Fifty years ago, Reggie Laurent walked into Salmen High School for the first time.
He was just a teenager, but he was blazing a trail for civil rights in St. Tammany Parish.
Now an attorney in Slidell, Laurent was part of a small group of black students who broke the barriers of racial segregation at schools in the parish in 1967. A lawsuit settled that year opened the door for limited “school choice” in the parish while the School Board came up with a plan for full integration, which came in 1969.
Though the U.S. Supreme Court's decision in Brown v. Board of Education had decreed school segregation unconstitutional in 1954, many school districts across the South tried for years to ignore or defy the decision. It took lawsuits to integrate many districts, including St. Tammany.
The “school choice” that arrived in St. Tammany in 1967 came seven years after angry white mobs had gathered to protest the first integration of New Orleans public schools. The ugly scenes were shown around the nation on TV. By 1967, some of those protesters had moved to St. Tammany Parish to try to escape integration.
When the ruling came down in St. Tammany, white students outnumbered black ones in St. Tammany Parish schools by roughly 3-to-1. And by 1969, two years after the ruling allowing parents to exercise “school choice,” the 32 schools still included five that were all-white and six that were all-black, with varying degrees of mostly limited integration at the rest.
Laurent’s parents were among those who had pushed for change.
“I woke up in the morning shaking with fear over going to school,” he said. “At Salmen, they were violent. I got beat up a lot.”
But Laurent’s father was insistent that he and his siblings would make it at a "white school."
“My dad was a visionary. He saw it coming,” Laurent said, adding that his father saw Slidell change from a majority-black community in the 1950s to a mostly white suburb over the next decade. He wanted his children to be on the front lines of that first wave of integration.
The lawsuit that opened up Salmen was filed by T.J. Smith Sr., whose namesake son is now the District 14 parish councilman.
“He had to walk 12 miles to school and would see yellow school buses that would pass him up on the road taking white kids to school,” Smith Jr. said of his father.
Born in a rural area outside Pearl River in 1926, the elder Smith attended St. Tammany public schools before being drafted into the Army in 1945. When he returned home, he found work as a farmhand, but he was unable to provide what he considered a decent quality of life for his growing family. He wanted to find a way to change that.
“He got back in school and decided that education was a way out of that situation,” Smith Jr. said.
While a student at Xavier University in 1951, the senior Smith was chosen as the first president of the new north shore chapter of the NAACP.
In that role, he saw one major key to improving the lives of black people there: a quality education.
That’s what drove him to file his lawsuit, even though he knew it would come with a cost, his son recalled. And Smith Sr. would pay that cost when he was fired from his teaching job at Chahta-Ima High School in Lacombe and had to spend the rest of his teaching career in New Orleans.
For students like Laurent, the opportunity opened up by the lawsuit felt more like a punishment. He described an environment at Salmen where he was sprayed with water guns filled with bleach, spat on and beaten.
As for the teachers, Laurent said most accepted him and that “they kept them rednecks off my ass.” But not all of them.
“A bunch of these guys were unfair in grading. One guy gave me a D when I made a B. It was stupid. I had to go and contest it,” Laurent said.
And the hazing wasn't limited to Salmen. At Covington High School, Principal Louis Wagner displayed his feelings by placing a Confederate battle flag in his office. Smith Sr.’s lawsuit finally forced its removal.
Richard Tanner, who now represents District 6 on the St. Tammany Parish Council, had a front-row seat as the schools were integrated. He arrived at Covington High in 1965 as an agricultural teacher, his first job in a 37-year schools career that included a stint as interim superintendent. But Tanner said those first years were like no other.
“It was a lot of chaos,” he said.
Tanner said only two black students attended Covington in 1967 and 1968, and he doesn’t remember any trouble. But with full integration in 1969, though, there was plenty.
“Every morning, it was like we were out there breaking up fights, you know, gang fights,” Tanner said. “It wasn’t just one-on-one, it was like 30-on-30, and girls and boys and the whole nine yards.”
Things improved noticeably when black students started playing on the football team, Tanner said. "Once you start having fun, it’s no fun to fight," he said.
Smith Jr. also remembers things getting better quickly after a bumpy start. But he worries that today's St. Tammany Parish is segregating in a new way, even if there is no longer “in-your-face outright social depravity."
“We are seeing more gated communities coming up in the development of this parish. And while those fences may in some people’s minds represent one thing, they also represent another thing that is not necessarily tangible,” Smith Jr. said. “They’re inside these fences and they don’t really get an opportunity to commune with and socialize with and work with people who don’t look like them.”
Smith Jr. said he also sees a lack of diversity in the St. Tammany Parish government, given that about 10 percent of parish residents are black.
“I don’t see any percent in a lot of these agencies,” he said, especially in the courts. “When I see people in black robes, they don’t look like me.”
Laurent speculated that race played a role in his loss when he ran recently for the Division H judgeship in the 22nd Judicial District Court, saying, “Some people wouldn’t vote black for dogcatcher.” Laurent received 38 percent of the vote, losing to Alan Zaunbrecher, who got 62 percent. Zaunbrecher is white.
“It’s the same thing as walking into Salmen when I was 16 years old. It’s the same thing,” Laurent said.
Laurent said he plans to run for judge again in 2020, when he expects Judge Martin Coady in Division F to retire. He plans to run as an independent.