UL's trailblazing work in desegregation reaped many benefits on the campus, and in Lafayette. There were setbacks and problems to be sure, but the University's desegregation demonstrated a recurrent historical pattern: a lone success on any front often proves to be the first domino.

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 XII in the series. To read from Part I, click here.

It is now a truism that the civil rights revolution liberated not just black southerners but the entire region. As was the case with the South itself, SLI's desegregation proved to be a liberating force that opened up new possibilities for a historically ambitious school that had begun its existence as the smallest of the white state colleges. SLI's desegregation and the racist response to it in the legislature and other parts of state government produced something of a siege mentality that imbued SLI with an emergent new identity and a desire to be something more than a regional teacher's college. Most of SLI's early African American students were from its immediate service region. Nonetheless, these students were a major factor in the erosion of SLI's insularity. Desegregation made its competition for state funds and favors decidedly more difficult, but it also enabled SLI, for the first time, to compete for newly minted Ph.D.s from well outside the region. While substantially enhancing its academic reputation, especially in the humanities, the addition of ambitious, talented, and sometimes renowned scholars to an already solid core of faculty made the university more attractive to top students beyond the state. Importantly, the other state colleges had similar experiences of what might be termed material and moral growth following their desegregations.

There were shortcomings and setbacks to be sure. The USL basketball program suffered yet another round of NCAA penalties, first because of its own failures of oversight and control, but partly because it had upset the balance of power in college basketball, especially in the South. While black students came to feel considerably more at home on campus, and the university developed significant strengths in black history and literature, black students remained unwelcome in traditionally white student enclaves such as "The Strip," an off-campus conglomeration of nightspots and restaurants. This remained true even in the 1980s. At one point, in the 1990s, there was controversy over the school's distinctive Ragin' Cajun moniker, as some black students questioned whether that logo could really include them comfortably.

Even in 2004, half a century after the breakthrough 1954 court case that opened the school to black enrollment, there continued to exist the clannishness, the separation that observers of race relations can find on almost any college campus. But there was by then also abundant evidence of students of different colors comfortable with each other, on campus and off. Jim Caillier, one of those Paul Breaux students who matriculated in 1960, had a remarkable career in Louisiana higher education, one that culminated with his presidency of the Louisiana system of state colleges and universities. Approximately one of every six students on the Lafayette campus was of African American heritage. There was a vibrant Christiana G. Smith Alumni Chapter for black alumni. Shawn Wilson, a former Smith Chapter president, became president of the university's alumni association. Renamed yet again, the University of Louisiana at Lafayette's distinguished doctoral program in English long featured one of the country's greatest writers, Louisianan Ernest J. Gaines, as its writer in residence.

Shawn Wilson and University of Louisiana at Lafayette assistant professor of history Michael Martin were key figures in organizing a fiftieth-anniversary commemoration of SLI's desegregation. It included a two-day academic conference featuring scholars from an impressive range of universities on both sides of the Atlantic, the hosting of desegregation pioneers and their families by President Raymond Authément, and the installation of campus historical markers acknowledging their sizable contribution to the university's history and to the civil rights movement in American higher education. Though the academic presentations were certainly worthwhile, easily the highlight of the event was the opportunity to hear Helen Reaux Gordon, Helma Constantine, Juanita Jackson Thibeaux, and others talk movingly about the intense inner stress of those days when desegregation was new and alarming. Making it an important episode in civil rights history were the way in which they met that challenge, the magnitude of this experiment in racial justice, and its long-term success.

Historians Armstead Robinson and Patricia Sullivan have argued that "more attention must be concentrated on the origins, process, and outcome of civil rights struggles in local communities before the movement and its consequences can be fully understood," for "all too often, scholars emphasize the interracialism of the Brown decade and the role of the federal government instead of focusing on the vital and essential role played by black initiative before, during, and after the Brown decade." In southern higher education, this is a clear call for a case-by-case examination of the desegregation experience on individual campuses, not least to determine the degree to which the well-documented experiences at Alabama and Ole Miss, or even at Georgia and Clemson, are representative of college desegregation generally, but also to determine the role played by local communities in the process. Fortunately, this challenge is to some extent now being met.

Case studies of other schools and regions also will inspire questions about the oft-supposed homogeneity of the Deep South on the verge of the civil rights revolution; south Louisiana certainly raises that issue. Evidence that local citizens initiated their own civil rights challenges may make it more difficult for unreconstructed segregationists to interpret the efforts of earlier confederates as resistance to government tyranny and outside agitators. Proponents of civil rights will discover a new, larger cast of heroes whose stories richly merit telling, even as neo-confederates continue their enshrinement of the James Eastlands and Lester Maddoxes. These issues should be of considerable interest not only to scholars but also to policy makers in a period of growing environmental, population, and resource limits when issues of race, education, and opportunity will become more, rather than less, important.

NB:  This is the last installment of the series.


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.

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