In the early 1960s, college campuses throughout the South became battlegrounds as the U.S. Justice Department sent federal troops to enforce integration.
At Ole Miss in the fall of 1962, a crowd of 2,000 angry whites sparred with federal marshals over the admission of James Meredith, who was black. Two people would be killed, 28 marshals would be shot and another 160 would be injured in the chaos.
But eight years before, there was no bloodshed when four black students were granted admission to Southwest Louisiana Institute. Later events on other campues would overshadow the relative peace in which the college was integrated a half century ago, becoming the first previously all-white, state-supported college or university in the South to allow blacks to enroll.
To mark the 50th anniversary of the university’s integration, UL Lafayette’s History and Geography Department will sponsor “Fifty Years Later: Commemorating the Desegregation of Southwestern Louisiana Institute” on Sept. 10 and 11.
“ 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.”
A Louisiana law enacted in the 1800s prohibited blacks and whites from sharing facilities. In 1896, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld that state law—sanctioning segregation—when it ruled in the landmark case of Plessy v. Ferguson.
That meant that if SLI had allowed blacks to register, it would have been in violation of state law. And, even after the courts ordered desegregation of the institute, SLI administrators were forced to suspend admission of blacks after being told by Lafayette Parish District Attorney Bertrand DeBlanc that he would file charges against any school breaking the law.
Today, an academic scholarship awarded to African-American students pays tribute to SLI’s first black graduate, Christiana Smith, Class of 1956. But the movement to integrate SLI began three years earlier, when four black students—Clara Dell Constantine, Martha Conway, Shirley Taylor and Charles Vincent Singleton— were prohibited from registering at the university and filed suit.
The case of Constantine v. SLI was part of the NAACP’s lengthy campaign to desegregate southern colleges and universities. For the four individuals who filed the lawsuit, their involvement in the integration struggle was both personal and for a larger good.
On July 16, 1954, as a result of Constantine v. SLI, the courts prohibited SLI President Joel Fletcher and Registrar James Stewart Bonnet from refusing to admit any resident of southwest Louisiana on the basis of race or color.
Six days later, John Harold Taylor of Arnaudville successfully registered at SLI without incident, the first black student admitted to the college. By September of 1954 when classes began, 80 blacks were in attendance and no disturbances were recorded.
Racial integration may have occurred at SLI without the violence and bloodshed some expected, but the relationship between black and white students was largely uneasy, according to reports. In the early days, the presence of black students was tolerated but they remained on the fringes of college life, not eating or residing with white students, and not participating in campus activities.
Most black students commuted to SLI by bus, attended class, and retreated to the buses when not in class. Other problems arose. For instance, swimming classes were discontinued because the local public pool was not integrated.
SLI’s Catholic Student Center was reportedly one of the first havens for black students. In April of 1956, blacks and whites attended the Gulf States Newman Club meeting at the Catholic Student Center without incident. This was one of the first integrated functions on campus.
One month later, Christiana Smith made her historic commencement walk with fellow graduates of the Class of 1956. A small group of family and friends attended the ceremony, but Smith said most shied away, afraid their presence would create problems for her.
In an interview for the 30-year anniversary of her graduation, published in USL Alumni News, Smith recalled, “After graduation, anyway, people were coming up to me and congratulating me, so I felt good about that.”
That the integration of SLI occurred relatively smoothly is a matter of record. What is less clear are the reasons why SLI was spared the divisive incidents common on other southern campuses during this period.
Some credit the smooth transition to President Joel Fletcher, who avoided publicity, encouraged cooperation, and refused to comment on the court decision. Fletcher also refused to record students’ race so that he had no figures to release on the number of black students attending SLI during the transition years.
When it became apparent that desegregation would take place, Fletcher toured the state, calling on influential citizens to assist in making the transition a smooth one. Faculty interviewed by the USL Oral History Project reported that the college established a campus human relations council of faculty and students to address problems black students faced and to work toward solutions.
Some credit the peaceful integration of SLI to the work of the Rev. Alexander O. Sigur of the Catholic Student Center, where black and white students were encouraged to mix.
Others credit Glynn Abel, who served as dean of men when black students first enrolled at SLI in 1954. Abel met with students to solicit their cooperation on integration and other potentially volatile events, such as the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., and received it.
Abel said he told both races, “Nothing’s going to happen. Everything’s going to be all right.” To the black students, he said, “This is new to you and it’s new to us. I want it to work.” They told him, “Dean, if you’ll handle the whites, we’ll handle the blacks.” Abel gave credit to the students, saying they solved 90 perce
SLI may have been spared the violence and protests often associated with integration, but the peaceful transition does not mean integration was achieved without struggle and at no cost to black and white students, faculty, administrators and the community.
However, the fact that no blood was shed on SLI’s campus is a testament to all at SLI and in the community who took leadership roles, often at personal cost, to ensure the safety and dignity of all who shared the dream of obtaining an education without regard for color.