serve as the future home of the Leona Tate Foundation for Change. Fittingly, the building will be named after the three brave girls as the Tate, Etienne & Prevost Center, removing the former white slave owner John McDonogh’s name.

Practicing Preservation While Saving History

Thanks to the generous support of Capital One, paid participants from Louisiana Green Corps and New Orleans Technical Education Provider (NOTEP) learned basic carpentry skills, documentation methods, preservation methods, and the anatomy of a staircase: vertical rise, stinger construction, riser height, tread depth, and railing regulations.

Over the course of three days, the socially distanced crew began the restoration of two existing stairways and, using the Secretary of Interior's Standards, recreated a third stairway using the remaining stairways as the model.

A closer look at a group of apprentices doing some carpentry on a set of wooden stairs.
HOPE Crew participants install reconstructed central staircase. | Credit: Harlin Miller Photography 

The eight youths of diverse backgrounds participating in the program learned skills from three expert instructors including finish carpenter Glenn Hays, superintendent Gregg Taylor of CDW Services, LLC, and Mike Grote, Director of Building Programs at Alembic Community Development, who has been working closely with the Leona Tate Foundation for Change to manage the overall rehabilitation project.

By adhering to strict protocols all participants were kept safe amid the pandemic. COVID-safe procedures included daily temperature checks administered at the beginning of each day, the creation of several sanitizing stations throughout the jobsite, provisioning each participant with their own tools so no cross contamination occurred, requiring mandatory mask wearing upon entry to the jobsite, and the division of the crew into smaller teams assigned to separate designated areas ensuring that they could safely work six feet apart.

Through this opportunity, the unemployed participants learned under-taught preservation skills such as conditions assessment, documentation of existing elements, replicating missing architectural elements using the surviving material as a model, and replacing with in-kind materials including the wood species and paint type and color, determined by a previous paint analysis.  

Leona Tate speaking to a group of HOPE Crew participants about the history of McDonogh 19.
Leona Tate greets the crew at McDonogh 19 | Credit: Harlin Miller Photography 

Additionally, the participants sharpened their previously acquired carpentry skills and built upon them by working with master carpenters to assist in the recreation of the missing staircase and exploring the use of the Pythagorean theorem to calculate the stringer length. Further, the students received assistance with soft skills development including submitting job-inquiry letters to local preservation contractors. Most importantly, the participants learned the benefits of preserving historic materials and the pride of playing a role in giving this site new life.

Of course the project wasn’t just about protecting the historic site; it served as a lesson in history as well. Joining the crew for several talks, Leona Tate told the participants about the events of November 14 ,1960, and shared her vision for the center along with its potential impact on the Lower 9th Ward. HOPE Crew participant David Frederick shared his experience, saying, “It was an honor and life-changing experience to learn and work in my city on such an important site to the Civil Rights movement. I appreciate the people who put themselves on the line to open up doors for us.”

Molly Baker is the manager, HOPE Crew at the National Trust for Historic Preservation.