1960-1974: As black students at UL/USL tried to fully integrate into campus life, they still faced prejudice and discrimination. During this time however several factors liberalized attitudes on campus, chief among them being the Top 10 basketball teams of the early 1970's.

More than a decade before desegregation ripped through southern colleges, UL became the first school in the nation to desegregate following the Supreme Court's Brown v Board of Education decision, as well as the first historically white school in the South to desegregate in any meaningful way.  UL's desegregation was carried out peacefully, intentionally avoiding the public eye.  As a result, UL's critical rôle in desegregation is largely unknown. UL alumnus Michael Wade, a professor at Appalachian State, has deeply researched the topic, summarized here.

This is Part X in the series. To read from Part I, click here.

In 1960, the year that SLI became the University of Southwestern Louisiana (USL), some twenty outstanding graduates of Paul Breaux High School, inspired by the growing strength of the civil rights movement and determined to broaden African American participation in campus life, turned down academic and athletic scholarships at other institutions to go to college in Lafayette. They did not win their battles immediately. When the new male African American students decided to shave their heads and wear beanies, as other male freshmen did, the tradition was discontinued. They pressed for access to the dormitories and the dining halls, for participation in intramural sports, and, in 1963, for recognition for a chapter of Alpha Phi Alpha, a national black fraternity. Their chapter had to remain off-campus when they refused to sign an agreement not to admit white students. Their insistent courage inspired others and led to the gradual opening up of campus facilities and activities.

When the dormitories were opened to black students in the early 1960s, it seemed only natural to housing officials that black students would have black roommates. Natural, that is, until Thetis Simpson came along. A self-described "faculty brat," she was the daughter of historian Amos Simpson and Anne Simpson of the School of Music. In 1964, she lived in Foster Hall, then the freshman women's dormitory, and joined the Young Ambassadors, an interracial group whose purpose was to promote integration in Lafayette and improve race relations on campus. At that point, all black coeds who resided on campus were housed in one wing of Bonin Hall. That separation ended in 1965 when Thetis Simpson and a black Ambassador, Gwen Sigur from Alexandria, announced that they wanted to be roommates in Bonin Hall. The dean of women, fearing that they would be harassed, tried unsuccessfully to dissuade them. Save for one ugly note shoved under their door, Simpson and Sigur roomed together without incident.

Thetis Simpson left Lafayette following her graduation in 1968. When she returned in 1974, she was unable to believe the changes, especially the much larger percentage of black students and the degree to which they participated in campus life. Perhaps the key factor in this change was the university's leadership in desegregating college basketball in Louisiana. On the surface, this seems an odd assertion, but coach Beryl Shipley's courageous decision to break the color barrier by recruiting three black high school all-Americans for his 1966 team had far-reaching consequences. First, it attracted the wrath of the State Board of Education, which refused athletic scholarships to the recruits and then invited a National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) investigation, and probation, when Shipley found scholarship money for the players in Lafayette's black community. Shipley had already drawn the board's ire the previous year when he accepted an invitation to have his all-white team participate in the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletes (NAIA) playoffs, where they would have to face integrated teams, in violation of a moribund segregationist statute (it had already been overturned in the courts) forbidding interracial sports competition by Louisianans.

Second, the advent of highly talented black players fueled the meteoric rise to prominence of Ragin' Cajun basketball. Following a two-year probation during which the school was ineligible for postseason competition, and a rebuilding season in 1969–70, the 1970–71 Cajuns posted a 24–4 record, and their sophomore guard, Dwight Lamar, led the college division in scoring with a 36–point average. The following year, competing at the major college level for the first time, the 25–4 Cajuns won a bid to the sixteen-team NCAA tournament, becoming the first Louisiana team in fourteen years to participate. Lamar led the nation in scoring again with a 36.3–point average, becoming the only player ever to win both small college and major college scoring titles. Lamar was named first team all-American, and sophomore center Roy Ebron garnered honorable mention. The team was selected to the NCAA tournament for the second consecutive year, at one point ranking as high as number four in the national polls. Their success filled Blackham Coliseum to capacity, and more, with delighted community members and students who came to cheer "their" team. It greatly widened the acceptance of black students on campus while providing all students with a source of shared pride.

Another, less well known development in the greater inclusion of African Americans in the school's life was in academics. By the mid-1960s, USL's history department boasted three professors publishing in the field of what was then called black history. Two of them, James Dormon and Robert R. Jones, secured a National Defense Education Act (NDEA) grant for a Summer Institute in Afro-American History and Culture to be held on the Lafayette campus. The institute's purpose was to help high school teachers better understand black history and culture as they confronted integration of the public schools. The theme of the conference was Jim Dormon's idea that black history was tied to a unique black culture. Thirty participants—black and white—from all over the country came to Lafayette that summer; they listened to music in rural black nightclubs and saw the Dashiki Players from New Orleans perform Jean Genet's play The Blacks. They heard then-Marxist historian Eugene Genovese hold forth on black religion. Alex Haley came to talk about Malcolm X, though in his briefcase was what later became Roots, and he also lectured on his ancestry, and Kunta Kinte. In addition, participants attended a public meeting of the Lafayette Parish School Board on school integration, where they heard a prominent white local insurance agency owner say that he didn't want his children in school with people who, he thought, carried knives. Two of the black participants, imposing former athletes, played softball with history and English department members in a city recreation league that was just beginning to be integrated. Quite a few of the participants, black and white, went on to earn master's degrees in history. One, former Kansas State basketball player Ken Hamilton, earned a doctorate and embarked on a teaching career in St. Louis.

As the 1960s gave way to the 1970s, there was continued resistance as well. Faced with looming public school integration, Lafayette segregationists founded W. B. Vennard Academy to promote racial purity and other Christian principles as they understood them. South Louisiana voters warmed to the Republican Party's "Southern Strategy" in 1968. At Modern Music recording studio and music shop in Crowley, half an hour or so west of Lafayette, three solo artists—Johnny Rebel, Happy Fats, and Son of Mississippi—recorded a series of segregationist anthems for Reb Rebel Records in the late 1960s. Collected on an album titled "For Segregationists Only," the songs ranged in content from Johnny Rebel's epithet-laced "Move Them Niggers North" to the subtler, more coded protests found in Happy Fats's "Dear Mr. President." Rebel had a substantial underground hit with "Kajun Klu Klux Klan," which apparently sold more than 100,000 copies, primarily through Klan publications and most notably at the Klan's booth at the annual North Carolina State Fair. Leroy "Happy Fats" Leblanc, a Cajun music pioneer, became a kind of conservative celebrity in south Louisiana, developing a local television variety show that showcased his folksy manner, and appealing especially to those discovering that they were conservatives rather than simply racists.

Next: Desegregation at UL: Overlooked and Forgotten 


Excerpt from "Four Who Would: The Desegregation of Louisiana's State Colleges / Constantine v. Southwestern Louisiana Institute (1954) and the Desegregation of Louisiana's State Colleges" by Michael G. Wade, in Higher Education and the Civil Rights Movement: White Supremacy, Black Southerners, and College Campuses, Peter Wallenstein, Editor, University Press of Florida (2008), pp 60-91.

All rights reserved. This information or any portion thereof may not be copied or disseminated in any form or by any means or stored in an electronic database or retrieval system without the express written consent of the University Press of Florida.