Dominic Massa / Eyewitness News
NEW ORLEANS – “This is Al’s day,” explained Leona Tate as she stood outside of the former McDonogh 19 school.
That simple statement, paired with symbolic actions, summed up the tribute Wednesday to former federal marshal Al Butler, who died in February.
Though he did not live in New Orleans, his family said he was so proud of his role in guarding Tate and two other girls who integrated the Lower 9th Ward school in 1960 that he asked that his ashes be spread there when he died.
Wednesday, following a church service at Abundant Life Tabernacle Full Gospel Baptist Church, Tate joined Tessie Prevost Williams and Butler’s widow Pat, to spread Butler’s ashes outside the school campus they integrated in 1960.
Gail Etienne Stripling, who was the third young girl to integrate the school, was unable to attend the service due to recent surgery, but Butler’s wife read a touching letter from Stripling.
The three women only reunited with Al Butler two years ago, to mark the 50th anniversary of their historic first day at school. They appeared on WBOK radio.
“It’s almost like we just met him after 50 years and then he was gone but I thank God that we did get a chance to meet him again,” Tate said Wednesday.
“He was truly, truly a solider. He was a marshal that did a job, but a job well done,” she said.
Tate and Williams both shared memories of Butler and other marshals protecting the girls at all costs, during a turbulent time.
“I was never afraid. I dont think we had any reason to be afraid, that’s just how well protected we were,” she said.
Williams recounted her mother’s conversation with Butler that first day of school.
“The first day they came to pick us up, my mother told him, ‘Look, this is my baby I’m giving you.’ And he said ‘This is my job, and this is what I came to do.’”
Butler and other marshals also helped protect Ruby Bridges, who integrated William Frantz Elementary School the same day in 1960.
Butler supervised a group of about 40 marshals in New Orleans. The current U.S. Marshal for the area, Genny May, attended Wednesday’s service along with other marshals.