LAFAYETTE, La. (The Advertiser)- Juanita “Mama T” Thibeaux was a stalwart of Lafayette Parish education, serving as a substitute teacher long after she retired as one of the first Black principals in the district. She died Saturday at the age of 86, but not without leaving a legacy.
“Mama T, words cannot describe how loved she was by our school — staff and students,” said Leslie Sisk, secretary at David Thibodaux STEM Magnet Academy. “She held a special place in every one of our hearts.”
Thibeaux often served as a substitute at the school until retiring (again) in 2019.
“Wherever we needed her, she was there,” Sisk said. “We didn’t just see her as a substitute; we saw her as Mama T. She saw us all as her babies.”
David Thibodaux Principal Jeff Debetaz has his own stories, having been mentored by Thibeaux when he became an assistant principal about 15 years ago. They worked together as administrators at N.P. Moss Middle School, and he tried so absorb what she had to teach him like a sponge.
She was ‘dedicated to education and students’
A Lafayette native, Thibeaux was a trailblazer in education and one of the first 80 black students to integrate Southwest Louisiana Institute (SLI), now named the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, in 1954.
But before college, she was valedictorian of Paul Breaux High School in 1953, where she was one of the first to experience integration in the parish. Her class held a strike against the Lafayette Parish School Board, resulting in Black students’ ability to ride a school bus to school for the first time, according to Thibeaux’s obituary.
“Juanita Thibeaux was bold, brave, outspoken and never afraid to speak her mind and fight for a worthy cause, especially issues around educational equity,” reads the obituary.
Thibeaux graduated from SLI in 1959 with a Bachelor of Science degree in English and a minor in science. She received a Master of Education from Southern University in 1966 and a Master’s Plus 30 from University of Southwestern Louisiana in 1981.
“I had a four-foot lady in my life that I called mama and she laid the picture out for us,” Thibeaux said. “You’re going there and they may not want you, but there’s something there that you not only want, but you need.”
The University of Louisiana at Lafayette has released the following statement about Thibeaux’s passing and legacy:
The University of Louisiana at Lafayette family is saddened by the death of Juanita Thibeaux, who was among the first 80 Black students to enroll here in 1954. The bravery of these trailblazing students pushed our University toward a better future, and Ms. Thibeaux’s long career as an educator in Lafayette Parish schools made this community a better place, too. Her commitment to learning, her advocacy for students, her spirit of service to others – all of these are hallmarks of a purposeful, consequential life that was well-lived and that will be long remembered.”