A total of 1,786 degrees were awarded during the UL Lafayette’s 161st Commencement ceremonies Friday at the Cajundome and Convention Center.
Four students who changed the face of campus in 1954 were honored Dec. 17 for their courage and bravery. Clara Dell Constantine, Martha Jane Conway, Shirley Taylor and Charles Singleton initiated a lawsuit in 1954 that desegregated then-Southwestern Louisiana Institute.
The four were recognized during a commemorative ceremony hosted by the Alumni Association at the corner of Rex Street and St. Mary Boulevard – the location of a former restaurant where the students gathered. The area was renamed the "Pillars of Progress."
Markers chronicle their lawsuit, honor each student individually and also recognize other African American students who enrolled at the university immediately after desegregation. The four are featured on individual "Pillars" marked with Courage, Faith, Justice and Knowledge.
“ I would hope that alumni and students look at this dedication and the act and be proud,” said Shawn Wilson, president of the UL Lafayette Alumni Association. “We were the first among our sister institutions in Louisiana to achieve the high goal of desegregation. We value our culture and differences. And, this noble characteristic dates back to September 1954 – not just with 76 African American students who were coming to SLI for the first time, but the many non African American students who were receiving them for the first time and the faculty that were teaching African Americans for the first time.”
One of the four said the hardships she faced at the time were worth it in the end. “I wasn’t only thinking about myself at the time, but of other students who couldn’t afford to go to other colleges,” said Shirley Taylor Gresham. “And, our struggles were not in vain.”
The recognition of this group’s actions coincides with the 50th anniversary of the university’s desegregation. In recent months, a symposium at UL Lafayette commemorated this milestone.
“ The arrival of eighty African-Americans on the SLI campus in September 1954 marked the earliest large-scale desegregation of a previously all-white, public institution of higher education in the Deep South,” said Dr. Michael Martin, an assistant professor of history and coordinator of the symposium. “SLI’s relatively smooth desegregation stands in sharp contrast to many later university integrations.”
Clara Dell Constantine Broussard said after 50 years “all the hardships are forgotten.”
“ What we did then is no longer going unnoticed,” she said. “It feels wonderful to have opened the way for so many other students. Being honored for this is like opening a Christmas present.”
The four will receive honorary Bachelor of Humanities degrees during commencement ceremonies for the College of Liberal Arts beginning at noon Saturday at the Cajundome.
“ It is with great honor that we welcome these students back to campus and give them this recognition,” said UL Lafayette President Ray Authement. “What they did 50 years ago took deep courage and great passion. They helped to shape the diversity that is the foundation of this university today. For that, we thank and honor these students.”