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History Department
Appalachian State University
Boone, NC 28608

phone: (828) 262-2282
fax: (828) 262-4976

Chair: Michael Krenn
krennml@appstate.edu

Web: Mary Valante
valantema@appstate.edu

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Professor Revising History of College Desegregation

By James Tolliver, Jr.
Vermilion News Nov. 19, 1996

 

Though 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 New Orleans.

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 collegians.

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 1970."

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.