In the 1950’s and 60’s, college campuses throughout the south transformed into volatile scenes as federal troops enforced desegregation orders from the US Justice Department.
The clashes were sometimes deadly.
The Southwest Louisiana Institute now named the University of Louisiana at Lafayette or UL, was integrated more than 50 years ago, becoming the first previously all-white, state-supported college or university in the south to allow blacks to enroll.
According to the school’s website, in 1954 “There was no bloodshed when four black students were granted admission.”
S-L-I administration and city leaders attribute the non-violent transition, to “SLI and community leaders who ensured the safety and dignity of all.”
Four students, Clara Dell Constantine Broussard, Martha Jane Conway-Bosset, Charles Vincent Singleton and Shirley Talyor Gresham filed a lawsuit in 1954 forever changing SLI and paving the path for many.
The campus was spared violent clashes, but the progress was not without racial tension.
The experience was acrimonious for the 80 or so black students who were the first to attend.
Longtime Lafayette educators, Juanita Thibdeaux and Georgia Syrie were amongt the first African American students to attend SLI. “We applied several times and were turned down. It was an experience we will never forget.”
Syrie says, “The kids would look at you like you were a piece of mud or they made bad remarks.”
According to UL Lafayette’s website, “Racial integration may have occurred at S-L-I without the violence and bloodshed some expected, but the relationship between black and white students was largely uneasy.”
Thibeaux says, “Every paper I turned in he put an “F” but that didn’t stop me.”
And Syrie recalls, “My very first English class she wouldn’t look at me and every paper that I turned in she put a 0 on it. It was enough to discourage a person, but I didn’t quit because my parents told me keep going, God’s going to make it right and he did.”
The two educators found strength from their parents and church family.
Thibeaux says, “I had a four foot lady in my life that I called mama and she laid the picture out for us.
“You’re going there and they may not want you, but there’s something there that you not only want, but you need.”
The ladies can be described as feisty, outspoken women who happen to be first cousins.
They are wives, mothers, grandmothers and great-grandmothers who began their education careers upon graduating from SLI.
Syrie remained in the classroom while Thibeaux eventually became a principal.
Both acquired some 40 plus years in education, inspiring students like entrepreneur, public speaker and community activist, Tonya Bolden-Ball.
Ball says, “Many people do not know the story of UL desegregating in 1954 and not realizing two people that we know and love, educators in the community still alive and thriving.
People have a hard time figuring out where they’re going because they don’t know where they’re from.”