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Professor Revising History of College Desegregation
By James Tolliver, Jr.
Vermilion News Nov. 19, 1996
it had a substantial history at the graduate and professional schools
level, desegregation in higher education gained national attention
in 1962, when James Meredith’s enrollment at the University
of Mississippi provoked a deadly riot. This pivotal civil rights
event did help to erode Jim Crow segregation in southern college,
but it also has figured prominently in an interpretation of college
desegregation that has a handful of sixties-era civil rights pioneers,
alone or in pairs, enrolling at flagship universities in the Deep
South, where they faced angry resistance or at least determined
incivility. This version of events figures prominently in most history
texts, including the most recent histories of the South, and in
film documentaries such as "Eyes on the Prize."
According to Appalachian State University history professor Michael
Wade, who is working on a book tentatively titled "With All
Deliberate Speed: The Desegregation of the Louisiana State Colleges,"
this interpretation is flawed in a number of ways. First, the
first black undergraduates to enter a formerly all-white, state
supported institution of higher education in the Deep South did
so by court order in September 1954 at Southwestern Louisiana
Institute (now the University of Southwestern Louisiana). Within
a year, McNeese State College and Southeastern Louisiana College
also had desegregated their undergraduate programs in response
to judicial decrees.
"I have not found a state-supported, Deep South college that
admitted a black undergraduate prior to 1954," said Wade, who
is Acting Chair of Appalachian's History Department.
Second, in each case, substantial numbers of African-American
students were part of the process; at Southwestern (SLI), approximately
eighty black undergraduates enrolled for the Fall 1954 term. About
three-quarters of the minority students at the three colleges
were women, suggesting the need for further reexamination of the
role of women in the civil rights movement. At each school, African-American
enrollments increased substantially over the next two years. SLI
enrolled over 200 black undergraduates for the Fall 1956 term.
Third, while there were risks and undeniable tensions, the desegregation
process at each school was relatively peaceful and, at the insistence
of the respective college administrations, largely unpublicized.
This, and the fact that SLI, McNeese, and Southeastern were state
colleges rather than flagship schools made it almost inevitable
that politicians, citizens, and even scholars, preoccupied with
the implications of the Brown
decisions for public schools, would forget the racial progress achieved
in Louisiana in the mid-fifties. Ironically, the secondary status
of these state colleges may have eased their paths to desegregation;
much more energy was invested in the defense of the lily-white character
of the state university.
In Louisiana, LSU permanently admitted its first black undergraduates
in 1960, two years after the desegregation of its new branch in
Another factor in the success of desegregation at these schools
was geography. All three schools were in south Louisiana, which
boasted greater ethnic, racial, and religious diversity than most
regions of the South, and cohesive black communities capable of
pressing the case for their children’s futures. With the
assistance of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, Inc., African-Americans
used the "separate but equal"standard of the 1896 Plessy decision to successfully insist that black students be allowed
to enter the previously all-white, regional state colleges so
that, they too, could have the privilege of living at home and
commuting to college. Prior to 1954, the only state colleges available
to Louisiana black students were Southern and Grambling, neither
within commuting distance for most of the state’s black
In addition to standard documentary sources, Wade’s book will
use oral history to examination desegregation as a "four-decade
long process which is still ongoing." Furthermore, oral history
will help to highlight the role of largely anonymous, local people
whose contributions to the success of the civil rights movement
have only recently begun to receive reall attention from historians.
"Civil rights history has most often been understood through
the lives of personages like Martin Luther King, Jr.," said
Wade. "But much of the Movement was advanced at state and local
levels by people like Doretha Combre of Lake Charles and A. P. Tureaud,
the African-American lawyer from New Orleans who was responsible
for virtually every successful civil rights case in Louisiana before
Oral history will also enable a focus on student life and on
some less obvious, but highly significant, facets of the movement.
For example, Southwestern Louisiana was the first college in the
old Gulf States Conference to integrate its basketball team. "Can
you imagine being a black player on the first integrated basketball
team in the Deep South and having to go on the road to places
where the fans were virulently opposed to precisely this kind
of race-mixing?" Wade asked.
Wade plans to interview more people during the summer of 1997 and
hopes to complete the book by 1999. Wade is the author of Sugar
Dynasty, a corporate history, and A
Frontier Boyhood, an edited work about rural life in late
19th-century west Texas. His Education
in Louisiana Through the Integration Era is tentatively scheduled
for publication in 1997.
NOTE TO EDITOR:
For more information, contact Mike Wade at 704-262-2282.