Continuing our discussion of how UL in 1954 became the pioneer in desegregation for the South.

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

On the face of it, Lafayette, a market town in rural south Louisiana, seemed an unlikely locale for leadership in a civil rights movement that had yet to achieve the momentum and support that would define it by the early 1960s. Sympathy for experiments in racial justice, insofar as it existed south of the Mason-Dixon Line, was more a feature of such Border South states as Kentucky and Maryland. Less than fifty miles from the Gulf of Mexico, Lafayette was about as far south as a town in Dixie could be. But Lafayette was Deep South with a difference.

Many of Lafayette's early settlers were descendants of the Acadian exiles who peopled southwest Louisiana after 1755. Founded in 1824 as Vermilionville, the village became Lafayette sixty years later. Enriched by infusions of Germans, Irish, "foreign" French, les Américains, and later Lebanese and Syrian immigrants, the region centered upon Lafayette developed a "Cajun" culture that included the French language, Roman Catholicism, tightly knit families, and a much-admired cuisine that included not only their adaptations of local foods to French cooking, but also African, French, Native American, and Spanish culinary practices. A substantial Jewish community further enlivened this rich admixture of cultures. In 1900, the rapidly growing town acquired a fledgling college, Southwestern Louisiana Industrial Institute. That institution, its name shortened to Southwestern Louisiana Institute in 1921, made the town a focal point for National Youth Administration programs in the 1930s and for the Navy's V-12 program during World War II. After the war, Lafayette emerged as one of the chief beneficiaries of the offshore oil boom when local merchant Maurice Heymann developed the Oil Center, a large complex of of fice buildings that made the town the logical administrative center for the oil business between Houston and New Orleans, further broadening an already substantial middle class.

African Americans saw World War II not only as a crusade against fascism but also as an opportunity to undermine institutionalized racism at home. Unsurprisingly, then, many black Americans emerged from the wartime experience newly determined to insist on fuller and more equitable participation in the benefits of American citizenship. That resolve produced some of the century's nastier episodes of white violence, but there were signs that whites were less approving of race-based murder and mayhem than in the prewar period. In Louisiana in 1947, Lafayette attorney Bertrand DeBlanc labored mightily on Willie Francis's unsuccessful appeal to escape a second date with the electric chair after a failed first effort to execute him for a robbery-murder conviction by an all-white jury. Southern military bases, such as Chennault Air Base in nearby Lake Charles, racially integrated after 1948, inspired local blacks to resist discrimination while suggesting that the world would not come to an end if the Constitution was respected. Moreover, for many south Louisianans, the Catholic Church's clear admonition that racism was un-Christian would have increased meaning as many clerics actively sought to turn preachment into practice. Just to the north of Lafayette, in Grand Coteau, the College of the Sacred Heart's president, Mother Odile Lapeyre, desegregated her all-girls student body in fall 1953.

Another factor, too, though ultimately unquantifiable, influenced residents of SLI's southwest Louisiana service area as their college's policy and practice of black exclusion came to an end. Acknowledged or not, there were blood ties across the color line. Lafayette's middle class contained a "black" minority, not a few of whom were descendants of Louisiana's gens de couleur libres (free people of color), the offspring of antebellum interracial liaisons and relationships. Not a few white planters in the region had sired offspring by both white wives and black or mixed-race mistresses. As one New Iberian of African American and French ancestry told the late Glenn Conrad, founder of the Center for Louisiana Studies, "We all know who our white ancestors are." Historian Vaughan Burdin Baker, whose family can trace its roots to antebellum plantation owners in the Cane River country near Natchitoches, has written of Charlotte Broutin, a New Orleans woman of Afro-French parentage who moved to St. Martinville in the old Attakapas District in the late eighteenth century. Broutin bore French royal engineer Marin LeNormand six children prior to marrying him just months before his death in 1812. A substantial property owner in her own right, she and her legitimized children then "passed" into the white population. One of her daughters married the son of a prominent Cajun family; the groom subsequently produced one family with his Broutin wife and another with a mistress of color. Some family names in the old "Mouton Addition" and other African American neighborhoods in Lafayette bear witness to the fact of shared black-white ancestries. This awareness of a shared genealogy was likely a factor in the negotiating of racial boundaries that was to come; certainly many of the African American students who matriculated in 1954 were products of that shared ancestry.

Next week: Fall 1954—Law and Order

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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