The continuing story of UL's pivotal role in desegregation of education in the US. In this part, the university and local community reacts to the approaching first semester of desegregation.

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

Old Martin Hall, University of LouisianaPreregistration for the fall 1954 term at SLI began just five days after the injunction was issued. The first black student to register for classes was John Harold Taylor of Arnaudville, Louisiana, an engineering student who registered without incident on July 22, 1954. Claudette Arceneaux, who wanted to major in elementary education, had applied to SLI in early June for summer school, before the final judgment was rendered, but was denied on the grounds that J. Stewart Bonnet could not register her without prior authorization from the State Board of Education. She successfully preregistered for the fall term in July. In the final ten days of July, sixty-eight black students registered at SLI, fifty-five of them on or after July 27, as word of the success of the first dozen or so students undoubtedly spread throughout black communities around Lafayette. Five or six appear to have changed their minds before classes began, but a few more black students registered at the start of the fall semester, bringing the total to eighty, with female registrants outnumbering their male classmates by about two to one.

The entire registration line at Martin Hall that fall—fronting on University Avenue, one of the town's busiest streets, and fully visible to passersby—was managed by Dean of Students Glynn Abel and one campus police officer. According to Abel he refused to allow Life magazine photographers to take pictures of the black students and persuaded the Lafayette Daily Advertiser not to publish the pictures its reporter had taken. Apparently there were no subsequent incidents of a magnitude sufficient to attract journalists. Dean Joseph A. Riehl observed that the registration was incident free, "and our students and faculty seem to be accepting the situation without fanfare or excitement. I suppose this is one of those periods in the life of an institution which tests its mettle, and I feel confident that we will stand the shock and come through without appreciable change. The passing of one era and the beginning of another does have its painful and unpleasant moments, however."

According to one SLI professor and Catholic activist, Julius Gassner, preliminary reactions to the court decision were mixed. Some SLI faculty members were appalled; others were frightened (the government professor predicted violence and bloodshed); and still others welcomed the opportunity to work for racial justice. The public reaction was similarly mixed. One mother of an SLI coed wrote President Fletcher that she thought African Americans were untrustworthy: "you don't know when they might stab you, and . . . there is too many things that can happen." However, a local gas station operator said that he ate, worked, and hunted with blacks, so why not attend classes with them?

Joseph Hardy of Lafayette said that in the public interest, the issues involved in the desegregation case should be clarified "before the barber shop pedagogues and the pool-room professors who are clacking about socialization, miscegenation, etc. thoroughly muddle up public understanding." In Hardy's mind, the desegregation of SLI was something of a moot point:

Segregation at S. L. I. has never been based on color but on accent. Black, brown, and yellow people have always attended S. L. I. but they either have had a Spanish or Asiatic accent. Their people, incidentally, have never paid a penny of tax money to support this institution. Further, if the president and other qualified members of the faculty are proud to act as government consultants for the betterment of conditions in Asia and Africa, the group as a whole should not object to practicing a little charity at home.

Furthermore, the students in question were qualified. They were graduates of Paul Breaux High School, which the school board assured the public was a highly rated institution.

Hardy's letter came precariously close to raising one aspect of the issue that historians would later describe as "whiteness." Louisiana law adhered to the "one drop" rule, defining as black any person with any black ancestry. Black citizens were thus black even if seven of their eight great-grandparents were white, or fifteen of their sixteen great-great forebears. But what about "white" people with a black ancestor? Were they passing for white? When segregationists raised the Stars and Bars in defense of legalized racial barriers, they inevitably invited a discussion of Louisiana's much-mixed racial heritage and the social construction of whiteness and blackness. It was probably fortunate for the course of events in Lafayette that Joseph Hardy did not go there. However, in New Orleans, poet-historian Marcus Christian leaped at the opportunity to hoist segregationists on their own racist petards.

In a series of essays for the Louisiana Weekly, Christian detailed the many contributions of black people and Creoles of color to Louisiana's history and challenged segregationist conceptions of exactly who was white and who was black based upon Louisiana's legal definition of blackness. Christian, undoubtedly the leading authority in the country on black Louisiana, noted that some people in New Orleans with some African ancestry, thought to be white, had been asked to join the Citizens' Council. So he wondered:

If the Citizens Councils cannot differentiate between white and black in soliciting prospective member of admitted Negro blood, the question naturally arises as to their mode of determining the racial backgrounds of their present membership. What is the criteria by which is established the "purity" of their blood? With literally thousands of whites in Louisiana married to persons of some Negro blood or connected by marriage to persons of "tainted ancestry," how is it possible to separate the sheep from the goats?

This issue was hardly unknown in Lafayette, and, by Louisiana's own measure, it is quite likely that those intrepid students of various colors who registered for SLI's fall session were not the first with some African ancestry to attend the school.

Next week:  Classes Begin

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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