A total of 1,786 degrees were awarded during the UL Lafayette’s 161st Commencement ceremonies Friday at the Cajundome and Convention Center.
In 1954, four African American students walked onto the campus of Southwestern Louisiana Institute seeking higher education degrees. After 50 years, they received those honors Dec. 18.
During the Fall 2004 graduation ceremony for the College of Liberal Arts at UL Lafayette, Clara Dell Constantine Broussard, Shirley Taylor Gresham, Martha Jane Conway Bossett and Charles Vincent Singleton each received honorary Bachelor of Humanities degrees.
The four initiated a lawsuit in September 1954 which integrated the university - the first in the Deep South to do so.
“ Because of your courage, perseverance and determination, you planted the seeds of change,”said UL Lafayette President Ray Authement. “I say to you today, thank you, thank you, thank you. You’ve made our lives and our community what it is today and for that we are eternally grateful.”
The four were honored prior to commencement when the area at the corner of St. Mary Boulevard and Rex Street on campus was renamed the “Pillars of Progress” and formally dedicated to them and their actions in 1954.
“ These individuals represent noble characteristics and ideas that many citizens can be proud of,” said Shawn D. Wilson, president of the UL Lafayette Alumni Association. “The dedication (of the Pillars) will be a constant reminder that everyone is important and that a personal sacrifice for society is greater than the person. It will remind us that there are stories that explain what makes this place special.”
Gresham described the honors as “unbelievable.” “I am still in shock,” she said. “After 50 years, this is finally all coming out.
“ We put our necks out not only for ourselves, but for everyone in general who wanted to go to college,” she explained. “I feel honored and I want students to know if they want something, it just takes hard work.”
The commemorative ceremony and the awarding of honorary degrees to the group coincides with the 50th anniversary of the university’s desegregation. Recently, Dr. Michael Martin, an assistant professor of history, coordinated a symposium dedicated to desegregation.
“ It is of the utmost importance that we remember what those who went before us did,” said Martin during the graduation ceremony. “This group deserves to be honored and we should all be thankful to them and their families.”
Broussard said she felt wonderful about the honors and noted that “what we did didn’t go unnoticed.”
Both she and Gresham were able to attend the dedication and graduation ceremonies while Singleton and Bossett could not. They were represented by family members.