In 1954, UL became the first school in the country to comply with the Supreme Court's desegregation order of Brown v Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas. It also became the first historically white school in the South to desegregate in any permanent and meaningful way. UL alumnus and Appalachian State University historian Mike Wade chronicled UL's story in Higher Education and the Civil Rights Movement, published by the University Press of Florida.


This is Part I of the Series

"Oh, that all started with the Paul Breaux strike."

Thus did Helma Constantine—a bright-eyed, tan-complexioned, active ninety-year-old—explain what led her to sue Southwestern Louisiana Institute (SLI) in 1954 after the college, citing its whites-only charter, had denied her daughter admission. Historic old Paul Breaux was the black community's school in Lafayette, slated to be demolished. When parents learned that the new, relocated Paul Breaux would open in 1953 with hand-me-down furniture, old books, and still no bus service, their patience with years of educational deprivation and school system condescension snapped. Outraged mothers launched a highly effective, weeklong boycott of classes in February 1953. It garnered national attention, wrung concessions from the school board, and emboldened some parents to try breaching the walls of segregation at the local state college. That second effort produced perhaps the most significant episode of undergraduate desegregation in southern higher education. As with much of the civil rights movement, it was locally inspired and owed much to determined black women.

Helma Constantine, secretary of the local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), was one of the leaders of the Paul Breaux movement. A struggling seamstress and insurance agent, she faced the considerable expense of sending her daughter, Clara Dell, away to Southern University in Scotlandville—or getting her admitted to SLI. At that juncture, no public four-year college in the Deep South had a desegregated undergraduate population. Coming in April 1954, the month before the U.S. Supreme Court's decision in Brown v. Board of Education, the federal district court ruling in Constantine et al. v. Southwestern Louisiana Institute et al. was the final and perhaps crowning success of an older NAACP Legal Defense Fund campaign to achieve educational desegregation by insisting on the "equality" in the "separate but equal" formula of Plessy v. Ferguson (1896).

It was a victory for a strategy four years retired, after two decades of faithful and successful, but ultimately limited service in that each case had to be pursued individually rather than on a class action basis. The NAACP had already decided in 1950 to try to overturn Plessy. Nonetheless, Constantine exemplified local initiative as a driving force in the civil rights movement, and the case was the precedent for successful desegregation suits at McNeese State University (Lake Charles) in 1954 and at Southeastern Louisiana College (Hammond) in 1955. These later cases were decided in the time between the issuance of Brown I in May 1954 and Brown II, the enforcement decree, the following May. During this period, segregationist-organized "massive resistance" gained a substantial measure of control of state politics, thereby forestalling additional campus desegregations.

SLI administrators and Lafayette's community leaders provided McNeese and Southeastern with a model for minimizing publicity and tensions. They cooperated to make the September 1954 desegregation of classes as low-key, carefully structured, and unpublicized an event as it could possibly be. Their insistence on good order and little publicity minimized tensions, but it also ensured that the historic episode would go unremembered, as the civil rights battlefront in higher education moved on to highly publicized confrontations at places like Ole Miss and Alabama, replete with chaos and histrionics recorded for posterity by national news networks and international reporting services.

The earlier history of the NAACP's campaign to desegregate higher education is better known. Though its goal was undergraduate desegregation, Constantine marked the culmination of the NAACP's lengthy struggle to desegregate graduate and professional schools at historically white southern colleges and universities. That campaign had begun in 1933, when Thomas Hocutt sued unsuccessfully for admission to the University of North Carolina's pharmacy school because the state had provided no such school for African Americans. Two years later, Donald Murray won admission to the University of Maryland's law school. He graduated in 1938, and some months later, despite the U.S. Supreme Court's decision that year in the Gaines case, the Louisiana State University (LSU) law school refused an application by Hurchail Jackson for admission.

In 1946, the LSU law school denied Charles Hatfield's request for admission. The LSU board of supervisors and the State Board of Education suggested that he attend law school on an out-of-state scholarship until a separate school could be established at Southern University, as had recently been promised for the 1947–48 academic year. In the same year, LSU rejected New Iberia resident Viola Johnson's application to the School of Medicine. Hatfield and Johnson each sued in state court for admission, but Judge G. Caldwell Hegert dismissed the suits, saying that the plaintiffs should demand that Southern University provide the appropriate professional schools. Both pursued their education outside the state.

Part II:  Lead Up to Trial: Plessy v Ferguson is Weakened


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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